Trapped Breast Milk: A story of misdiagnosis and eventual quality care.
“I had no idea that the lump in my breast was a problem,”
Tabitha says, shaking her head as if still surprised that a painless lump would prove to be so ominous. When she discovered the lump she didn’t give it much thought at first. This was mainly because what she knew about cancer made her believe it was a ‘far fetched issue affecting only wealthy people’. But when the tiny lump kept growing, she got concerned and went to a nearby clinic. The first diagnosis she received at the hospital was that it was breastmilk trapped in the duct. This was shocking to Tabitha because her last born child was then in high school in Form One.
“Breastmilk for a mother who has a child in Form One? ” She asked the medic bewildered. The medic explained to Tabitha that this happens many times and that she should take antibiotics to stop any infection.
When she went home and told her family, they laughed it off but still stood by the diagnosis, after all, doctors do not lie and if they say it is trapped breastmilk, the medicine will untrap it.
Sadly, the lump didn’t respond to medication and she returned to the clinic only to be told to massage the lump daily. When nothing changed, she decided to seek an alternative opinion and went to another hospital in Thika County. Unfortunately, this was the time when there was a nationwide Doctor’s strike and she could only get tests done in a private hospital. “That was the first time I heard the word biopsy and cancer. I never thought it would come to this after being told I had trapped breast milk.”
Tabith was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2017 after tests confirmed the lump she had discovered in her breast was malignant.
“Now that we knew what it was, we quickly moved on from our misdiagnosis and decided to seek proper treatment. ”
Operations resumed at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) and Tabitha was able to undergo a mastectomy which was covered by the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF).
After healing from her surgery she began chemotherapy treatment but to her shock and horror, the wound swelled afresh. “The doctors said there were additional lumps that had not been successfully removed from the surgery. I was given more chemo to clear this.”
“NHIF was only covering 6 cycles of chemo, the additional ones we had to fundraise from friends and family members,” says Tabitha as she twiddles her thumbs. When she finished chemo, she was placed on the long waiting list at Kenyatta and given a date after three months. Her family did not want to wait, fearing the lumps would re-appear. That is when they were referred to HCG-CCK Cancer Center for radiotherapy.
Tabitha was overwhelmed at this point; she looked at the cost per session for the radiotherapy treatment, in addition to a PET scan examination, and knew that she was in all sorts of trouble.
“We could not afford my treatments any longer,” Tabitha says matter of factly. Her husband paints houses for a living. Sometimes, the paint jobs are not forthcoming. They had held a fundraiser for the initial treatments and could not imagine doing another one. They also had two children in secondary school. She contemplated her situation and decided she would forego her medical treatment.
Then one day her friend convinced Tabitha to leave the house and accompany her to a support group meeting. There, Tabitha met a lady called Bonnie who, after listening to her plight, insisted she continues with treatment and referred her to Faraja. While at Faraja, Tabitha took a step of faith and filled in the financial assistance application forms. “I then went home and got busy dying.”She laughs “I had already resigned myself to a negative response and had given up on life.” Two weeks later, Tabitha received some good news, Faraja would pay for her entire radiotherapy treatment at HCG-CCK cancer center.
“Let me tell you! I have seen God!” “Faraja imenisaidia. Mimi nashukuru Mungu sana. Afadhali kutoka ujue vile watu wanasema.”
Tabitha has become an advocate, telling anyone willing to listen, to stop wallowing in their homes. She believes that getting out of the house, talking to people and sharing your tribulations is a doorway to getting the help that one needs.
“I am a changed person. I get energized by talking and sharing with other people. If I had stayed in my house, I would not be alive today, talking with my husband and children.” Tabitha remarks that she never thought she would feel hope again, but that surrounded by kind and considerate people at the Faraja, she found it.
Tabitha urges others to seek out people who could be resigned to their homes because of illness. She says that many people die in hiding, not knowing that they could have been treated.
She has successfully finished her radiotherapy and regularly attends our monthly breast cancer support group. She also participates in the alternative therapies offered at Faraja, her favorite is reflexology.
Interviewed by Karimi Gatimi, Photography by David Kariuki (Kiki)