When you meet Didas Nkurunziza, it is hard to tell that he was, until recently, battling stage four colon cancer. The 60-year-old is healthy and has a glowing complexion.
Nkurunzinza says the signs and symptoms of the disease started in 2018. First, he lost a lot of weight, an abnormality, accompanied with loss of appetite. Then on some occasions, he was either constipated or having severe diarrhoea and nausea.
He was already battling type 2 diabetes and hypertension, illnesses he was managing with treatment. “At first, I thought the symptoms were related to diabetes since I had been diabetic for a while,” he says.
To be sure, Nkurunziza went for a medical checkup. The doctor suspected he was suffering from ulcers and gave him medicine. However, even after taking the whole dose, there was no relief.
After further checkup, polyps were suspected. These are a small clump of cells that form on the lining of the colon. And still, his body failed to respond to treatment.
The doctor eventually recommended an endoscopy, a procedure used to examine a person’s digestive tract. Using a flexible tube with a light and camera attached to it, the doctor can view pictures of your digestive tract on a colour TV monitor.
There are different types of endoscopies including a colonoscopy performed particularly to detect abnormalities in the colon and rectum.
On February 15 last year, it was discovered that there was a tumour inside Nkurunziza’s colon.
“The tumour was an obstruction meaning that the investigation could not be continued to check for other tumours,” he says.
“Regardless of the devastating news, I was advised to be strong and hopeful since this would determine whether I would beat the disease or not,” he recalls adding that doctors also recommended that he immediately travels to India for further investigation and management.
The biggest challenge cancer patients face is usually pooling together money needed for treatment. So how did Nkurunziza manage?
“I have been an advocate in private practice from 1982. So, I had some money saved. I also had land and other assets that I sold to raise the funds needed,” he says.
Treatment in India
Nkurunziza arrived in India on February 24, last year. He was accompanied by his wife, Alphonsina (Alpha) who played a pertinent role as caretaker. The duo then headed to Medanta, a multi-specialty medical institute in India where Nkurunziza was immediately admitted. Further tests were conducted and more tumours were discovered.
“There were two tumours in my colon and two in my liver, an indication that the cancer cells had spread to other organs, which the doctors termed as stage four colon cancer,” he says.
Although doctors wanted to do all they could to save Nkurunziza’s life, they discouraged the idea of performing immediate surgery. “Their fear was that since the tumours had spread to other organs, there was a possibility that surgery would unsettle the cancer cells which would then spread to other parts of the body, making it hard to contain,” he says.
For this reason, the medical team advised shrinking the tumours first through chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a type of treatment where drugs are administered through the intravenous vein to kill the cancer cells.
“I underwent 12 cycles of chemotherapy. Each cycle lasted three days; Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I would then get a two-week break before resuming another cycle,” he says.
At the end of April, a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan was conducted and it was discovered that all the tumors had shrunk by more than 50 per cent and it was okay to remove them through surgery.
“I was placed on a strict diet of mostly vegetables which I had initially hated eating,” he says. Before the diagnosis, the advocate says he enjoyed eating fast food including chips and chicken. He also drunk alcohol and did not exercise enough and because of this, he was overweight.
“The diagnosis was a reality check. At some point, I began wishing for another chance to make things right. It is partly why I changed my eating habits while at the hospital. I stopped eating fast foods and opted for more of organic meals, especially fruits and vegetables.”
The successful surgery
Nkurunziza’s surgery took place on June 8, last year and it was successful. He continued his recovery in India but to minimise costs, they rented an apartment next to the hospital. Towards the end of November, a PET scan was conducted and the doctors found “no evidence of the disease.”
Nkurunziza asked the doctor if this meant that he was cured to which he responded: “We do not say cured because cancer can always recur. Our hope is that it does not.”
The specialist suggested regular reviews and blood tests every three months, then, a PET scan every six months for the first two years. After two years, the scans would be conducted every once a year and once five years had elapsed with no recurrence, then, he would be cured.
Nkurunziza is now back at work but unlike before the diagnosis, his health remains priority. He credits his recovery to God, the team of medical specialists both in Uganda and India, his beloved wife Alpha, and other family members and friends.
Telling his story
Nkurunziza has written a book titled, “Stage four, the cancer that saved my life,” in the hope that his story will give hope to others battling cancer. Proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards supporting the Uganda Cancer Institute as the establishment continues to face financial challenges.
What is stage four colon cancer?
Dr Henry Ddungu, a consultant, hematologist/ oncologist at the Uganda Cancer Institute, says:
“Stage four cancer of the colon can be caused by genetics, inflammatory intestinal conditions, older age, among other factors.
Not forgetting, having polyps (a small clump of cells that form inside the lining of the colon- usually harmless) poses a great risk towards one getting this type of cancer. By stage four, the cancer has spread from the colon to other parts of the body.
The signs and symptoms manifest as a result of the cancer being in the colon. For example, one may get abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhoea, among other signs. And more symptoms may arise depending on which part of the body the cancer has spread to.
For example, if the cancer has spread to the brain, one may start getting headaches or feeling nauseous and getting other signs. Or, if it has spread to the lungs, one may start feeling a shortness of breath or start coughing blood.
There are different treatment options including chemotherapy, radiation, targeted drug therapy, immuno therapy where a person’s immune system is used to fight the cancer.