Cancer almost cost her life

Triumphant. Despite the pain she endured and exorbitant hospital bills, Cathy Kabaramagi got a new lease of life after many years of living with cancer. 

What you need to know:

  • Cathy Kabaramagi was tired of taking medicine every day. The pain had become unbearable. The cost of treating cancer was unreasonably high.
  • She suffered many infections and a mental breakdown at some point.
  • She asked her parents to take her to the village to wait for death. But behold! After many years, she got a new lease of life. 

When Cathy Kabaramagi, 32, a resident of Kisasi, a Kampala City suburb, was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2011, her world almost crumbled down. 

She dreaded cancer and when she thought about the excruciating pain that comes with the disease, she started preparing for her last days on earth.

At first sight, Kabaramagi, a social worker, does not appear to have suffered from cancer, until she narrates her story.  It is a story of a hot funnel that nearly claimed her life.

According to the 2018 World Health Organisation (WHO) data, liver cancer deaths in Uganda totalled 1,416.  “I did not know it was cancer. At first, it presented as a stomach ache but pain progressed,” Kabaramagi recollects.  

The diagnosis 
During her second year at Ndejje University,  in June 2011, on her way from Hoima (her home town) to Kampala, Kabaramagi who was set to resume her studies, recalls buying a liquid substance for weight loss. 

After weeks of taking the substance as instructed, she says she started feeling pain in her stomach. “I was instructed to mix it with hot water.  Days later, I lost appetite, my skin colour started turning yellow.  I could not tell what had happened to me,” she says. 

At the end of semester two, Kabaramagi travelled to her uncle’s home in Jinja for holiday and it is here that her condition worsened. She became unconscious and was rushed to a nearby clinic, where a scan was done and the results revealed she had a problem with the liver.

Kabaramagi was advised to travel back to Kampala to seek advanced medical treatment. At first, she was taken to Katabi Military Hospital, where examinations were conducted and treatment was prescribed. 

But by December, Kabaramagi could hardly walk; her stomach was swollen and the pain became unbearable. Her aunt and her mother, who had returned from Christmas festivities, rushed her to Mulago National Referral Hospital. 

Three months on a hospital bed
She says she was admitted to the emergency ward and various tests were conducted as medics tried to ascertain the ailment. 

“I eavesdropped a conversation in which one of the doctors suggested that my gallbladder be removed. A senior doctor, however, advised that we go for a biopsy test,” she says. 

A sample was taken to Ebenezer laboratory in Wandegeya, Kampala and a week later, after analysing results, the doctor revealed that Kabaramagi had liver cancer, which was still in its early stages. 

A home at the cancer institute
“It sounded like a death sentence. Despite the counselling I got from medics, I only saw a grave right in front of me,” she recalls. 

Kabaramagi was referred to Uganda Cancer Institute, where she would be monitored regularly and receive treatment. 

This became her temporary home for three months, as specialists continued undertaking tests and administering treatment. 

She was the 14th patient to be admitted in a ward at the institute in 2012 and during her time there, she woke up to sights of patients who lost the battle to cancer every day. 

Because she had made friends with some of the patients in the ward, their death traumatised her and she often thought she would be the next victim.

Kabaramagi received her first dose of chemotherapy in March 2012 and two weeks later, her pain had been relieved. But with this treatment, she suffered hair loss, change of skin colour and weight loss. 

Dellas or long free dresses became her new wardrobe style after losing 45kgs in a period of seven months.
She was later discharged from hospital after responding to treatment. She recalls taking 90 tablets daily (30x3). The medication was not only for treating cancer but also other related infections given her weak immune system.

On several occasions, Kabaramagi would be rushed to the hospital whenever her condition worsened.
“I developed wounds at every opening of the body after getting the second dose of chemotherapy. It was administered three weeks after the first dose. I had wounds around my genitals, mouth, nose, ears and eyes,” she narrates. 

Severe side effects 
Nausea and severe body itching are other side effects she suffered during the process of administering chemotherapy. 

Cancer patients are always advised to take lots of fluids and fruits. Kabaramagi would be forced to take 10 litres of fluids every day to avoid anaemia. She received three doses of chemotherapy at different intervals. 

The originally light-skinned university student had become slim and her skin darkened. The pain and body weakness had crippled Kabaramagi; she could no longer support herself in any way and walking became a nightmare.

At home, she would be bathed, fed and carried to the sitting room, where she would watch television and pray.

Spells of trauma
Kabaramagi spent more than a year at Mulago Hospital as doctors continued examining her as well as monitoring her progress. 

But the indescribable pain and death of the people around her traumatised her so much that she started hating herself and anything to do with medication. “I was tired of taking medicine every day. I could not stand that pain. The cost of treating cancer was unreasonably high and had taken a toll on my family. I asked my parents to take me to the village because I knew death was my destination,” she reminisces.

