The first things I notice about Slyvia Singo are her vivaciousness and warmth. With a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye that veils the pain and suffering she has endured, this Ã¢â‚¬Ëœsenior citizen of above 60Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ opens up on fighting cancer of the cervix and the oesophagus in 1989 and 2002 respectively. She tells all about living through the pain of losing herself and choosing to stay strong for the sake of her grandchildren and proclaiming GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s name so she may live her life as a testimony to others. Interview by AKOSSA MPHEPO.
My name is Sylvia Singo, Anankhwinda, from T.A Mpando in Ntcheu. My mother is a Zulu woman from South Africa. My parents met when my father had gone to work as a labourer in South Africa a long time ago. He later became a well known burley tobacco grower. My mother worked as the manager at Blantyre Sports Club but later quit to concentrate on the family-owned restaurant and bar. My family has always been business-oriented and that was transferred to me. But, to get back to my story; I was born in South Africa and spent a great part of my childhood there. I studied up to Form 2 in my motherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s country. We came back to Blantyre soon after that and I completed my forms 3 and 4, Cambridge, at the Henry Henderson Institute Secondary School in Blantyre. There were three children in our family; I was the only girl. As a lady, I cannot tell you exactly how old I am; all you need to know is that I am a senior citizen of above 60. (Laughs).
Immediately after I completed my secondary school education, I got a job as an air hostess with the Central African Airways. We were the last intake. It was at about this time I also got married to Mr Chirwa for two years, until the marriage fell apart and we got divorced. My husband and I had two sons. One of those died at an early age. I got a job with Air Malawi as an air hostess and worked with them for six magical years. During this time, I rose to chief air hostess and travelled very much. Travelling with and waiting on Kamuzu Banda possibly constitutes one of my best memories of the time.
Moving on up
After working with Air Malawi for a while, I felt I needed to do something more constructive with my life and went back to college. I studied Public Relations in the U.K, I then did my International Air Transport Association course (IATA). Actually, I was one of the pioneers of IATA. After this, I came back home and was employed by Manica as a travel consultant. I was with them for six years. At the time, I was also taking evening Marketing classes at the Malawi Polytechnic because I did not want to rest on my laurels. I was poached by Soche Tours and Travels and worked with them as Travel Marketing Manager and PRO for a very long time.
The first attack
In 1989, I started experiencing heavy bleeding and abdominal pains. I was scared because I did not know what was going on. I immediately went to Blantyre Adventist Hospital. They run tests on me and the diagnosis came back positive. I had cancer of the cervix. My world came crashing down. I thought I was dying because at the time, I did not know anyone who had been diagnosed with cancer. I remember Dr. Mataya telling me that my uterus would have to be removed because the cells had spread too far. He cautioned me that this would be a major operation. To be honest with you, it was the most difficult thing to hear, since the uterus is part of what makes someone a woman. But, I accepted it as GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s will and knew I had to survive whatever came. I remember my private doctor, the late Thejopal, came to my office to assure me that I would be okay. It didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t help much, for, even though I had accepted my condition, I was living in fear. My parents were so supportive. Even though they were extremely worried, they kept assuring me that everything would be alright. This helped ease my fear. I said to God Ã¢â‚¬ËœLet it come what may. If I live, I will proclaim your name. I was sent to Garden City Clinic in South Africa, courtesy of my office and had a hysterectomy (removal of the whole womb). During the whole time I was in hospital, I was treated like a queen and lacked for nothing. A lot of airlines sent me flowers and messages of support every day. My bed area was always so bright and surrounded with so much greenery, the nurses had to remove and replace them with new bouquets each day and they always asked me what line of work I was involved in. My mother was staying at the Johannesburger hotel and came through to be with me everyday. After the operation, I was not put on any form of cancer treatment. I recovered fully and went straight home. I went to the hospital every six months for a check-up. Little did I know that the fight was only beginning; the worst was yet to come.
The second attack
The second time I had an attack, I was not so lucky. 13 years after my successful recovery, in 2002, I was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. Prior to this, I had swelling on the left side of my throat. I could not talk or eat. I was in extreme pain. When I went to Mwaiwathu, they run some tests and gave me the bad news. My first thought was why me again Lord? And then I said Ã¢â‚¬ËœIf Job was tried in so many ways and suffered so much pain and loss yet he survived, why not me? I will survive!Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ But surviving was not so easy. The pain was so acute, only the highest dose of morphine could ease it. Because I had now resigned from work on medical grounds, I was referred to Johannesburg Hospital this time. MASM refunded me half of my medical expenses but I paid for everything else. By the time I got there, the cancer had spread. I went into a coma for several days and was put on oxygen. They fed me through tubes inserted in my nostrils. Added to the tubes, I was on several drips and passed urine through a catheter, so I just lay there like a cabbage with all these things going through my body. Sometimes I would vomit enough blood to fill a bucket. I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know where that was coming from. To make everything worse, I was alone this time; no flowers, no mother, no guardian. My mother was too old to come through. During these dark days, I clung to God. I told Him I would not die. I would live to proclaim His name.
The pain of chemotherapy
As soon as I gained a little strength, they put me on chemotherapy. I lost all my hair and my nails turned black then fell off. My whole body turned black like charcoal. My eyes shrunk. My nose was always running, I had no control over my bladder and had to wear diapers. I was irritable and had sores on my hand and privates. This was a terrible time for me but the saddest thing is that, while I was still on chemo, my son suddenly passed on due to heart failure. He had just lost his wife and perhaps couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t bear to think of how sick I was, because we were very close. He left behind a two-year-old toddler and a nine-month-old baby, both of whom were now my responsibility. When they told me of the news, I was crashed. I had to fly to Malawi for the funeral under intensive care and then fly back to the hospital. Upon my return, doctors told me outright that I was too weak and that my sonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s death had been a huge blow for me. If I restarted chemo, I wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t survive. The best they could do was to let me die. I told them that was impossible and that I would survive for my grandchildren, since they had no-one else to look after them. I brought along the baby, Mary, to the hospital. She used to sleep on the floor beside me and the nurses looked after her. I breast-fed her because there was nothing else I could do. After a three-month break, I started chemo again and finished it successfully. The cancer is now gone but, a side effect of the treatment is that my heart and bones are weak. To strentghen these and lead a normal life, I have to go to South Africa every three months for a Xomesa injection.
Stronger on the other side
I look at myself and think I am a survivor. God has kept me alive for a purpose and I thank Him for giving me another chance. I look after my grandchildren and my mother. I sold off two of the houses I owned in BCA Hills to help pay off my bills and have built another one in New Naperi, where I live with my grandchildren. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not finished yet, but I have faith that soon, it will be. I have to pay school fees for the children and I have two vehicles that I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t service. Sometimes, times get so hard, the children and I sleep on empty stomachs but I know that I have to go on every day. I would like my life to be a testimony to others. I would like to help counsel and encourage other cancer victims on what to expect. As a Catholic (C.I member), I have been given the last sacrament, the one they give when someone is about to die, but I have survived and that should tell you something.
What I have from all this is that cancer awareness is very important. It is important to have all necessary tests and present to the doctor at the earliest stage so you catch the cancer before it spreads. I am living proof that cancer can be beaten if detected at an early stage. All you need is a strong will to live and believe that God is the heavenly physician. To all the people out there, remember that cancer victims need love and support to make it through this difficult time.