Friday, July 1, 2011

Killed by cervical cancer

Written by Nosa Osaigbovo
She died nine months after pain, with teeth as keen as a honed knife, began to chew up her intestines. The pain arrived with the alarming suddenness of a violent knock at the door on a dark, rainy night. There was no notice of the arrival and she did not know that she was about to begin a jarring journey of no return.

She was a young woman and though there had been shadows of sadness, like the feeling of eerie sombreness when the branches of a tree on a windy night cast swaying shadows on a glass window, her life was sunny enough. She lived alone, but she was not unhappy; she was not unloved. And she earned a fairly good living.

She was not built like a nymph, was not an Andromeda of fragile slimness. She had the solidity of a statue, though she could not have been described as a statuesque woman. A million dollars could not have tempted her to take up gymnastics. Yet she did floor exercises when pain assaulted her in her stomach. She rolled on the floor, a flood of pain sweeping through her body. Her stomach was the oven, the source of the fiery pain, and some other parts of her body received the blazing baton in a macabre relay race.

She was taken to a private hospital and spent three months there. She was eventually told fibroids were the cause of her terrible stomach pain. The doctor was not believed and she was taken to a teaching hospital. I visited her on Saturday, December 11, 2010. I had not run into her for a while and called her on the phone. She said she had been ill and had been admitted to a teaching hospital. Her voice was weak, but it did not prepare me for what I saw.

She looked like a battered doll put on a double bed. Her arms had a twig-like thinness and recalled the withered arm in a Thomas Hardy short story. This is a story of the supernatural, but science said cancer was suspected in her case. She said she could not be suffering from cancer and I concurred with her. Compassion sometimes makes one to tell a lie, makes one to seek the deliciousness of make-believe and recoil from rude reality.

Edmund Wilson, the late notable American critic, coined the phrase ‘the shock of recognition’. There is a shock, a shiver of pleasure, when one reads and recognises an uncommonly good piece of writing. But most people are in despairing shock, which becomes denial, when told that they are suffering from a terminal disease. This is a natural psychological defence and does not show a lack of courage.

She was sent home a week or two after my visit and became an outpatient. The pain was gone and her appetite had returned. She believed the worst was over.

Then she collapsed in May, five months after her discharge from the teaching hospital. She phoned to say she was back in the teaching hospital but not in the ward where I had visited her in December. I heard something like physiotherapy and happily told myself that all she needed was a mere massage. She said her ward was a near neighbour of a bank.

There is no bank in the vicinity of the physiotherapy section of the hospital. But a bank is the neighbour of the radiotherapy building. I went into a ward and saw a young man with a grotesquely misshapen face. It was the cancer ward. She was in another wing of the building and was alone in a room. If a nurse had not taken me to her room I might not have recognised her. She was as thin as a receding apparition.

She was told she needed six pints of blood—a healthy person has about nine pints of blood in his system—and three pints had been transfused into her. Six pints of blood cost more than N30,000. She did not have the money, but she did not resign herself to death. In the desert of death she saw the buds of bright, breathing life. She had been ill for nine months and may have seen it as gestation and hoped for a rebirth.

She said she was too young for her ordeal, but remembered a 14-year-old girl who occupied the bed next to hers in December. The girl was back in hospital after three operations. The pain in her stomach had become even more excruciating. The doctors could not determine what was causing the pain. The hospital had become her second home and she was only 14 years old.

My shock at her condition subsided somewhat and I finally took the seat she had been urging me to take. She wore what looked like a man’s singlet, of a pink colour. She scratched her bosom, which illness had flattened, without self-consciousness. She said her family had been taking loving care of her and was grateful to members of her church for their support. One church member, a huge man, carried her on his shoulders in the race to try to save her life after she collapsed.

But she died on May 29, eight days after I visited her. She needed blood but she had begun to bleed. The bleeding could not be stopped and she began the journey into an unending night.

She was probably not told that she suffered from cancer of the cervix and that she could not recover. The cancer had dug in, had sunk its cruel claws into her cells. The diagnosis had come too late and the prognosis was that death would not be long in coming.

I hear that there is an epidemic of cervical cancer in Nigeria. Cervical cancer is a killer and many young Nigerian women are at great risk. Cervical cancer is a disease of creeping insidiousness and many sufferers do not know that they have it. But there is an easy way to detect the disease: a pap smear. Not many women know this and most of them cannot afford it. A pap smear costs about N10,000. There is a cervical cancer vaccine, which is administered to teenage girls, but is it available in Nigeria?

Cervical cancer is a prostrating, painful disease. Everything should be done to ensure that as many women as possible do not experience the hellish suffering of my young acquaintance. A kind soul, it is what she would have wanted.

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