She was in her final year of college when she felt a lump in her right breast. Then came the diagnosis: breast cancer. She was just 22. It didn’t seem real; it couldn’t be. Life was just beginning, and like her peers, she had plans to take the world by storm. What started out as a small lump would drastically alter her body but also introduce her to a new woman she has grown to love.
Lucky Ndanu grew up as an only child for the first 11 years of her life. From the age of 3, she had chronic ear infections that caused pus to ooze out of her ears regularly, so she grew up relying on medication to ease the pain. Later on, at 14, she underwent major surgery to replace the perforated eardrums.
“I went to a primary boarding school and anytime I was in pain due to my ears, I knew I had to let somebody know that I needed to go to the hospital,” Lucky told The Weight She Carries. “So, at a young age I learned to speak up and advocate for myself on matters regarding my body.”
Growing up, Lucky’s parents gave her a lot of responsibility, and she often found herself learning how to do new tasks.
“Don’t worry, you’ll do better the next time,” her mother would say when Lucky tried something new and didn’t do well.
That encouragement helped establish a positive mindset in the growing child that would come in handy years later.
In 2007, Lucky was in her early 20s when she felt a lump in her right breast. She was entering her final year of college.
“It wasn’t painful and didn’t interfere with my life in any way, so I went on with my school life,” she said. “When I was preparing to write my final exams, I began to notice changes in my breast. There was a sharp pain that would come from under my arm and spread to the breast.”
The pain would last for a few seconds and disappear just as suddenly as it appeared. Lucky noticed that her breast became sensitive and began to look veiny. She decided to seek medical attention.
The clinician Lucky saw examined her breast and told her that young women can experience changes in their bodies, so she need not be overly concerned; but as a precaution, he suggested she get a mammogram done at a hospital in Nairobi.
Lucky took that advice and once the results were out, she was advised to see a specialist. Taken aback, Lucky asked if something was wrong. The lab technician simply handed her an envelope containing her results and told her he needed her to take the results to a specialist.
“When the specialist saw my results, he told me that he was placing me under a series of tests so that they could give me a conclusive report,” Lucky said. “They did a fine needle aspiration to take a sample from the tissue in the lump, and they also did a breast ultrasound.”
Now armed with the three results from the mammogram, fine needle aspiration and ultrasound, Lucky’s doctor said that he needed to do a biopsy to remove the lump and then he would give the final report.
“All this time, I thought my doctor was just being thorough. It never crossed my mind that I could have breast cancer.”Lucky Ndanu
A short time later, Lucky got a call from her doctor’s office asking her to come in. The biopsy results were ready. “Bring someone with you,” she was instructed.
“My mother happened to be in Nairobi on business, so she rearranged her schedule and came to the hospital with me,” she said.
With her mother beside her, the doctor told Lucky that they had found cancer cells in her breast.
“My mother became teary-eyed, while I smiled in disbelief. She understood the magnitude of this diagnosis, but I was in denial,” Lucky said. “I had not heard of anyone having cancer in my family nor had I directly interacted with anyone with the disease.”
The doctor said it was stage one cancer, so there was a high chance of full recovery with proper treatment. He went on to recommend treatment options but insisted she go for some counselling.
This was in February 2008. For the next few months, Lucky digested the news.
“The news was earth-shattering, I didn’t understand what, where, when and how this happened. I was numb. I wasn’t thinking right and I didn’t know how to react to such news. They were talking in terms that I didn’t understand. But I thank God for a very caring and responsible doctor.”Lucky Ndanu
Lucky had family members in the medical field, and they helped explain certain terms to her. That’s when it began to sink in.
She had been given the option of having a lumpectomy – which is the removal of the lump from her breast – followed by radiation, chemotherapy and hormonal therapy. The second option was having a mastectomy coupled with hormonal therapy. Her doctor recommended the latter. It was a sure way to rid her body of the cancer and reduce the chances of it coming back, he stressed. The mastectomy needed to be done immediately because the tumour margins had been missed during the biopsy.
“I cried so many tears and prayed so earnestly. I wanted to hear from God desperately.”
“I realized that I would die if I didn’t follow through with my doctor’s treatment plan. He had mentioned a mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. But I couldn’t imagine myself going through all that. The idea of mastectomy was the hard part,” she said. “What would my life be like after a mastectomy? That’s when the crying, the pain, the anger and the tantrums started.”
Her family rallied around her and she ultimately agreed to go ahead with the mastectomy.
A date was set.
Lucky went in for surgery that May – three months after her diagnosis.
A set of nagging fears persisted – would she be accepted by people after losing a breast? Was she going to live a full life? Was she going to be able to have a family?
“I wondered how I would be able to have children. I wondered about my cosmetic appearance; I was afraid of rejection. My greatest fear, though, was not coming out alive, but I did!” she said with joy.
When she awoke from surgery, Lucky was surrounded by loved ones and felt a profound sense of hope.
“It was as though I had been given my life back! If I could brave this surgery, I knew I was going to make it. I had a new lease on life. I woke up to a new me, and I just set my mind to focus on healing,” she said.
A year before this diagnosis, Lucky had broken her leg in a road accident. Learning to walk again after the cast was removed was quite challenging.
“An older woman told me at the time that I needed to make up my mind that I was going to learn how to walk with crutches. Eventually, I was able to walk with two crutches and then one. And as my leg got stronger, I only need one crutch, and then eventually I was able to walk on my own. So, I remembered that experience and knew that consistency, mental power and positivity had helped me learn to walk again,” she said.
“When I woke up from the mastectomy, that old lady and her words came back to me, and I was determined to conquer. I did not want to be labelled as a cancer patient. I made up my mind that I was going to walk out of the hospital as a victor not a victim.”Lucky Ndanu
Even though she was determined to get well, the road to recovery was challenging. However, she understood that healing begins in the mind.
“Coming to terms with the fact that my body harboured a serious disease and the changes my body was experiencing was quite an uphill task, but I braved and acknowledged that I was a new person,” she said. “I began to look at the bigger picture, believing that this would somehow make me a better person. I resolved in my mind not to let any negative thought interfere. God gave me the grace to get through it.”
“The hormonal therapy (Tamoxifen) was prescribed for five years. I took a tablet every evening for a good five years.
“Within these five years, I also joined support groups of women who had gone through breast cancer. Stories of their cancer journeys encouraged me and helped me take bolder steps in my recovery and survivorship journey.
“About eight months after finishing the five-year hormonal treatment and [being] given a bill of clean health report by my doctor, I realized I was pregnant. I was excited and scared in equal measure. I was afraid that the prolonged intake of this hormonal drug would cause harm to the pregnancy but elated that God had given me a chance to bring forth life. With consistent medical reviews, I was able to carry the pregnancy to term without difficulty.”
Today, Lucky’s daughter is an active 7-year-old aspiring gymnast.
“She’s a testament to what God can do. She’s my miracle baby!”
Lucky is passionate about life and ensuring that every single day of her life counts. She volunteers with cancer organizations to create cancer awareness and advocacy. She is a thriving breast cancer advocate working closely with newly diagnosed cancer patients and survivors to encourage and give hope. Her mission is to impact lives positively!
“I want to provide the same encouragement for someone in need like the old woman did for me,” she said. “Not only for those facing cancer, but for anyone out there who has a problem they think is bigger than them. You can get through it.”
Vimbai E. is a writer, journalist, ghostwriter and the founder of The Weight She Carries. With hundreds of articles publishing online, in print and for broadcast, her love of language and storytelling shines through every piece of writing that bears her name.