My name is Jacqueline Ng’ombe and this is my story…
Jacqueline has many pleasant memories of her mother, but the one memory that sticks out starkly in her mind is the sound of her mother screaming in pain and agony before she passed away from breast cancer. Jacqueline remembers being a teenager travelling on a bus from the Copperbelt with her mother, who was nursing Jacqueline’s baby sister at that time. Jacqueline’s mother was in discomfort during the whole trip. She complained of a painful lump in her breast which she attributed to the fact that she was breast feeding.
At the time, Jacqueline did not think much of it, but then soon after the trip she started to notice some changes in her mother’s behaviour. She was an active, working mother of four, but all of a sudden Jacqueline’s mother seemed to be lying down a lot and she began to struggle with household chores that she had previously performed with ease.
RELATIONSHIPS BEGIN TO CRACK
Jacqueline also noticed that her stepfather was suddenly at home a lot. In the mornings, he left for work later than usual and he popped back home during the day more frequently than before. Those were not the only changes young Jacqueline observed in her father; she also noticed that he became irritable, snapped a lot and also started to drink more alcohol than usual. During one school holiday, Jacqueline was sent away to spend some time with an aunt and when she returned home after a month, her mother’s condition had worsened. Jacqueline’s mother had become too weak to cook or pick up the baby, or bathe herself. Jacqueline’s grandmother and her aunts came to stay with them and help out. Looking back, Jacqueline believes she was sent away to spare her from watching her mother deteriorate, as well as to give her a break as she had started to pick up more of the chores around the house.
TAKING ON MORE RESPONIBILITY
Jacqueline and her mother shared a strong bond, as she had been an only child for many years until her mother got married and her three siblings – two sisters and a brother – were born. So when her mother became sick, being both the eldest child and a girl, Jacqueline naturally took on the role of mothering her siblings. While her mother’s condition deteriorated, Jacqueline carried on going to school and helping out at home. One day, she asked her mother why she was not getting better. Her mother explained that she was taking medication to get better but there was a chance she would not recover. She asked Jacqueline to be strong and told her to prepare herself for the likelihood that she would have to raise her siblings. Despite the poignancy of her mother’s words, the enormity of what was said or what was happening did not sink in for the young teenager.
Still, with all that was happening around her, Jacqueline sat her Grade 10 Junior Secondary School exams and passed. Meanwhile, her mother’s situation worsened. She would scream out in pain at night. Her stepfather continued to drink. ‘With hindsight, I realise that he needed support. He watched his wife waste away and his pain manifested in different ways. I didn’t understand then that what he needed was psychological support. We all needed some form of counselling but none was available to us,’ says Jacqueline, who states that she doesn’t blame anyone for the lack of information and counselling.
THE COLD HAND OF DEATH
At the age of 32, Jacqueline’s mother succumbed to breast cancer. Her four children, of whom Jacqueline was the oldest aged 15 and her youngest sibling aged only seven months, were split up among relatives who were tasked with the responsibility of raising the children. At the time of her mother’s passing, the family did not talk to Jacqueline about her loss, or encourage her to talk about her feelings or explain what was going on. Instead, with the best of intentions, they focused on the practicalities of arranging the funeral and finding new homes for the children who were now without a mother. In the process, however, the psychological impact the death had on Jacqueline, who was already old enough to understand what was happening, was overlooked.
KEEPING A PROMISE
Still, Jacqueline never forgot that her mother had asked her to look after her siblings. When she met her husband, she told him that she had promised her mother that she would raise her siblings and she intended to keep her promise. So after she got married, Jacqueline moved her three younger siblings into her marital home where she raised them. Jacqueline admits that it was not easy raising her younger siblings, but that they managed it one day at a time and that she finds strength in the knowledge that she has kept her promise to her mother, who she thinks of often. Today, Jacqueline’s brother has left home and is living independently, and her other two siblings have finished school. She now has children of her own and her oldest daughter is like a sister to Jacqueline’s younger sibling.
A SUPPORT SYSTEM WOULD HAVE HELPED
The experience of losing her mother to cancer at a young age has made Jacqueline realise the importance of having someone to talk to when one is going through emotional trauma. ‘I kept my anger and pain to myself and because of it I suffered so much more. This is why I am telling my story. It took me a long time to open up and talk about my mother and how she suffered and died of cancer. But I had to force myself to start talking about it so that I could hopefully help others who find themselves in a similar situation,’ she says.
Jacqueline’s stepfather passed away before she could reconcile the differences that occurred between them when her mother died, but she has found some closure in understanding that he behaved the way he did because he had no support.
Because of this experience, Jacqueline is very aware of cancer and she goes for screening regularly. ‘I go for screening often and I have to admit that going for my test results are anxiety inducing moments because my mother died of cancer,’ she adds. Jacqueline understands how isolated one feels when they lose a loved one to cancer and so she hopes her story will inspire and encourage others who are touched by it. She says, ‘Witnessing my mother’s battle with cancer was a terrible experience but I have learnt to talk about it and share my story which has helped my healing process.’
Pictured Below is Jacqueline Ng’ombe
*This story (edited) is from the book “Nthano Zathu: Breaking The Silence On Cancer In Zambia” – a Zambian Cancer Society publication written by Ellen Banda-Aaku and first published in 2015.