Dr Margaret Mwania remembers the day vividly as if it was only yesterday. She had gone for a routine health check-up one morning in October 2017 and wasn’t prepared for any life-changing news. Then the world came crumbling before her. She had breast cancer, her doctor said.
In her early 30s and with a son who was barely two, the young mum did not know where to turn to for support.
“Most of the cancer forums I had heard of were for older people and I knew I could not relate with them as we were in different stages in our lives,” says Dr Mwania who works at a hospital in Nairobi.
“Besides, I had never heard of a young cancer survivor and I knew I was as good as dead. I even toyed with the idea of writing my will,” she reveals. All this changed when she met Muthoni Mate, a young cancer survivor who runs the Cancer Café, a forum that brings together people fighting cancer.
It is a safe space where individuals discuss everything affecting their lives from matters of the heart to food and exercise for cancer warriors. The Cancer Café is open to cancer patients, their families, caregivers and anybody willing to learn and interact with the patients.
“We comfort and encourage each other, discuss about our personal journeys and ask questions, which are answered by the experts on board,” says Muthoni. All this is free of charge. The café is held once a month, every second Tuesday of the month at All Saints Cathedral Church café in Nairobi from 6-8pm.
Muthoni was diagnosed with stage one, breast cancer during a check-up in August, 2016. The initial shock caused her to doubt the goodness of God but with the help of family, she was able to pick herself up and start her journey towards recovery.
Muthoni, an epidemiologist, (a doctor who specialises in disease patterns and possible control) travelled to India for surgery and thereafter underwent eight chemotherapy and 36 radiotherapy sessions.
Muthoni, who is in her early 30s, says when one is diagnosed with cancer, it is important to find peace within and to accept the diagnosis.
“Cancer is not quite the monster people paint it to be. Once a cancer patient is able to get through the initial shock, anger and denial phase and get to the acceptance stage, they can focus on the journey towards recovery,” explains Muthoni.
After her chemotherapy sessions, she would sit with family as they enjoyed a cup of tea and conversation.
She was fortunate to have had a strong support system that helped her deal with cancer. Being in the medical field also helped her navigate her way around.
“I am glad that God has placed people in my path who helped ease my journey. My family took care of my daughter who was then six, especially on my worst days. Knowing she was in safe hands gave me the calm I needed to fight,” says Muthoni.
She remembers complete strangers reaching out to her and asking her questions about her cancer journey. I was still recovering but I felt moved to go see them and listen to them. Sometimes all they needed was a listening ear, which I could offer, she says.
During this period, her family noticed that there were too many cancer patients and their families consulting Muthoni and were concerned she was spreading herself too thin while she still needed the energy to recover.
To save the situation, they suggested to her to have an arrangement where the patients all gathered in a common place. This, they figured, would also save time and energy and Muthoni would not have to make so many trips seeing different patients.
“I started shopping around for a convenient place and that was how Cancer Café was born in September 2017. The café is my purpose. It’s a networking platform that links the patients with the advice and experts they require; doctors, gym, nutritionists, oncologists and psychologists,” explains Muthoni. Owing to her medical background, she has a rich source of experts.
“Cancer treatment destroys both the bad (cancerous) cells and good cells leaving one immuno-suppressed. To counter this, one has to eat foods that boost the immune system. We share this kind of advice in our meetings as not everyone understands the importance of eating the correct food,” says Muthoni.
“When you meet other patients, it makes you realise that you are not alone. That alone gives you hope and motivation to fight another day,” says Muthoni.
Her sentiments are echoed by Dr Mwania who says she never thought she would survive cancer before she met Muthoni who shared her cancer journey with her.
“She gave me so much hope. I was glad I had finally found a safe place where I could relate with people my age who were facing a similar challenge. It was also easier to connect with them,” says Dr Mwania. The conversations they had made her realise that indeed she could live another day.
“Discussing what you are going through with people in a similar situation helps to ease the burden, she notes.
“A support system is very important when fighting cancer and I’m glad for the networks I’ve made at the cancer café. We talk, chat and discuss the issues affecting us and are encouraged to keep going,” says Dr Mwania.
Carole Mwangura, 35, lost her mother to breast cancer in 2007. The fashion designer, who was then in college, helped take care of her mum during her treatment when she was diagnosed two years earlier. “When I heard about the Cancer Café from my sister, I thought I could be of help out of the experience of taking care of my mum,” says Carole.
“At the café I realised I could be a support system to someone going through cancer. I can also offer a shoulder to lean on and comfort someone that has been bereaved,” she says.
Carole met her sister’s friend at the café and has been there for her as she fights cancer.
“The Cancer Café is a great forum for someone who has been through cancer or is going through it. Muthoni also invites speakers who can share their experiences on how to take care of a spouse going through cancer. When I was taking care of my mum, I could not get the support I would have needed and for me helping someone going through cancer is a way of healing,” Carole explains.
She says sitting and listening to the encouraging stories of people who have beaten cancer gives hope. “I remember the story of a lady who has been cancer free for seven years and such encouraging stories give cancer patients the strength to carry on,” she says.
Muthoni says she took a two months break from the café in December 2018 and January 2019 to recharge but clarifies that she has kept the conversation going with the members.
“The conversation keeps on going even when I take time to recharge. It’s the one thing that I keep telling the audience … you cannot pour from an empty cup, hence the need to retreat once in a while and recharge so as to collate and regroup in readiness for the next round,” she explains.
She plans to take the café to the next level. “We are looking to incorporate food demonstrations and exercises as a lifestyle change and not an event. We also plan fun activities to help with mental health and celebrating treatment anniversaries among other activities,” explains Muthoni.
Muthoni says a cancer patient/survivor appreciates when you ask them how you can help, what they would like to do and what they would like to eat. “Handle them not as victims of life but as citizens going through a rough patch and need that support until they can get back to their feet,” she advises.
She is currently looking for funding to help cancer patients work out in tailor-made sessions so as to help them achieve a fitness to climb Mount Kenya. “Business hubs for survivors living in rural areas so that they can become financially independent and active members of society can also go a long way,” she says.
For now, they also communicate via Facebook and WhatsApp which enables them to have more intimate conversations. Muthoni has dedicated a portion of her salary to pay for the teas and snacks during the café sessions.
“Fortunately the restaurant has been gracious to us. It gives us subsidised rates,” she says.