The first time I met her, she was seated comfortably in a chair at the hospital where I was also visiting a friend who had a baby. She wore a bubbly, welcoming face. Her dress was smartly pressed and neatly worn.
Then she bade farewell and just as she stood up, I realised this woman I had been talking to had one leg. Her other leg had been amputated and I almost shed a tear, just thinking of the courage that she has and the positivity that surrounds her. She walked off on her crutches like a pro. It was only a few weeks later that I would discover that Alpha (Alepha) Khamula Chidothe is an alveolar sarcoma (cancer) survivor.
Explain the events as they unfolded when you discovered you had cancer?
In 1999, I went to South Africa for a holiday with my son, visiting my brother Khebozi. While there, I noticed that I had developed a lymph node on my thigh near the pelvic bone. I came back home and had an operation and the biopsy did not reveal that it was cancer. I was put on TB treatment.
The lymph node didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t appear until four years later when I noted a small lump on my calf. I went to the hospital and after scanning it was operated on again. I was then surprised when I went for results of my biopsy that the Doctor (Lala) moved closer to me and in a gentle way said Ã¢â‚¬Å“Sorry Alpha, you have cancerÃ¢â‚¬Â.
I was so shocked because I associated cancer with rich people. After the doctorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s appointment, I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t drive myself home and had to call my husband to pick me up.
I was then referred to Tanzania for treatment. After my treatment, I started voluntarily cleaning at Blantyre Adventist Hospital one night a week as part of my appreciation to the hospital for discovering my problem.
What type of cancer did you have?
I had alveolar sarcoma (cancer of the soft tissue).
How have you coped living with cancer?
To be frank, I never lived with cancer in mind. I was very shocked when the news was revealed to me.Ã‚Â After that, because I was not in pain, I moved on with my life. When I went to Tanzania for treatment, I told myself in my room that the place was not a hospital but a hotel and I was on holiday. After my treatment, I told myself that the cancer was gone. Now after my amputation, I always tell myself that cancer went straight into the dustbin together with my leg. If the cancer is hiding somewhere in my body Ã¢â‚¬â€œ fine and good Ã¢â‚¬â€œ what can I do?
What did your treatment involve?
I received my initial cancer treatment in Tanzania at Mamangoma Private Hospital. I had 6 circles of chemotherapy and 42 sessions of radiotherapy. I was all alone. I got three circles of chemo the first time at an interval of three weeks. After this, I went for a circle every two months. I lost my hair during treatment. I did not lose weight and my complexion was not affected. I was just lucky. I am highly indebted to my former employer National Bank of Malawi for having sent me for treatment.
The good thing that came out of the treatment was that I said goodbye to the constant bouts of malaria and migraines.
However, before finishing my chemotherapy, I lost my husband Ã¢â‚¬â€œ It was a hard blow for me Ã¢â‚¬â€œ I asked Ã¢â‚¬ËœGod, Why?Ã¢â‚¬â„¢
How did you stay strong? What keeps you going till this day?
My strong faith in God has helped me stay strong. Also, my family members and friends, neighbours who showed that I am so loved and important to them have kept me going. I am strong when it comes to other issues but not on cancer. I cry a lot, Dr Sam Kampondeni is the only person who really knows how cancer affects me.
Has cancer taught you anything about life or helped you grow as a person?
Cancer has taught me that life is unpredictable. Who could have guessed that a girl who once dreamt of becoming a flight attendant is now one legged. It has helped me to be extra careful with what food to eat and I pass on the same to my children. Cancer has also taught me that being HIV negative is not a licence to life.
In order to stay alive, you had to lose a part of yourself. How did you learn to accept this fact? How did you feel?
When Dr James Bates told me that my leg had to be amputated, I accepted it straight away. He did not use the word amputation. He said; Ã¢â‚¬Å“In this case Alpha we have to remove your leg.Ã¢â‚¬Â
My sickness was not so bad because the day before the operation I was wearing high heel.
The doctor was surprised with my courage and actually asked me why I was strong. I told him I am a driver and most of the times I am on the road. Losing a leg to cancer is similar to being involved in an accident and losing a leg. The date was set, and the day before the operation at Queens (QECH), my doctor came in the ward and asked me what I would want during the operation. I told him:
Ã¢â‚¬ËœI want a prayer before the operation.Ã‚Â I want to be half paralysed and I want someone to talk to me during the operation.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ He accepted my requests.
