ZIO MWALE, Lusaka
LAST year Maria Nkoma, 24 , was down with leukemia, a type of cancer she has managed to overcome.
Her battle with cancer started at a time she least expected. It was sometime in December 2016 and she had just completed her degree programme in economics and was looking forward to graduating and conquering the corporate world.
Barely a month after her final examinations, she started experiencing fatigue and also developed sharp pain on the right side of her stomach. As usual, she self- medicated.
“I was feeling extremely exhausted and I thought it was because of the exams. They call it extreme fatigue, and with that, I started having excruciating pains in my stomach,” Maria narrates.
One particular day, the pain was so unbearable that Maria had to visit a private hospital for medical-checkup. Results showed that there was something seriously wrong with her.
The following day, as advised by her parents, she went for a second opinion at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH).
It was then that a doctor, Sumbukeni Kowa, handed her what she thought was a death sentence. Dr Kowa told her that she had an aggressive form of Acute Promyelocytic Luekaemia (APL), a type of cancer with blood-forming tissue, usually in the bone marrow.
There was silence in the room after the doctor broke the news. Then later, Maria asked her doctor to explain what leukemia really is. With a heavy heart, the doctor told her it is cancer of the blood.
“It’s at that moment…, I can only recall seeing my parents and Dr Kowa’s lips moving, but I could not hear a single word. I was scared and I thought I was going to die,” Maria said.
The following day, her body completely changed – it was swollen with bruises on her skin and she had blood clots in her eyes. There was blood in her urine and she could barely walk.
A few days later, she was evacuated to South Africa for treatment at Cape Town University Private Academic Hospital. Her doctor there was Professor Nicolas Novitzky.
“When I arrived in Cape Town Professor Novitzky and Dr L Madurai and four nurses, received me and immediately, I was rushed into the theatre,” Maria shares.
With absolutely no knowledge on cancer, she was not prepared for the journey ahead in terms of emotional and financial stress.
Upon admission to hospital, tubes were surgically inserted in her chest and she was to stay in hospital for eight months.
“At that stage, I was bedridden and admitted to a special room where windows were completely shut and there was a small washroom. I was not allowed to go out because my immune system was extremely suppressed,” she narrates.
When Maria began her first cycle of chemotherapy, her lungs collapsed and she was put on oxygen for three days. During that period, she had difficulties in breathing and the weeks that followed, she developed clots in her lungs.
“I was strictly not allowed to move out of bed because my doctor feared a clot could easily move towards my heart and cause serious complications. Most of the time, I had to lay straight for days. A nurse would wash me from the bed and assist me when I needed to visit the toilet,” she said.
Maria says the battle against cancer is something someone without experience cannot fully comprehend. “It’s a fight to live,” she says calmly.
She endured chemotherapy, spinal taps, surgeries, blood and platelet transfusions, and other life-threatening infections because she wanted to live.
“Cancer survivors know what I mean by good days and bad days. Chemo has a way of making you feel well one day and the next day you’re ready to give up. The [experience of] nausea, diarrhoea, hair loss and having completely no taste for food,” she said.
After about six months, with some bone marrow biopsies (minor surgeries), the doctor delivered the good news that Maria’s cancer had cleared.
After that, she had to undergo a bone marrow transplant so that she could have new blood and stem cells that would produce healthy blood.
“I experienced severe body pains. Before the bone marrow transplant, I had to undergo chemotherapy, she said.
To prepare for the bone marrow transplant, it meant she needed 16 infusions of chemo in 10 days. Some days she would receive two to three packs of instance chemo, and she developed sores in her mouth, throat, and stomach.
And for two weeks, Maria could only feed through tubes. Her skin and nails became completely dark and at that point, she did not want to look at herself in the mirror.
Maria’s family had been footing her medical bill and by then, they had spent about K2 million.
When she needed to do the bone barrow transplant, her family needed financial help from Government. And thankfully, at that point, the Government of Zambia took over and footed the bill.
To cut the long story short, Maria is a thankful leukemia survivor.
“For this, I wish to express my family’s profound gratitude to His Excellency President Edgar Lungu and the Minister of Health Dr Chitalu Chilufya together with my medical team under Professor Nicolas Novitzky for saving my life,” Maria said.
As a cancer survivor, Maria has made it a must to attend cancer fundraising and awareness meetings. She says everyone must make it a point to screen for cancer.
“Even if it’s a minor headache and you think it’s nothing. The fact that I went to the hospital as soon as I did saved my life,” she says.
Maria is urging cancer patients to be strong because she believes cancer is beatable.
“Cancer is beatable. I realised that healing starts with your mind. When I was in my room in isolation, I would write down: I’m going to have kids, I’m going to get married, I’m going to attend my graduation, because I knew that way, I would achieve my dreams.
“No matter the crises or circumstances you face in life, God’s will is that you always maintain an attitude of thankfulness, He says in all things, give thanks, scriptures declare [Romans 8:28],” she said.
True to her dreams, in Maria graduated with a degree in economics from Mulungushi University in November last year. It’s a miracle she says she cannot believe.