I have been seated across from this woman for four or five minutes now. I have been wording and re-wording the sentences I will say to her in my mind. It is an incredibly cold morning. Been raining all cats and dogs, and still, the skies are heavily laden with dark clouds. It is windless outside, but the relative calm is punctuated with the sound of thunderstorm from time to time. I can’t stop thinking that ‘I am cooking a storm’ for the young lady seated before me. She looks older than her thirty eight years. Must be the doings of cancer. Her once beautiful face is now just bones covered in a thin sheet of muscle and skin, with minimal fat.
She looks at me for the first time our eyes meet. I have been hoping that she will somehow read my mind, pre-empt my thoughts and save me from having to open my mouth and utter the very words. But there are no signs this will happen. So I clear my throat and look in the general direction of her face. She avoids my eyes and looks right past me to a point on the wall behind me. “It is stage four (b)”, I say. She sighs and focuses her eyes on mine. She frowns and I count five lines on her forehead. “surgery?”, she asks. “No”, I reply. Before I explain further, she stands up, unties her wrapper and re-ties it. She walks to the door then walks back to her sit and lowers her little self onto it. Today is one of her good days; she can actually walk without feeling dizzy, thanks to the multiple transfusions she has had.
There is a knock on the door as I lean foward to tell her more. Whoever is on the door shouldn’t have cared to knock in the first place. she lets herself in even before I let her in. Turns out it is the counsellor from the palliative clinic. I had been waiting for her. I am over- joyed. I quickly forget her bad manners and offer her my chair. I had briefed her about this lady. She will definitely do a better job than I have been trying to do. I leave her to it and quickly close the door behind me without as much as glancing behind me.
I let out air from my lungs once I step out. Didn’t know I had been holding my breath all this while. As I walk away, I can’t stop thinking about this lady. She will be lucky if she lives to forty. Cervical cancer stage four (b). It means it is no longer a local disease. The cancer cells have spread to the liver, and the spleen. The only option we have is to palliate her (add quality to her remaining days, not quantity). Send her for radiotherapy to reduce the local disease, take care of her pain and do serial blood transfusions. Sad, right? It is actually sadder when you think about her children who will remain mother-less thanks to a highly preventable and treatable disease like cervical cancer.
It is sad because women will experience symptoms up to one year, others two years before finally walking to a hospital. And why is that? You ask, it is because of fear. While some fear discussing ‘embarassing’ topics like vaginas, breasts, and sex, others fear being tested and diagnosed with illnesses like cancer, HIV and AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases. We all know a person or two who would rather die than be diagnosed with cancer. These are people who will never show up for voluntary screening and testing. For some weird reasons, they believe knowing they have a certain terminal illness will kill them faster. What they forget is that, the earlier some of these conditions are caught, the better for them.
Take cervical cancer for example, stage one is a totally treatable condition. Stage four is un treatable. The difference between stage one and four is just time. A person will be stuck in stage one cancer for a while before the disease becomes stage two, then three, then eventually four. While a few are lucky to be diagnosed with stage one disease, majority will show up three years too late when there is virtually nothing that can be done. Those who show up late will tell you that they feared coming early. And fear will be the cause of their death.
Men are worse off than women. First off, they are poor healthcare seekers. That coupled with the fear of the unknown will make them shy away from hospitals. That is why most of them will hide at home with their big prostates and only show up in hospital accident and emergency department in the wee hours of the morning when they can’t ignore the burning pain in their bellies thanks to retained urine.
I believe it is time we all took our health a little more seriously. Let us make use of all available screening tools. Let us have annual health check-ups. Let us make those decisions to lose a breast than a life early enough. Let us give up those problematic prostates. Because when we are dead, we won’t even need the breasts that we so refuse to part with in life. Or the prostates for that matter.