Overcoming Childhood Cancer – Chimwemwe Liwena’s Story

Chimwemwe Liwena, was almost 3 years old when cancer took his right kidney.  His upcoming birthday was meant to be one of the highlights of his young life, but cancer had other plans. In January 2011, Chimwemwe was diagnosed with Wilms tumour – a type of cancer of the kidney usually found in children younger than 5 years old.  However, this plucky kid whose name Chimwemwe means joy and happiness faced cancer HEAD ON!

So how did Chimwemwe’s cancer journey begin?

His father, Itwi Liwena, recalls Chimwemwe’s mother, Bahati Ndumba, feeling a painless mass on the right side of Chimwemwe’s body whilst giving her son a bath. Alarmed, she immediately took him to see their family doctor. The doctor initially suspected malaria as it can cause enlargement of the spleen. However, her maternal instincts prompted her to insist on further tests. Subsequently, an ultrasound revealed a growth on Chimwemwe’s right kidney. He was promptly referred to the University Teaching Hospital for specialised tests.

“I got a phone call from his mother telling me that Chimwemwe might have cancer.  Coincidentally, I was with my late cousin Wabei Walusiku, who at that time was herself battling breast cancer.   She helped me with the initial discussion before all the facts” Itwi vividly remembers.

Coping With Cancer

Chimwemwe’s treatment which lasted over a year comprised surgery, multiple cycles of painful chemotherapy and radiation.  Not surprisingly, because he was diagnosed when very young, Chimwemwe, does not remember much about his cancer ordeal – with two exceptions: “I remember my arm getting “burnt” during a chemotherapy treatment. I also remember my parents making me drink a lot of beetroot juice to help deal with the side effects. But the thing is, I don’t like beetroot!  I also remember running around in the corridor playing with other kids” he says.  

Unbeknownst to Chimwemwe, his father Itwi, an architect by profession found coping with the disease extremely difficult.  “Since I needed a lot of time to take care of my son, I resigned from my job. I was his primary caregiver during the day and his mother took care of him at night. I knew that I had to be strong for the family so I put on a brave face. I had to so that Chimwemwe especially would feed off my positive energy. But alone, in the privacy of my house I would sometimes break down and cry” says Itwi.

Chimwemwe’s family believes that a support group would have helped them and others cope better. “My initial experience with the gravity of the disease was on our first admission at the children’s cancer ward. A child in the bed next to my son’s had just died and the bereaved mother was crying uncontrollably. When the doctor realised that both the distraught mother and myself were Lozi, he asked me to speak to her.  He thought that by me talking to her in our mother tongue would help console her.  It was a challenge because here I was trying to deal with and understand with my own issues, so what was I supposed to say to her?” Itwi states.

Nevertheless, Itwi knows and appreciates that the hardworking medical staff have a lot to do, focussing on treatment.  “So as caregivers and patients we formed bonds. We would spend time talking and encouraging each other and sharing experiences. Even after Chimwemwe’s treatment many years ago, as a family, we have continued to speak openly in order to encourage and give hope to other cancer patients and caregivers. When we take him for regular reviews at UTH, Chimwemwe still enjoys spending time playing with the kids and telling them that he too had cancer and is now better” Itwi says.

Life After Cancer

After more than 12 months of gruelling treatments, Chimwemwe was declared cancer-free in 2012. Poignantly this is the same year the Chimwemwe’s grandfather, the legendry journalist Ridgeway Liwena,  died of prostate cancer. Chimwemwe’s immediate family which includes 2 older siblings and a younger sibling are doing their best to carry on with life normally.

Chimwemwe is now a dynamic 12-year-old.  At his former Rhodespark primary school, he was an active member of the basketball, football, volleyball and hockey teams.  After his grade seven exams he led his team to defend their ISAZ (Independent Schools Association of Zambia) U-13 basketball championship and scored more than half his team’s points in every game.  He says his favourite football team is Liverpool. Chimwemwe is now in grade 8 at Hillcrest Secondary school in Livingstone. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he is currently continuing his education via the Rhodespark School learning portal.

Itwi (left) and Chimwemwe (right)

On what he wants to become when he grows up he is torn between becoming an architect like his dad or a professional footballer, playing for Liverpool no less!  Chimwemwe says he is also considering becoming a part-time chef as he enjoys helping his stepmother cook and bake.

Regarding his triumph over cancer Chimwemwe says “I read in one of my science books at school that cancer is the abnormal growth of cells.  I know cancer is a deadly disease and I am so lucky to have survived it.”


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