In the morning, nurse Kamwendo took me to theatre, with my sister Mphatso in tow. She was all tears. I just kept quiet; I was too low. The doctor came and greeted me before the operation and I told him I was just too hungry. The operation was successful and I did not see them cutting my leg, I only noticed the operating table shaking as they fought to cut my bone.
When I went back to the ward, my sisters Emily and Mphatso were crying and my mother kept repeating Ã¢â‚¬Å“Thank you Jesus, thank you JesusÃ¢â‚¬Â.
Six hours later, I was in too much pain and couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t move. I was being given the strongest pain killers but the pain was so great, I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t even feel the needle pricking my skin when they injected pain killers into my body.Ã‚Â I did not want my family to know I was in so much pain and I kept saying Ã¢â‚¬ËœOh my God! Oh my God!Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ I never cried for mum because it was just a small word compared to the pain I was going through.
Are there things that you miss because of your condition?
I feel bad because I am now disabled and I am not the same. I sometimes canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t get space to park my car. I miss my high heeled shoes so much and I miss dancing.
Staying positive is extremely difficult. How did you get to this stage?
I have got to this stage because I taught myself from a tender age that as long as I am still alive, that is enough. I value life so much; I know that losing a leg is not replaceable. I am not the first one or the last one to lose a leg. In addition, I am not so special that this cannot happen to me. Being in denial cannot bring my leg back and life should not stop because of that.
What is it that you do when you get some alone time?
When I am in a good mood and I am alone I like appreciating nature. I love green vegetation so much and seeing mountains from a distance. If I have enough fuel, I go on the Thyolo Road to look at the tea plantations.
One of my favourite places in this country is Ku Chawe on the Zomba Mountain. I just feel like God is there. When I see vegetation, I have seen God.
Do you ever stress out?
I stress out a lot and I de-stress by sitting on the toilet for maybe two hours and then I flush my stress away.
What have you learnt from lifeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s journey?
If we have good friends in life, we should try to keep them close. Good friends will always be there for you in happiness or sorrow.
What memories do you have of growing up?
My mother was a principled homemaker while my late father Arnold Khamula worked in the Civil Aviation Department. She is the one who taught me how to be strong.
I was a happy, friendly child raised in a wonderful family. However, I was the unhealthiest of the nine of us; I used to have migraine headaches from a tender age and malaria attacks every now and then. After my chemo, both these problems ended and doctors said they might have been linked to the cancer.
Many people didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know I had problems because when I was well I played and danced in arrears.
What dreams did you have as a child?
Being raised in Chileka, I could only dream of working for Air Malawi as a flight attendant. I wanted that job and still like the Air Malawi emblem.
What can you share of your life that makes you live positively despite what you have gone through?
I have a positive attitude towards life because I am a fighter and I believe in God. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t easily give up. I try as much as possible not to be on the negative side, no matter what. I have taught myself not to panic, the only time I panic is when I am about to lose life.
What is your life philosophy and guiding principles?
I have always been a strong person that I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t allow petty issues that I cannot change bring me down.
I am too open minded, I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t hide my feelings or contradict myself. I do not say Yes when it is supposed to be No. If I am smiling at you just know I am really smiling at you and not pretending.
I have never lived a life of regrets. I have no time for regrets.
I always limit my worries. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t allow my problems to touch my plate of food, my bed when I want to sleep or my car when I am about to drive off.
What are some of the things that you absolutely love and cannot do without?
I cannot do without fresh flowers around my house. Please bring lots of fresh flowers at my funeral. Please!!
Another thing I cannot do without is sunglasses. I love my sunglasses and I will put them on even if the sun is not out.
What is your take on key challenges facing Malawian women?
I think the greatest challenge is that young women allow themselves to be used by men because they are desperate for marriage. Young girls need to be patient; their man will come.
Could you please tell us of your immediate family?
I am a widow. I was married to the late Gift Chidothe from Mulanje but we settled in Dziwe, Chileka. I have two children Patience (son) 15 years old and Juliet 7 years old.
Do you still manage to look after your family?
I used to be an active woman and looking after my family was not a problem. Now it is my family members and friends who are bringing bread and butter to my table and above all, God is in control. I also have a strong belief that I will get a job soon because people cannot support me forever. My son is always encouraging me to think of the best of the situation.
He always says I am lucky that my cancer was on the leg and not on the brain or liver. A day does not pass without him saying Ã¢â‚¬Å“I love youÃ¢â‚¬Â.
Any more words?
It is my wish to see my children grow. My son is multitalented and I know that one day he will have a name in society.Ã‚Â I pray to God to give me good health.