In 2004, Facebook was launched, Friends aired its final episode, President Ronald Reagan died, The Tsunami occurred, Nelson Mandela retired from retirement, The Africa cup of Nations was held in Tunisia, Wangari Maathai won the Nobel prize, Ezekiel Kemboi won a gold medal and Mercy was a caterpillar.
16 year old Mercy climbed the stairs to the headmistress’s office, the weight of her breasts causing her back to ache.
“I need to see a gynecologist.”
Miss *Tira looked up in undisguised shock, “Who told you what a gynecologist is. Are you pregnant?”
“You know we will find out one way or the other.”
Later, Miss Tira will speak of Mercy poignantly as she asks the teachers and students to pray for her during a school assembly. She will excavate the memory of their interaction months prior, in her office, when Mercy came to her complaining of swollen breasts, the right more than the left. She will remember how she dismissed her complaint and called her parents to pick her up. Not knowing what was growing beneath the surface.
Mercy was picked up and driven to the city for medical attention. While at the hospital she explained that it started with a slow, sustained increase in the size of her breasts; something she attributed to puberty and ignored. But then the right breast became so swollen, causing her discomfort. The doctor examined her and said to her guardian that he could feel a lump in her right breast that needed to be removed and sent for histology. No one spoke to her, citing she was underage. She was left to pick the crumbs of discussion that fell as the adults spoke.
Forms were signed, consent was given and the music begun to play. Her role, only to dance to the tune. She had no idea what was going on. Days later, she went back for her results with an older, male cousin because her parents were at work.
“Are you comfortable having your cousin present with you during the consultation?” The doctor asked her. This was the first time she was being addressed in this whole period, “No.” So her cousin waited outside as the doctor tried his best to present the news to her gently.
“You have breast cancer.” He said after a lengthy curtain raiser.
Her face was blank. “What is that?”
“You probably need to come with your parents.”
Her parents’ reaction was the exact opposite of hers. When the doctor broke the news to them, they responded in heaving, painful, soul shattering sobs. How could such a life altering moment be summarised in two words? Breast cancer! Mercy looked from her dad to her mom with little understanding of why they were crying. Her ignorance protected her from the gravity of the situation.
“She will have to undergo sessions of chemotherapy and radiotherapy that need to be commenced immediately. She will need to plait her hair because it will fall off.”
“What?” Mercy’s voice was heard for the first time in the room. The hair discussion snapped her out of her ambivalence. “What do you mean my hair will fall off?” Her face stained with tears.
“It is one of the side effects of chemotherapy.”
They looked at her baffled that she should cry for her hair and not her illness!
Her treatment began. And apart from throwing up and losing her hair, it was uneventful. They came up with a schedule where she was picked from school on a Wednesday for tests, received chemo on Friday, spent the weekend throwing up and was back in school on Monday. If she became too sick at school, she was picked up and taken home.
Mercy missed a lot of school work during her treatment. She was not able to sit for any exam because of the interruption by tests and treatment. But she refused to lag behind. Her parents hired a private tutor for her. And she was able to study when she was away from class.
After completing treatment she was better for three months; until the new year came, full of surprises.
She felt another lump in the same breast. This time she did not wait. They went back to the doctor who confirmed recurrence and advised on a mastectomy and breast reconstruction. But Mercy declined. She felt that the healing process for both surgeries would take too long and keep her out of school. She was now in her final year in secondary school.
The relapse however made her bitter; her relationship with God became cloudy like the reflection from a steamy bathroom mirror and she did not have the strength to clear that mirror. She just couldn’t believe she was going to go through this again.
Her parents opted for a second opinion in India where they still recommended a mastectomy — minus the reconstruction. It is at this time that the headmistress stood before the school and asked everyone to pray for her. A gesture Mercy did not like. For when she came back, people treated her differently. She became the girl with cancer. An illness which most did not know about. Whenever she walked past, she could tell people were whispering about her especially because she had to cover her bald head in caps.
By the end of that year, she was well enough to sit her final exams, excell and qualify for Uni overseas where she continued to go for follow up.
In this period she has had breast reconstructive surgery and a baby who she could not breastfeed. Still this did not move her and she was only too happy that he is a boy. In her mind, a boy would be spared from the troubles she went through in her teen years. She was only 16 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and even if her malleable mind didn’t comprehend the gravity of the situation at that time, she knew she did not want to propagate the “bad” gene to a daughter.
Mercy has since learnt to take life at face value. She was thrust into adulthood before her time and exposed to hardship when she was still so young. She however has kept a positive mind throughout and decided not to stress over things you cannot change.
She is now a butterfly. 16 years later, she can finally tell her story.
As narrated to me by Mercy.
- October is not over, get screened for breast cancer. No matter how old you are.
- Breast issues are handled by surgeons and not gynecologists as people commonly think.
- Breast cancer can affect men too.