One day, she was supposed to report back to Mulago in January 2013. Kabaramagi and her mother boarded a bus to Kampala, little did they know she would not make it to hospital.  Kabaramagi collapsed as they ascended Mukwano arcade in Kampala. 
She  was rushed to the cancer institute, where different tests were done before she was readmitted.

Mental breakdown
She was retained at the hospital for three weeks. Her condition worsened and she got a mental breakdown in February 2013.

According to Dr Ambrose Asiimwe, a physiotherapist at Capital Centre Medical Clinic in Bwaise, she suffered from  psychosis -a condition characterised by an impaired relationship with reality.  
It is a symptom of serious mental disorders and people who experience psychosis experience loss of motivation and social withdrawal. They usually have hallucinations or delusions. 

It took a week for Kabaramagi to normalise. With all that was happening, she had to sign up for a dead year because she was not healthy enough to keep up with the demands of an academic course.

In May 2013, Kabaramagi’s condition worsened and affected her bone marrow, a condition that worried everyone around her including doctors.  “When we were called to the doctor’s room, the doctor told my parents how my chances of living had become slim. They said cancer had affected my bone marrow and I had about one month to live,” she recalls. 

Kabaramagi nurses her baby. PHOTO/CHRISTINE KATENDE

As her parents panicked in confusion, contemplating what the next course of action would be, Kabaramagi says she was ready to die. 

After months of admission, she was discharged and her parents took her back to the village. Before they left Mulago, doctors advised them to buy Neupogen- a drug that treats the bone marrow. 
Unfortunately, it was not even available in Mulago. Neupogen treats low neutrophil count; low neutrophil counts occur with infections following chemotherapy. 

She needed five doses of Neupogen at the cost of Shs3m, which her parents could not afford. But her cousin sister came to her rescue and bought the drug. It would take her two months to receive the medicine.

Turning point 
In June 2013, Kabaramagi received the Neupogen drug. Months later, during a review at Mulago Hospital, several tests were conducted and the results indicated that no cancer virus was detected.

Nobody believed the results including the doctors. This prompted the doctors to embark on further examination and advised Kabaramagi to do more tests. 
Chemotherapy was halted after receiving three dozes out of the six that were initially prescribed. One of the doctors, whom she only recalls as Dr Omoding, who had previously identified issues with bone marrow, did not believe the results and he thought Kabaramagi had resorted to using herbs.

“The same tests were conducted three times and all of them ruled out cancer. Doctors were shocked after receiving negative results. After everything I went through, I was overwhelmed with joy upon receiving the good news,” she says. 

“I could not control the joy. I survived death by a whisker. I thank God for giving me another chance.”
Kabaramagi would return to the cancer institute, a month later as instructed to carry out subsequent tests. The same tests conducted that month and three months later, still indicated negative results. 

Hospital reviews
Although Kabaramagi started gaining strength and added some weight, she continued to go for hospital reviews. She started wearing wigs to cover her bald head.
Kabaramagi was given assurance that she would regain her hair after eight months, her skin colour would return to normal and she would be able to conceive.

“I followed doctors’ advice to the letter. The Lord saved me when everyone had given up on me,”  she says. 
Although Kabaramagi was declared cancer-free, she is yet to gain stability and motion like she used to.  While many caretakers of cancer patients defy doctors’ advice and administer herbal medicine in the course of cancer treatment, Kabaramagi’s resisted the temptation. 

Life after cancer
After stabilising, Kabaramagi had hopes of resuming studies, but the university denied her the opportunity when they asked her to clear tuition for the two dead years. 

She opted out and applied at Uganda Pentecostal University in 2016, where she graduated with a Bachelor’s in Social Work and Social Administration. 

Kabaramagi got an opportunity to do internship as a counsellor and social worker at Uganda Cancer Institute in 2017.  It is here that she finally cleared her head of the fears imprinted on her brain by those arround her. 
She is currently a businesswoman dealing in duvets and does most of her business online.  Kabaramagi is living a good life and she was blessed with a baby boy, who is three months old. 

To those who are still battling cancer, Kabaramagi says: “The journey will be long, the pain will be too much and people will die in your presence. But keep fighting and adhere to the doctors’ instructions,” she advises. 

Her dream is to start an organisation that brings together women and girls who have survived cancer to share experiences, support and give hope to those that are battling the cancer.  While Kabaramagi is among the few lucky ones who have survived the cancer of the liver, many have lost the battle due to late diagnosis. 

Nobody believed the results including the doctors. This forced doctors to  embark on further examination and advised Kabaramagi to do more tests. 

The chemotherapy was stopped after receiving three dozes out of the six that were initially prescribed. One of the doctors, who she only recalls by names of Dr Omoding, who had previously identified issues with bone marrow did not believe the results as he thought Kabaramagi had probably resorted to using herbs.

“The same tests were conducted three times and all of them ruled out cancer. I was overwhelmed with joy upon receiving the good news,” she says. I survived death by a whisker. I thank God for giving me another chance.”