My name is Mwaba Kasese and this is my story.
In 2001, Mwaba was in the United States of America (USA) studying for her Masters in Business Administration (MBA) when she felt a small lump under her chin. It only hurt when she touched it, and as she didn’t touch it often, she ignored it. She returned to Zambia in 2003 and gradually, over a period of about three years, she began to feel a discomfort in her throat when she swallowed. She also started to feel a pricking pain in her neck, so she decided to go and see a doctor. The doctor advised that a biopsy (the removal of cells or tissue to determine whether disease is present) be done. When Mwaba went into hospital she was not expecting that she would be found with cancer. ‘When the doctor told me I had cancer of the salivary glands, I didn’t react because I felt deep down inside me that I would be okay,’ she remembers. At the time, Mwaba and her three daughters had just recovered from the break-up of her physically abusive marriage and she was raising her girls as a single parent. Mwaba felt that God would not allow her three angels to go through another traumatic experience of their mother being taken away when they were still so young. ‘My prayer was that I see my daughters grow up to be at least teenagers before God calls me back,’ says Mwaba. At this stage, she only shared the news that she had cancer with her eldest daughter who was 17 years old at the time. She wanted to spare her younger children the trauma of knowing that their mother was unwell. ‘My daughter cried all night although I tried to convince her everything would be okay,’ says Mwaba.
Mwaba was operated on in 2007 at St. Johns Clinic in Lusaka and the cancerous mass was removed. The operation was successful. Mwaba was discharged and she was fine for a while. However, two years after the operation, the lump in Mwaba’s throat and the pricking pains reoccurred. Mwaba knew right away that the cancer had returned. When she went to the hospital, the doctors recommended that her salivary gland be removed. The Cancer Diseases Hospital (CDH) in Lusaka was not fully operational at the time, so Mwaba took out a personal loan to travel to South Africa for treatment. In March 2010, Mwaba’s salivary gland was removed. Most of the loan money was taken up by the costs of the operation but fortunately for Mwaba, her employer, the Bank of Zambia, paid for the cost of the six-week radiotherapy treatment (the use of high energy radiation x-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours) that she underwent after the operation. Mwaba says that despite moments of pain and distress during and after the therapy due to the side effects of the treatment, she felt it would all pass one day and that she would be fine. ‘I lost a lot of weight; I lost my sense of taste such that everything I ate tasted either like paper or like some chemical. I struggled to swallow even liquids because my throat was constantly dry and painful, and felt as if a lump was stuck in it,’ says Mwaba, whose mother took one look at her when she returned home from South Africa and hurriedly disappeared into the bedroom. ‘I realised my mother turned away after greeting me because she was shocked by my weight loss, the open sores on my neck caused by radiation burns and my red eyes, but she didn’t want to cry in front of me,’ she remembers.
Mwaba is very grateful for the support she got from her family, her employers, and her friends and well-wishers during her illness. Her brother helped fund part of her surgery in South Africa and she stayed with her immediate elder sister and brother-in-law in South Africa whilst she was undergoing treatment. ‘I kept going because I reminded myself that despite everything, I was lucky to still be alive for my children,’ says Mwaba.
It took Mwaba a while to start socializing again after she recovered from the cancer, and for a while, she didn’t want to talk about her illness. Now, she has got to the stage where she is ready to open up and get involved in the fight against cancer. Mwaba, who depended on her spiritual strength whilst she was sick, believes that God put her through cancer and then spared her for a reason; to help others facing cancer in any small way she can. Mwaba is fully aware that she was fortunate to be in a position to access funds to go for treatment in good time, whereas there are many others who are not so lucky. She cites the example of her aunt in Samfya, in Luapula Province, who died from cervical cancer in 2012. Her aunt was initially diagnosed as having fibroids and when cancer was finally detected, it was in its advanced stages. Her aunt was discouraged by the lengthy intervals between appointments at CDH and the long trips between Samfya and Lusaka. ‘My aunt gave up waiting for treatment so she decided to go back home and die,’ she recalls. Mwaba is now cancer-free. Having survived cancer, Mwaba says, ‘My perspective on life has become more positive and purposeful. I appreciate and value life much more now.’ And to the people who have been touched by cancer, she says, ‘Cancer is not the end of the world.’
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.
Pictured below is Mwaba Kasese