My Name is Maureen Bwalya, And This Is My Story…..
Bwalya’s husband of 18 years was diagnosed with cancer in April 2011, three months later he passed away. Prior to his death, Tom Hight was an active man who played sports and ran Sherbourne Guest House with his wife. Bwalya says, ‘Tom’s cancer caught me off guard. Even when he was unwell, I didn’t see it because I had a picture in my mind of what cancer was and Tom’s symptoms did not portray that picture.’
NOT A SO HAPPY BIRTHDAY
It started the day Tom came home limping on his 72nd birthday. The following day, a worker at the lodge told Bwalya that his boss, Tom, had fallen badly the previous day. When Bwalya asked Tom why he hadn’t told her about his fall, he said it was nothing. However, Bwalya realised Tom was in discomfort and so she arranged for him to have an x-ray at Kitwe General Hospital. After the x-ray, physiotherapy was recommended to treat what was diagnosed as a pulled muscle. After a few weeks, Bwalya decided to seek a second opinion as she felt that Tom was still in pain and his condition was not improving. After some discussion with the doctors in Kitwe, Bwalya was given a referral and she travelled with Tom (who was now in a wheel chair) and her cousin, a physiotherapist, to South Africa for treatment.
GETTING A SECOND OPINION
A doctor at Sunninghill Hospital in South Africa discarded the first x-ray taken in Zambia and asked that another one be taken. The second x-ray revealed a large crack in Tom’s hip and the doctor explained to Bwalya that Tom needed a total hip replacement. The news shocked Bwalya, as it all sounded very drastic. She called her son Jason and daughter Mwaba who were studying in the United Kingdom (UK) at that time, as well as Tom’s children from his previous relationship, to let them know that their father was about to undergo a major procedure.
On the morning of the 18th of April 2011, Tom was wheeled into the theatre for hip replacement surgery. After the operation, Bwalya was told that all was well and that Tom would be running like a spring chicken in six weeks’ time, but that he was to remain in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for a few days first.
The next morning, Bwalya went to the ICU and noticed that Tom’s stomach looked bloated, so she asked the doctor on duty to have a look at it. The doctor recommended an endoscopy (medical procedure where the inside of the body is examined using an instrument called an endoscope) to investigate the problem. After the procedure, the doctors informed Bwalya that it appeared that Tom had cancer in his colon and that he had to undergo another urgent procedure called a colostomy (where one end of the large intestine is brought out through the abdomen wall) so as to give him some relief until he saw a cancer specialist.
THE CANCER IS SPREADING
Three days after the cancer was diagnosed, Tom underwent a colostomy. Bwalya and the children (who had travelled from the UK to be at their father’s side) waited anxiously until the surgeon emerged three hours later, anticipating more devastating news. The colostomy revealed that the cancer had spread from the stomach to the hip. The surgeon explained that the cancer might have spread to other organs and that and the cancer specialist (oncologist) would need to investigate further.
Although she cried a lot, Bwalya tried to stay strong in front of Tom. Initially, she thought Tom didn’t know about the cancer until the day she asked him why he was being uncooperative with a physiotherapist who was trying to help him. Tom told Bwalya he didn’t see the point of it because he had cancer. She tried to encourage him by reminding him that cancer is curable.
TRYING TO STAY POSITIVE
Despite the prognosis, Bwalya remained positive. She saw the children off back to the UK and she moved with Tom and her cousin into a friend’s house in South Africa. However, in spite of her positive outlook, Bwalya’s weight plummeted from a size 14 to a size 8 in a matter of weeks. She tried to talk about the cancer with Tom but he didn’t want to discuss it, so they talked about other subjects. ‘Although we spoke about other things, the cancer and what was happening to Tom hovered over us,’ she says.
Five days after being discharged form Sunninghill Hospital, Tom walked into Sandton Oncology Hospital where more tests were carried out. They revealed that Tom’s cancer was spreading. He was put on two weeks of radiation treatment. The side effects were harsh and he seemed to be getting worse, but doctors explained that it was the treatment making him weak and that he would get stronger. After the radiation treatment, the doctors suggested that Bwalya travel back to Zambia with Tom until he was due for a review. They felt that being in his home environment would be beneficial to his recovery.
On the 15th of June 2011, Bwalya and Tom arrived back home in Kitwe. Tom was pleased to be home and for a while he seemed to be coping, but he gradually became less mobile. He encouraged Bwalya to be strong because, although she tried to put on a brave face, her drastic weight loss gave her anxiety and stress away.
During this time, Bwalya was concerned about Tom’s reduced mobility, so she called the hospital in South Africa to ask if she should take him back there. The doctors suggested that she wait until the scheduled appointment. However, on the 20th of July 2011, Tom stopped eating and was taken to a local hospital to be tube fed. Five days later, he succumbed to the cancer.
CONTINUING WITH OUR PLANS
Today, Bwalya continues to run Sherbourne Guest House which she established with Tom and is fulfilling the pledge to herself to continue the plans she and Tom had for their various businesses (including Sherbourne Hotel) ‘I keep strong and I keep running the businesses for Tom’, says Bwalya. About her experience with cancer, Bwalya says that there is need for more counselling and support for people touched by cancer. I feel for people who do not have the resources. At least I was in a position to seek medical treatment for Tom in South Africa. Many people can’t afford it,’ she adds. Bwalya also shares that her daughter is now a medical doctor.”
Despite losing Tom to cancer, Bwalya still has hope: ‘I know my story has a sad ending and I would not wish my experience on anyone. But I do not want my story to discourage people. Because I have hope, I know that people can survive cancer.’
Story (edited) was Written By Ellen Banda-Aaku from the book “Nthano Zathu: Breaking The Silence on Cancer in Zambia” published in 2014. The book is currently out of stock.
Pictured below is Maureen Bwalya Hight
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