On June 21 2015, after seven biopsies, Ria Duke received the phone call that would change her life. She had breast cancer. She broke down in front of her two children, Michael and Gabby, who were equally sad and scared.
A wave of questions ran through her mind; why me? What have I done wrong? The fear of death and insecurity characterised her life in the days that followed.
“Things changed; I felt insecure and vulnerable in my relationship with my husband. It made me hate myself,” she says.
But Ria was on a mission. God made her a mother and she had to be just that.
“I needed to be a mother for my children, to see them grow, get married and be a success in life. And I survived breast cancer because of them,” she says.
After her diagnosis, Ria had partial mastectomy and later went through 36 sessions of radiation at Glynwood Hospital in Benoni, South Africa.
All the while, her children were marking each radiation session off the calendar, assuring her that she was almost done.
Ria’s father took her to all the radiation treatments, making sure she did not miss a session, while her mother always got off work to attend all her doctors’ appointments.
Her diagnosis came just before her husband Shane decided for the family needed to return to Malawi. They shelved their plans of moving so she could complete her treatment.
“After radiation, we came to Malawi. In 2016, I went back to South Africa for a regular mammogram check-up and I was diagnosed with cancer in my left breast. I had double mastectomy as I did not want to go through radiation again,” she says.
Ria also had breast implants at the same time to save her the trouble of travelling.
Stronger now, Ria is positive she can face any challenge because she survived the breast cancer which she attributed to hormones as there is no history in her family.
Upon her return to Malawi after the double mastectomy, she thought she needed to give something back to the community through breast cancer awareness.
In May 2017, she founded the Breast Care Limited, which has been registered as a non-governmental organisation (NGO).
Breast Care Limited has joined hands with Dr Briony Acroyed-Parken, a local breast cancer surgeon from the United Kingdom, to help him build a breast care centre for Malawi.
October is breast cancer awareness month. And as part of raising awareness, Ria, alongside Breast Care Limited recently organised an awareness eight kilometre walk at Mandala in Blantyre.
The fun run also raised funds to build a breast care facility in the country- estimated to cost K5 billion. The facility, according to her, will be a three storey building complete with the latest technology and equipment for breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
“As Breast Care Limited, we have noted a gap in early screening and treatment of cancer. This is particular to Malawi because of the challenges that exist in the health sector. For instance, the country’s health sector is marred by lack of sufficient funds, lack of equipment and low motivation of staff.
“Malawi has few screening centres and the level of awareness is extremely low. In addition, because of lack of treatment centres, the disease burden of cancer impacts on the finances of individuals as they seek for treatment outside. However, in most cases once diagnosed with cancer as is with most chronic illnesses in Malawi, chances of survival are slim,” she observes.
She adds that they have had a few other fundraisers and the money will be used to pay for special equipment needed by the doctor to diagnose breast cancer in women in Malawi.
The breast cancer survivor further notes that many people do not know about breast cancer or any cancers, yet, many people have it.
“And if they have it, they have to be treated for it. Without a breast cancer centre at the moment, that becomes difficult. Every woman should know about breast cancer and all its dangers.
“It is a silent killer if one does not know about it. It is very important that we build a breast care centre to save people’s lives. If I didn’t have treatment outside the country at a special breast care health facility, I would not have survived,” she says.
Ria urges women and girls to see a doctor with any small change in their breasts as anything could be a start of breast cancer. She reports that anybody can survive breast cancer if diagnosed early.
“When diagnosed, it is important to stay positive and do exactly as the doctor says. Never fall into the trap of alternative medication because people are out there to make money. After my diagnosis, everyone around me had some drug they thought would work well on me. But they are all just trying to make money,” she cautions.
Acroyed-Parken notes that many patients have long delays before they are given a correct diagnosis of breast cancer, which is very often compounded by their lack of awareness of the significance of their symptoms, so they delay seeking help in the first place.
Once they do reach a diagnosis, she says because of the lack of specialist centres, they frequently are treated by clinicians not very familiar with the condition, who only infrequently see cases, so they may get inappropriate or suboptimal treatment.
Ria is married to Shane, whose mother died of breast cancer. She says he was very supportive throughout her illness.
The two of them will celebrate 25 years of marriage on December 5 this year. They met in South Africa where he went to study when he was 18.