Two years ago, her world crumbled at the news of breast cancer diagnosis. Mathinda Sopo’s faith in God has kept her going throughout her painful treatment. She now looks back at her journey and shares her experiences:
Tell me who Mathinda is.
I was born Mathinda Banda, married to my best friend and love, Owen Sopo. I am 33 years old. I hold a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Malawi. I am currently working as an agribusiness specialist with an international research organisation. I am a proud born again Christian. Christ defines my life and without Him, my life is meaningless. I am naturally a free person who is easy to mix with. I interact with every person regardless of their status.
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
I was officially informed that I tested positive for cancer cells in my left breast in December, 2012. It is difficult though to establish when the disease started.
How did you react?
It was one of those hard moments in life, but I was not scared and remained calm and composed. The doctor who broke the sad news looked worried. I always thank God for this moment. He filled me with so much strength and reminded me that the battle belongs to Him.
What are some of the symptoms you experienced?
Nothing. The cancer was diagnosed quite early before manifestation of any symptoms. I did not feel sick or any pain. I only felt a painless lump in my breast someday.
Take me through the point of discovery to the time you first started treatment.
It was in September, 2012 when I first felt the lump. Since hearing about breast cancer, I made it a habit to feel my breasts for any abnormal developments. On this day, I was in Mchinji on duty. When I got home, I explained this to my husband. He immediately talked to a friend, a medical doctor at Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH). The doctor’s immediate explanation was that sometimes it is normal for women to develop lumps due to hormonal changes in a female body. At my age, he dispelled any fears of cancer. He, however, advised me to go for a scan and do a biopsy to determine if it was an innocent lump. He referred me to another doctor for proper examination.
An ultra sound was done and the lump was confirmed. The doctor recommended surgery to remove the lump. No tests were performed before the surgery. At this point I did not have enough information, so I did not ask.
I was booked for the surgery, but they kept postponing due to shortage of drugs as the few were prioritised for more critical conditions. I started getting impatient.
We decided to do the surgery at City Centre Clinic where I had the lump removed on October 19, 2012. The specimen was sent to the College of Medicine for autopsy. Again, the doctor at the clinic was optimistic it may not be cancer.
In December, the same year I went back to the clinic where I was informed that the results of the specimen tested positive for cancer.
The news was obviously devastating. As a child of God, I believed God was in control. I was then referred to Mwaiwathu Private Hospital to meet an oncologist (cancer specialist) for guidance on next steps. At that time, the country had only one oncologist.
I explained the results to my husband. He was very calm and he did not sound scared either.
We met the specialist who recommended three stages of cancer treatment namely; (1) surgery (in my case he recommended a comprehensive partial mastectomy to remove the muscle around the affected area of the breast and also the removal of the lymph nodes in the left armpit. Cancer cells originating from the breast normally move towards the lymph nodes and then spread to other areas; (2) chemotherapy and (3) radiotherapy. The long journey of treatment started on January 11 2013 with the surgery Mwaiwathu hospital. Two weeks later, I started chemotherapy.
How long was your treatment?
The doctor prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, 21 days between cycles. The chemotherapy was administered intravenously and lasted about five months.
After chemotherapy, I travelled to India for radiotherapy, a treatment which is not currently available in Malawi. This treatment lasted for about one and a half months. So, I completed my treatment in August 2013.
Please share your experiences during treatment.
My surgery took about six hours; the doctor informed me it was a major procedure. I cried as I lay on the bed and was taken to the theatre. I thought about my family and friends waiting for me. I did not know what they were going through at that moment.
The healing of the wound took about two weeks, a week of which I spent in hospital. While in hospital, I treasured every moment somebody came to my bed side just to greet and smile at me. It is the best support you can give somebody on a hospital bed. I did not realise this until then.
When I was to start chemotherapy, I did not know what to expect until I was on the queue waiting for my turn to meet the doctor before the first round. A certain lady on the same queue was narrating to a friend about her experiences during her first chemo, it was horrible. My faith was shaken and I expected the worst. However, the voice of truth inside me kept telling me I will not be crushed, that I will overcome. God gave me a song,Ndidzaimba nyimbo by Grace Chinga. It lifted my spirit up.
During chemo, I vomited and had sores in the mouth which caused eating difficulties and pain. My hair started falling off after one week of my first chemo. By the end of the second week, all my hair was gone. The doctor indicated that I would lose my hair as one of the side effects of chemo, but I think I was in denial. I did not expect it to happen abruptly. I do not do weaves or wigs and it was difficult for me to put on wigs. I was not myself and I decided to walk around with my bald head. My husband always reminded me of how beautiful I looked even with a bald head. He will never imagine how much those words meant to me. I remember going to Tsoka Market one Saturday afternoon with my husband to get some vegetables. I was booed by street vendors at my baldness. I was not distracted. I knew my husband saw the most beautiful woman in his life.
The time came when I had to travel to India for the last part of my treatment, radiotherapy. We needed a lot of money and we couldn’t afford a guardian. I had to travel alone. It was scary to travel alone as I was still weak and recovering from the chemo side effects.
While in India, I met a Tanzanian woman, who was also getting breast cancer treatment. She was staying in an apartment with her daughter. Very wonderful people and I shared the apartment with them. I also met a Malawian who stayed at the hospital for almost the same period as I did. They still remain a wonderful family to me.
The treatment did not have many side effects as chemo, so, I led a normal life. This also helped me regain my physical fitness.
My hair started growing again about two months from the last chemo cycle. The time I returned from India, I had my hair back.
Were friends and family supportive?
Very supportive. All along, I knew I had a wonderful family and great friends. But now I know I have angels all around me. They are so amazing! The period I was on treatment was so exhausting for my husband, but he remained strong and energetic for me. You know, when you are making vows on your wedding day… for better or for worse, you don’t really imagine the worst thing to happen. You only envision the best.
I must indicate that cancer treatment is very expensive. I thank God for the grace and favour and all who contributed for making it possible for me to access this type of treatment. I do not take this for granted.
Would you say Malawi has systems to support women with cancer?
I know efforts are there, but there is so much that needs to be done. We need to create awareness about the disease and screen as many women as possible. Early diagnosis will fight this disease and save lives. For those who are sick and on treatment, moral support is what they need. Some die, not from cancer, but because they are in denial.
What is your advice to other women?
I just want to encourage fellow women who will get a chance to read my story to go for breast cancer screening. Early diagnosis helps to plan treatment properly and by the grace of God, it can be cured. For those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer (or any other type of cancer) or are receiving treatment, be strong, have a positive attitude, don’t stress yourself and always trust in God. He is a loving and faithful father. He will not leave you.
How long has it been since you finished treatment?
It has been one year and a month
How do you live your life now?
I live a normal life both as my husband’s helper and also a professional. I regularly meet my doctor for check-up. I make sure that I eat and live healthy.
Any last comments?
I am sharing my story not because I am special, but because I want to reach out to somebody who might be sick, helpless and maybe in denial. I want to tell them that Christ is Lord and at the mention of His name, even cancer is healed. I also want to thank God for the privilege that He used my case to shame and remind the devil that only Jesus Christ is Lord!
For all women: cancer is real and affecting nearly everyone. So screening for breast cancer and all cancers must be prioritised at every opportunity.