Millicent Kagonga, 29, goes about her chores in the small but tidy one-roomed house she shares with her two children and her sister in Nairobi’s Kariobangi estate.
On the lone table are three bottles of a concoction she prepared early in the morning ready to take to one of the cancer patients she takes care of. She says, though not medically tested, the mixture seems to make her patients feel better.
Her first trip will be to Wilson (not his real name), a 60-year-old man who has penile cancer, and whom she has been taking care of for the past three months. He lives alone in a small iron sheet room a few metres from her house.
“His family lives in Siaya County. With his condition and living alone, he is unable to do anything for himself,” says Millicent.
She cleans his wounds, cooks for him and ensures he has eaten before he takes his medication. Sometimes she takes him to hospital.
After being diagnosed with cancer, Wilson was supposed to go through some tests before being admitted to hospital, but he has no money to go through these procedures, leave alone get admitted to a medical facility.
She takes nearly an hour at his house making him comfortable, before moving on to the next patient, a 49-year-old woman who has been suffering from breast cancer for five years.
Her case is a little better since she lives with her husband, thus this visit will just be to review her condition.
These are just two of the 42 cancer patients she has been taking care of in Kariobangi, Korogocho, Dandora and other estates within Nairobi’s Eastlands area.
This has been the lifestyle of this 29-year-old single parent of two; volunteering to take care of cancer patients within the slums, regardless of the type of cancer they suffer from, age and gender.
Though most of the time she is forced to come face-to-face with graphic scenes mostly associated with cancer patients, she says this is not the worst part of it.
“The most traumatising moment is having to deal with the death of a member,” she adds.
She gives an example of one of their members who passed on a few weeks ago after a long battle with breast cancer.
“She wasn’t buried for a long time since the family had to wait for her daughter to finish her KCSE exams. She was a widow and thus the breadwinner for her family. We now have to ensure her children lead as normal a life as possible,” she explains.
Being a cancer survivor herself, the passion for taking care of people suffering from the condition comes from what she went through. Millicent is a cervical cancer survivor. She discovered she had cervical cancer at the age of 20.
It was a difficult and traumatising journey. “I used to bleed a lot and I was always sitting on a bucket. My illness marked the end of my marriage, basically because of the bad odour and discharge.”
People said she had been cursed. With no source of income, her illness reduced her to a beggar living on handouts.
But she was lucky because a Good Samaritan helped her get the much-needed funds for treatment.
Treatment involved three chemotherapy sessions, 25 sessions of radiotherapy and three brachytherapy sessions. Her last check-up showed she had no cancer cells.
But the treatment did not come without a lesson. “I asked myself how I would have managed were it not for this woman. Therefore, I felt it was my responsibility to give back,” she says.
“In addition, while seeking treatment at Kenyatta National Hospital, I received a lot of love and encouragement from my fellow patients, thus it would have been only fair for me to support other patients.”
She adds that the stigma she encountered also drove her to come out and offer help to other patients.
In order to keep track of people who need help, she founded Symbol of Hope, an organisation that assists cancer patients and survivors.
“Apart from taking care of each other, we make products like beads, mats and soap, which after selling, we get some money to support each other,” she says.
They have also been crocheting artificial woollen breasts for women who have lost these body parts due to breast cancer.
Currently, the group has 40 members and their work involves campaigns to fight against the disease, particularly ending stigmatisation.
They have also been preparing meals for the sick. “Cancer is a very debilitating disease and many patients have open wounds that stink. Not many people, even family, would want to eat with them at the same table; that’s why we cook and eat together. This gives them a sense of belonging and somehow reduces the stigma.”