• Joan Letting

Cancer: The monster that devoured my mother


Photo:Courtesy

She sits pensively staring into the clear sky. Today marks exactly ten years since her mother succumbed to what she terms “a monster.”

Alice Anyango remembers too well the pain her dear mother Naomi went through after she was diagnosed with stomach cancer.


If the tiny walls of their house here in Kibera Slums, the largest slums in Africa, could speak, they would tell of the pain that this young family had gone through.


They would tell of the tears that this 24-year-old had shed since she lost the only parent and the only close relative she had.


Today as she gazes into the clear blue skies, she reminisces her story. Alice was a class eight pupil who was about to sit for her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education. One day after school she came home to her mother after school.


School had been busy and she had homework to do. She hoped to help her mother with dinner and embark on her homework as fast as she could. Alice also needed to leave early the next morning for school. When she got home, she found her mother lying on the bed. She had never been like this.


“I rushed up to her and asked her why she was sleeping so early. We always slept together at around 10 pm when I was finished with my homework. She told me her stomach was paining. She had been diagnosed with ulcers in the past but that had never been a problem. She took her medication and never had she ever slept earlier before,” narrated Alice.


Alice quickly changed into her home clothes and started preparing dinner. That day, her mother could only afford Sukuma wiki (kales) and ugali. But Alice was always grateful because she knew her mother did her best to provide for her. They were days that they could sleep hungry but they had each other and that is all that mattered to them. They had all they could wish for in the world: love and laughter.


When the food was ready, she served her mother but her mother declined.

“I tried encouraging her to eat but she refused. She said that she was sure if she tried to take it, she would vomit,” said Alice.


She later embarked on her homework and when she was finished, they went to sleep. Her mother did not sleep well that night. She kept tossing around in their little bed leaving Alice worried and uncomfortable.

When the day broke, Alice woke up and got prepared to go to school. On normal days, her mother would have woken her up and helped her prepare for school but she was not well.


“As I left for school, I asked mum to seek medical attention. I also passed by my neighbour and asked her to look after my mother and let me know if anything comes up,” narrated Alice.

Her mother later visited a public Hospital in Nairobi where after a series of tests was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer.


This was a devastating discovery for the 45-year-old mother of one. She was devastated and all she could do was cry. She was scared for her little girl.


“She was told that if she had gone to the hospital earlier, the cancer could have been treated. But since cancer had spread all over her body, there was nothing that could be done to help her. My mother was given painkillers and advised to rest. She chose to come home and be with me,” added Alice.


Soon after, her mother’s health started deteriorating. She started experiencing difficulty while swallowing, heartburn, indigestion, continuous stomach pain and nausea. Her weight also dropped. She became so thin she had no strength to support her body frame. Naomi had to be helped to sit down on the bed. She even did not have the strength to stand up and go to the toilet and thus soiled herself.


“I had seen her suffer for a while and it did not break me as I hoped she would be okay. One day she vomited blood and this shook me to the core. When I saw the blood, I understood that cancer had eaten her body so bad. It crashed all the hope I had,” said Alice.


Months passed by quickly and soon it was November. Alice was to sit for her final primary school exams. She went to school on Monday for rehearsals as she was to sit for the exams on Tuesday.


Rehearsals went well and she hoped to come home and narrate the success to her dear mother, but fate had other plans. She got home to the sad faces of her neighbours. Some looked like they had been crying as their eyes were red.


She was called aside and told, “sorry your mama has succumbed.” “I was crushed. I was hopeless. I did not know of anyone else in the world who could be like my mother.”


Alice was advised to take heart as the body of her dear mother was taken to the mortuary. The next day she was accompanied by a neighbour to school where she sat for her examinations. Three days later amidst all the tears that lingered in her young eyes, she had finished her examinations.


It was now time for the hardest exam of her life: burying the only true love she had known. On Saturday that week, she collected the remains of her mother from the mortuary with the support of her amazing neighbours and buried her at Langata Cemetery.


Since then, life for her has not been easy. She works odd jobs like washing clothes for others to get food on her table. As she stares into the clear skies, she is grateful for one thing: her life.


Alice has made it her life mission to go for cancer screening every year so as to protect herself from the monster that ate her beloved.


“I also encourage other people to go for screening. This is because screening for cancer is free and when the cancer is detected early it can be treated. They will save themselves from the agony that my mother went through,” concluded Alice.


According to the World Health Organization, cancer is the third leading cause of death after infectious and cardiovascular diseases in Kenya. The annual incidence of cancer increased from 37,000 to 47,887 between 2012 to 2018.


In 2020 according to Globocan, 42,116 cases of cancer were reported while 27,092 succumbed to the disease in the country. Oesophagus cancer accounted for 7.1 per cent, breast (16.1 per cent) cervix (12.4 per cent) prostrate (8.1 per cent) colorectum (6.5 per cent) while other cancers accounted for 49.8 per cent of the new cases reported in the country.