Anne Kiyimba was set to celebrate 51 years of age on August 10, 2013. However, the event that would change her life forever, a mere phone call, came the day before on August 9.
“A call from the hospital informed me that i had breast cancer in my left breast, and it had spread to the lymph nodes! I had breast cancer, stage 3!” Recounts Kiyimba. But how had the cancer progressed to stage three undetected? Kiyimba wondered.
“I go for annual mammogram and that year, i had one on July 6, 2013. The next day I was called me back for a biopsy because they saw something unusual.
This did not scare me; the previous year, 2012, it had been the same story and i had been cleared, but without a biopsy. But on august 9, the call came through to tell me the biopsy had revealed that I had breast cancer.”
What shocked you the most about your diagnosis?
The fact that the secondary checkup in 2012 cleared me; and the fact that when it was finally diagnosed; the cancer was at stage 3 and had spread to the lymph nodes!
Had there been any warning signs you had ignored?
About a week before my scheduled mammogram, I felt a sharp pain in the left breast and ignored it knowing that I had an upcoming appointment for the checkup.
Also in 2012, during my annual breast checkup, they noticed something unusual and called me back for a secondary checkup, which was later cleared as being a false alarm. I was asked to just go back the next year for the usual annual screening.
In 2013, I went for the annual screening and was again asked to go back. I went for a biopsy and the results were that indeed I had breast cancer in the left breast!
How did you receive the news of your diagnosis?
The news was devastating, to say the least! I had over one million questions, and thank God, I had answers to many of them. I cried for the rest of the day!
Informed my adult children and sister first, and then embarked on informing as many close friends as possible.
Tell us about the treatment; what treatment did you undertake?
My two breast surgeons/Oncologists chose to shrink the lump in my left breast first with four chemotherapy treatments, administered for one month.
My first infusion was in November 2013. The chemotherapy was followed by an injection (Neulasta), given after 24 hours to stabilise the red and white blood cells. I got the last infusion on January 23, 2014.
My body was given one month to recover before I underwent a double mastectomy.
I decided to have a double mastectomy to eliminate the chance of the cancer showing up in the other breast later on. Reconstruction is inserting tissue expanders during the mastectomy that were later removed to insert breast implants.
Of course, any surgery is scary but when you are faced with death, it becomes an easy choice – it was for me. At my age, my breasts have done all that there was for them to do!
After the mastectomy, I underwent radiation treatment for two months and this was done every week for eight weeks - only on the left side of the breast and arm.
How did you come to terms with your condition?
That was very easy. I have seen new born babies with the most weird diseases and always asked myself, why these innocent creatures? When it came to me, I asked, “Why not me”?
I also realised that remaining positive and locking out all the negativities from all directions would be part of my treatment. I wanted to get cured, I chose to remain positive. Hope, faith, treatment, my children, my family and genuine friends are what kept me going.
What was the worst thing you had to go through during this time?
The neulasta injection side effect (pain) was out of this world!
I usually got that injection 24 hours after each chemotherapy infusion and the effects of that injection usually lasted seven to 10 days! I also had to stop working for a while because my employers didn’t think I would be as reliable as I had been before my diagnosis, although they were ready to re-employ me after completing my treatment.
I had been a very energetic person who worked hard (seven days a week) and partied even harder! Chemotherapy treatment drains my energy so much so that I couldn’t do much for the first 10 days following the infusion.
How did you deal with these side effects of the treatment?
My oncologist gave me all the numbers to call and medicine to take in case of major side effects such as vomiting.
I was also lucky to have the community support from my church, the St Paul Cathedral Belmont church, headed by Rev Alex Kasirye, and a young Ugandan nurse, Catherine Awa, who came to visit me every day.
Awa was always available to prepare me for each doctors’ visit and also helped me fill forms to access all resources available to people in my situation.
Are you completely in the clear/out of danger?
I’m on daily medication (pill) called Letrozole for the rest of my life to kill any cancer cells that may resurface, and I see my oncologist yearly.
How did you handle the cost implications of battling cancer?
Hospital bills and medications were funded by the state. I set up a gofundme online fundraiser so friends and family contributed to my upkeep since I wasn’t working for quite a long time. The Pink Foundation and Joe Andruzzi Foundation also chipped in.
Would you say being in the US made any difference to your experience?
I feel very lucky to be in USA for obvious reasons. First off, I doubt it is a requirement to get yearly check in Uganda, like is the case here in USA, as a result, I feel blessed to be here and that it would have been too late for me, had I been in Uganda.
Also, major hospitals here are “fighting” to treat cancer because all hospitals keep learning more about the different cancers as they affect different people from different backgrounds.
The research is ongoing. When you reside here, legally, you are entitled to free or affordable medical benefits, depending on your income.
The more you earn, the more your pay, in medical insurance premiums; meaning, if you don’t have a job, you will get free medical benefits from the state.
What plans do you have for the future?
I will be coming to Uganda on October 13 and might extend my stay to meet with a group of doctors from Boston who are going to Mbarara Medical School to train doctors on how to treat or perform surgery on breast cancer patients.
I will forward some literature on them, they are also planning to put up a state-of-the-art breast cancer treatment centre in Mbarara. They first came to Uganda in March this year and are coming back this month.
Your advice to people out there?
Please get checked at least once a year (mammogram), and check your breasts for any abnormal lump each time you get a chance or when you take a shower or a bath.
What would you say to someone going through what you went through?
To avoid self-pity, think straight and know that it can happen to anyone! Be thankful that you found out when you did be open minded.
Who is Anne Kiyimba?
“I work in healthcare as a certified nurse assistant in Boston Massachusetts, USA. I also work at the Ugandan owned UK based (headquartered) shipping company Salabed Cargo USA.
I relocated from Kampala, Uganda to the USA in April 2003. I have four sons, who all live with me in Boston, where three work and the last born is at college.”