At the beginning of the year I was having a conversation with a colleague about family and how mine take a keen interest in my day-to-day work supporting me in the best way they can by either babysitting or providing meals and so on to compensate for my busy work schedule. To top it all up my parents-in-law also from day 1 have adopted me as their daughter and are my loudest cheerleaders sitting in the front row at my every game. My colleague then commented to say ‘no wonder you are like that’ intimating I had expectations to fulfil. One can only add to this theory of personal pressure and grand expectation when you find out my mother died from a curable cancer at the young age of 53 years in excruciating pain in a tertiary hospital. She had money to buy the anti cancer drugs she needed but for some reason or the other there were delays in bringing the drugs into the country. I always feel like screaming “its not fair!!” In our case, which is not isolated, it was not about the fancy machines or health system in particular but a broader problem. So again one can assume that my personal vendetta and aggression against cancer and poor palliation of cancer symptoms stems from my experiences with this monster.
However, there are corrections to that assumption that can be made. The energy and relentlessness is not as a result of a malignant pressure to impress my folks but more of a product of principles of 35 years of upbringing. We were taught always to leave a place better than you found it – everything falls into place with this principle. You walk into my mother’s kitchen by the time you leave at the end of the evening it needed to be cleaner than you found it. My mother’s kitchen didn’t have the latest bells and whistles, it may even had a brick or two to support a broken cupboard door but the point is it was clean, well maintained and well used to cook tasty nourishing meals that has produced one of Zambia’s youngest Judge and the country’s first Interstitial Brachytherapist! The principle of that charity, which began in our home taught me to take good care of whatever resources I have in my hands to produce the best. Whenever I left home for boarding school or university my father and uncles would say keep your neck well as getting the pearls to adorn them is not the hardest part.
My own mother’s experience with cancer does influence my empathy towards my patients and their families, as I know what a cancer diagnosis and lengthily treatment does to a family. I also know that it doesn’t matter the age, losing a parent is like losing a part of yourself. Countless times I have something to say only to my mother but she is not there to hear me. However, it is not the reason I chose the cancer field. I fell in love with oncology from the minute I met it in medical school because it made sense to me. What you see today is an effort to achieve the principle of leaving something better than I found it. This does not negate the efforts of those before us or around us. We just want to keep building together. When I had my first conversation with my mother the time she was diagnosed with cancer, she quickly told me the testing so far had shown it was not hereditary so my siblings and I are safe. Mother – always thinking of others before herself but no one can ever be safe from cancer. I saw her live with cancer until it took her away from us and we learnt so much in that time. My mother’s lesson is up there with knowledge I apply when I take care of my patients.
If we are to beat this cancer beast in Zambia, we need to hold hands as individuals and apply our ethics. Lets create a Zambia that doesn’t fear cancer. The Union for International Cancer Control theme for the next 3 years is out and it is ‘I am. I will’. This theme is supposed to provoke you to define your position and role in this battle against cancer. It does not need to be an elaborate action or activity but you need to do something. If you notice I use both the words position and role. Mark your position. Are you a teacher? Mother? Husband? Cousin? Cleaner? Pastor? Tell us who you are. Once you know who you are take a minute to look around and introspect how cancer has affected your life and the people you interact with on a daily basis. The next is to define your role. The ‘I will’ part. What will you do in your position to ensure we kick cancer out? You are allowed to sit in that hot seat for as long as it takes, but as you look around establish that role. If you are a teacher, has one of your students missed school or doing poorly because of cancer in their family? How can you help such a child or those that surround him or her? Indirect actions can be just as impactful as direct ones.
Another strategy to help you contribute is to consciously define how much time you have to spend on cancer. A second? Then tweet, facebook, instagram to raise awareness message or donate a penny. You got a minute? Then wear the awareness on a T-shirt or edge it into a conversation with family and friends. Be a supportive voice. How about if you have 5 minutes? Then take time and read on cancer from credible sources to better empower you. If you have more time than 5 minutes use it to volunteer. Are you aware that cancer information doesn’t exist in a significant number of local languages? Take time to figure out how to explain the knowledge you have gained in a language that is comfortable to someone who may not understand English so well.
So as you take on ‘I am. I will’ remember we have a decent number of advocacy groups on the ground. Feel and shop around to see which one you can fit into to and better serve the purpose you have found for yourself.
As the year is cruising to an end I leave you with my 2019 – 2021 UICC mantra: I AM a cancer doctor I WILL kick cancer out of Zambia WITH YOU.