When Esther was initially screened and diagnosed with early-stage cervical cancer in 2009, she didn’t follow-up her treatment because she was discouraged when the hospital misplaced her test results. The second reason she didn’t go back to the hospital for treatment was that a friend told her that treating cervical cancer meant removing the uterus. Esther, a mother, housewife, businesswoman, and now a volunteer counselor, had recently remarried and she wanted to have a child with her new husband. She was determined to keep her uterus intact whatever the consequences.
However, it got to a stage where the traditional medicine she had been taking as a remedy could not prevent the constant bleeding or the pain she felt when being intimate with her husband. So, Esther had no option but to return to the hospital a year after she had been first diagnosed with cancer. At the hospital, she was given medication and sent home but Esther’s situation worsened; she developed a tumor the size of an apple at the entrance to her cervix, and the bleeding continued.
GETTING CANCER TREATMENT
In 2011, Esther went to the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia’s (CIDRZ) Cervical Cancer Prevention Screening Programme and she was referred to the Cancer Diseases Hospital (CDH). At the hospital, Esther was screened a second time, but she didn’t mention that she had already been screened previously because she didn’t want to be reprimanded for not seeking treatment earlier. The result of Esther’s test confirmed that cancer had spread, and so after a series of x-rays and scans, she was put on radiation treatment. The day Esther arrived at the hospital for her radiation treatment, she had a complication. She started bleeding heavily to the extent that a blood transfusion was administered and her radiotherapy treatment had to be postponed. After the transfusion, Esther was sent home and asked to return for her radiation treatment the following day. But the next day, when Esther arrived at the hospital, she found that the CDH had been burgled and vital equipment had been stolen. ‘There were policemen and journalists everywhere. I could not believe what had happened. I cried as if someone had died,’ says Esther, whose fear was that she would not get the treatment she urgently required. The patients were all sent home that day and asked to return at a later date to check if the hospital was operational.
SIDE EFFECTS OF TREATMENT
When Esther went back to the hospital a few days later, she found it was operational and she was put on radiation treatment for three weeks. The side effects of the radiation were severe; Esther felt very weak, vomited, and had diarrhea. She was also put on brachytherapy for four days, which she describes as a painful process where drugs were administered directly to her tumor through a tube that was inserted into her urethra. After her radiation treatment, Esther underwent one cycle of chemotherapy, and a month after starting treatment at CDH, she was discharged.
Initially, Esther did not share with her daughter and son that she had cancer. However, they realized their mother was unwell because of the frequent trips she made to the hospital. Esther’s 18-year-old daughter was very supportive of her mother. ‘She would always ask me what I wanted or needed to make me more comfortable. Just before my chemotherapy, my blood count was low and my daughter would go out and buy me beetroot whilst my husband went out looking for the leaves of the Mukuyu tree to help increase my blood count,’ Esther says of the support she received from her family.
One of the biggest challenges cancer posed for Esther was the effect it had on her relationship with her husband. The cancer affected the intimacy between them and her husband started threatening that he would go out and find himself a younger wife.
CANCER ADVOCACY WORK
Now in her work as a counselor and peer educator, Esther tries to educate women on the realities of cancer and HIV and Aids. ‘Cancer affects relationships and I often tell the women I counsel to prepare themselves for the likelihood that their husbands will leave them because I have seen it happen often,’ says Esther, who is still with her husband. ‘Sometimes people say I should not talk about personal things in public but I tell them the only way we will learn and educate ourselves is if we talk and share information,’ she adds. Before Esther was advised to go for screening, she had never heard of cervical cancer. Now, she educates others. Esther’s mother and grandmother have both been for cervical cancer screening because she advised them to go.
GOING THE EXTRA MILE
Esther admits she faces many challenges in her role as a counselor. She is saddened when patients don’t go to the hospital for treatment because they do not have transport money. Often when she can, she uses her own money to help out. ‘You can sensitize the people but if they do not have the money to travel to the hospitals for treatment or to buy the nutritious food they need to improve their health, how are you helping them?’ Esther asks. In addition, she makes the point that patients on cancer treatment feel very weak and need support to move around, hence there is a need for full-time carers to be employed at the Cancer Diseases Hospital to help the patients.
IMPROVING CANCER CARE
As a Counsellor and Peer Educator, Esther believes it would be of great benefit to the community if counselors had premises from which they worked. ‘That way, people who need assistance or counseling would know where to find us when they need us,’ she says. Esther has always found strength in the Lord and she says that cancer has made her stronger; ‘I live for today. I do not take life for granted and I tell people suffering from cancer to take me as an example.’ Do not wait until it is too late. Go for screening and treatment early.
LEAVING A LEGACY THROUGH STORYTELLING
Esther passed away from late-stage cervical cancer in 2014 at the age of 45. She was adamant that we publish her story and continue to share it even after her passing. We have shared her story as part of the Zambian Cancer Society’s “Cervical Cancer Awareness Series” in commemoration of January, Cervical Cancer Awareness Month.
This edited story 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. It is currently out of print.