Despite piling number of friends' deaths, cancer survivor Jane Njoki remains upbeat
Losing a friend through death is devastating, and losing 50 in a year can be numbing. But Ms Jane Frances Njoki is taking it in her stride.
A breast cancer survivor and the chair of the Cancer Survivors Association with more than 300 members, Ms Njoki has lost count of the funeral services she has attended this year alone.
“As I am speaking to you, I have just received sad news of a friend’s mother. So, we’re dealing with three cases this week alone,” the journalism lecturer told Lifestyle.
Knowing too well the burden of the third most lethal disease in the country, Jane has taken it upon herself to find support for affected families suffering quietly in areas like Kawangware, Kangemi, Loresho, Kariobangi and Dandora to access medical care and a balanced diet — which is crucial in stopping cancer cells from developing and spreading.
It’s an emotionally engaging route the 55-year-old chose out of the abundance of her thankful heart.
She chose the demanding but fulfilling journey of supporting cancer warriors as a way of thanking God for her healing of an aggressive breast cancer that was detected in April 2014. She is now five years into remission despite having reached stage 3B of a rare type of sarcoma that less than 10 percent of women have.
She had abandoned lecturing and her PhD course halfway at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology to focus on fighting the illness, a journey she has taken with the support of family, friends and fellow cancer warriors who share hope.
And from the close-knit family they have formed like a cob of maize, she sadly watches them depart, one by one. And she hopes that they lived a fulfilling life on earth and prays that they find redemption in the next world.
Jane recalls the initial stages of her journey in 2014 when she visited the oncology wing at the Kenyatta National Hospital where she bonded with affected children there, one of them being a boy called Kevin, who fondly used to call her “mummy”.
It broke her heart to lose him early this year.
“We used to visit in February and September unfailingly, except this year (due to Covid-19 restrictions).
“On his last days, I knew he was going, especially when the hospital euphemistically sends one to recuperate from home. But he didn’t know,” Jane narrated.
“We found a slot for him at a school for the disabled and packed his suitcase. You see, you have to help this person live as normally and positively as possible, even if they were in school for only a year before the disease ate them up. Sadly, he died a month before going to school,” she recalled.
And each time a member dies, she finds herself offering counselling services to the grieving family. She, too, makes use of such services to deal with many losses.
“Death is inevitable. People are dying so much, but the big question is: are they prepared or are they dying empty? Have they done what God intended of them? Have they fulfilled their purpose?” she posed.
In the first three years of her treatment, she feared cancer. She feared death. She had to see a number of professional counsellors, even to accept the fact and go for treatment.
And then she started her interaction with fellow patients and became their beacon of hope. They encourage each other and make the best out of their borrowed time.
But her hardest blow was yet to come in 2016 when her mother, who was her caregiver, succumbed to pancreatic and liver cancer in just 10 days of getting treatment.
“Those days, I was governed by a lot of fear. I used to ask myself, what happens when they die? Am I dying next? Do I continue journeying with their family? And all those fears,” she says.
But she quickly learnt that death stalks everyone, cancer or no cancer. That everyone needs to be practical and prepare for any eventuality, including writing a will, especially with the advent of Covid-19 pandemic.
With a group of friends who are counsellors, she stabilised her emotions once and for all, realising that other group members looked up to such positivity to stay strong.
A friend of hers reminded her that by the year 2052 when Thika Road will be renovated, “most of us will be gone” and it won’t be through just cancer.
Jane recalled a day she attended the funeral of a nun at St Mary’s in Nairobi one morning. And then there was a couple that had cancer and the man had died; so she inevitably had to attend his burial as well at Ridgeways in the afternoon.
“I remember some photographer asking me, ‘Have I not seen you at the other funeral?’”
In response, she said: “This is a journey we have to travel. If you had journeyed with this person when they were alive, there’s no way you’re going to abandon them now.”
A staunch Catholic, Jane always taps on divine power for strength. She observes teachings like the seven works of mercy which include, visiting the sick, prisoners and burying the dead.
The church also intercedes for departed souls every November 2, in what is called “All Souls Day”.
“At Consolata Shrine, which is my parish, we go to Lang’ata Cemetery every year to pray for relatives and friends. Whoever has someone they’d wish to be prayed for writes down their name so that in case they’re still in purgatory, God will pardon their souls and transform them to sainthood,” she said.
Subsidised treatment costs
Sadly, her list of departed souls this year number about 50.
The biggest challenge her network is facing at the moment is the unaffordability of the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF), which denies them the opportunity to benefit from subsidised treatment costs.
“Most patients have had problems paying the NHIF fees since last year,” Ms Njoki reckoned.
“We registered a PayBill, 514423, where members of the public can volunteer to offset bills for any number of patients. Charges per head are normally Sh500 monthly and Sh6,000 yearly,” she said.
Given that her work requires handling psychology, she has considered undertaking professional counselling classes, only that the high fees were not tenable at a time when she has no job or any other source of income.
“All in all, I keep rediscovering my purpose. God healed me and I won’t keep quiet. I can help others live positively and die in dignity,” the journalism teacher says.