NKOLE NKOLE, Lusaka
SHE looks in the mirror now in disbelief at the sight of hair on her head even though she mostly has it covered under a head wrap. Her body too is not a strange thing
to her anymore.
It was August 2015 when she looked at a paper lying in her hands and read out a sentence beginning with the words: “It is with deep regret…”
Sister Margaret Mary Chileshe had been a teacher of English for 32 years, retiring only in 2008. She knew that at the end of those five words could only be bad news. Unable to believe her eyes, she put the paper away and allowed herself to break down.
When she retired from teaching in 2008, she was regional leader for the Sisters of Charity congregation; a role that required her to take care of the spiritual affairs of the sisters in the congregation as well as the day to day running of the whole congregation.
She did this for six years until the year 2014.
In January 2015 she decided to take a year’s sabbatical to relax and also to renew herself in spirit.
She went to England first and took a renewal course.
“That was beautiful. We were in Shrewsbury. I also visited relatives and friends in England before going to Ireland for a short while,” Sister Margaret recalls. After Ireland was Spain for some more spiritual renewal in Manresa.
While in England, she felt a little lump on her right breast but she was too carried away with rest and relaxation to be bothered by it, especially as it was causing her no pain.
The lump was tiny even when she returned to Zambia in July 2015. She was also still having the time of her life because her sabbatical had not yet ended.
Around that time she started feeling a little pain whenever she tried slinging her shoulder bag over her arm.
“My main reason for going to the hospital was just to get my tooth filled,” she says. “So when the tooth was filled then I decided let me just go in, you know it was a private hospital, just for consultation,” she recalls.
The lump was measuring the size of a little baby’s fist when she met a female doctor at the hospital.
“So the doctor examined me and said she needed to consult another doctor. I said I didn’t mind and she rang the other doctor,” Sister Margaret shares.
When the second doctor examined Sister Margaret’s right breast, he seemed bothered by what he felt. He did not believe the lump was innocent; in fact he was pretty sure it was malignant.
He performed a biopsy on her and the results were sent to South Africa through Nkanza Laboratories in Lusaka.
As someone who had taught English for many years, she knew what the word ‘malignant’ meant but it still did not occur to her that her case was serious.
By the time she received the results, however, the doctor’s fears were confirmed.
The envelope was not sealed when she picked it up from Nkanza Laboratories in Lusaka, so she quickly opened it. Her eyes fell on the words: “It is with deep regret…,” but she could not muster the strength to read the rest.
Cancer had always been foreign to Sister Margaret because no-one close to her had ever suffered from it. Now she was dealing with it.
“I didn’t even know what it entailed. Maybe that for those with cancer, they die,” she says.
She was to have surgery and chemotherapy for a start and absolutely nothing could prepare her for the horror that was to come.
She opted to have her surgery at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) seeing the cancer unit is right next to the hospital.
A mastectomy was done and then the chemotherapy cycles followed.
“That is the world of cancer which is totally unique and I don’t think you could really explain it to anybody unless one has been through it,” Sister Margaret shares.
All she knew was that her hair would fall off and she would feel some nausea and suffer from diarrhoea and perhaps her hands would blacken. That was about it in theory but the reality was different.
She had never experienced anything as agonising as the pain chemotherapy gave her.
Before starting the chemotherapy, she bought a hat which she planned to wear when her hair would begin falling off.
She thought her hair loss would be gradual but by the tenth day from the commencement of the chemotherapy, all her hair had fallen off save for a strand in the front of her scalp.
She stood in front of a mirror with a comb in her hand, in disbelief at the amount of hair that had come off from the roots.
All the other patients at the hospital were losing theirs in bits but hers was coming off in bunches.
She was to have six cycles in total and with each, conquering the mountain only got harder.
She was not able to do anything for a while after each cycle, not even wash her own face and just as she would be starting to recover, she would be due for another cycle.
“For me, with every cycle of chemo, I ended up in UTH being blood- transfused or I would be sick for two weeks and I would just be recovering in order to go for another cycle. It was just a nightmare. During those six cycles I was not myself,” she shares.
At the end of her fifth cycle, with just one left, she had just about given up and told her doctor she could not go through with it. She was too weak.
“The doctor said I would be alright and they would prepare me in such a way that I would be able to go through it,” she says. But she was ready to die.
Sister Margaret talked to her fellow sisters, who never left her bedside during the periods she was recovering from the chemotherapy.
They said they would pray to their foundress, Mary Aikenhead, to make her well. Sister Margaret insisted that God’s will, whether it was for her to stay or go, prevail.
The sisters started a novena, praying for her recovery and pleading with her to hang on.
Somehow, miraculously, she made it through the last cycle.
Ali naine (He is with me), were Bemba words which struck her when she went to chapel after her last cycle. With that, she felt as though life was returning to her body. The battle was uphill and her body was battered but she had faith that she would make it.
With time, she watched little miracles take place on her body. The taste returned to her tongue, the natural colour to her hands and her hair, which she had lost from its roots, grew back.
Apart from the intense strength of the human will, the experience has shown her the lack of information that exists on cancer in Zambia.
“I think we need to do something that will help the people going through the trauma of having cancer. Lack of information is not a help,” she says.
Cancer is not just scary for the sufferer but for the family members, too.
Where was God in all this for Sister Margaret? “I am a nun and I knew God was with me all the time, surrounding me, and giving me the energy and strength although I was feeling strong. At no time did I feel alone. God was there.”
All of her past prayers came to bear during the storm that she never ever saw coming but because of it, her faith is deeper and her life has more meaning than she ever thought possible.