Brazzaville — Having survived a double cancer ordeal, Christelle, a mother of five, is now tapping into her experience to raise awareness and kindle hope among cancer patients, making early detection the thrust of her message to women in communities around the Republic of Congo’s capital Brazzaville. She narrates how she overcame the disease and how her outreach is helping others.
When I was young, I never imagined that I would get so sick, especially with a serious illness [like cancer]. The thought stuck with me until adulthood. I could see people getting sick, but for me it was always a bit far-removed. So, when my mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer during a routine check-up, the news hit me like a bomb. That was in 2004. We had never heard of the disease.
A succession of ordeals
Three years later, I felt a lump in my breast and went for a check-up to be certain. After the screening I had to undergo a procedure to remove the lump. It turned out that I had breast cancer. I was terrified because since my mother’s illness, certain things that we heard [were gloomy] such as “when you have cancer it’s time to prepare for your death, the disease will eventually kill you”. It was so depressing, and I was hopeless. I cried all the time.
Then in 2009, precancerous cervical lesions were detected. This was yet another extremely difficult experience. Seeing my body change and having to take drastic, life-altering decisions were devastating. But having young children, I quickly made up my mind, telling myself: “If I die, they will live without me. Think about their future and fight.”
My mother finally lost her battle with cancer in 2011. When she died, I felt the need to talk to others about cancer. My mother was diagnosed at a very advanced stage of the disease. I wanted others to have a different experience.
Early detection is the message
With other cancer survivors we formed an association called Solidarity against Cancer and Health Promotion. We are 20 active members, and we meet every month. We focus on raising awareness, persuading other women to get tested in time. With cancer, the earlier the screening the higher the chances of a successful treatment.
We have been taken aback by the number of women with breast and cervical cancer who are screened late. It’s a very worrying trend that is mainly due to lack of awareness and people resorting to unqualified practitioners who tell them that concoctions can save them while all they [concoctions] do is give cancer time to spread. They end up going to hospital late when there is little chance of survival. We always remind people to go early and avoid charlatans.
We also emphasize prevention. For example, we go to schools to speak to young girls because as the saying goes prevention is better than cure.
Uniting for others
With all the difficulties I have experienced, I realized that the best thing I could do was to support other women because I know how much they suffer.
For me my family’s support was paramount. My husband has always been by my side. He encouraged me to continue with the treatment and supported me financially and morally. But this is not the same for everyone.
To handle the outcome of diagnosis, the greatest need for women is support, without which it’s as though the whole world is crumbling under your feet. We provide emotional support to patients and encourage them to be strong. Through our own experiences, we try to boost their morale by sharing our experiences. The support of loved-ones is crucial. The whole process is so stressful that without strong support you can’t get through it.
Hope at the end of the tunnel
The association work takes up all my time now. The needs are huge, but we have limited means. We make do as best as we can. We advocate treatment services, especially a radiotherapy machine in the country because it is unaffordable if we have to go abroad for treatment.
I have supported several women. Fifteen of them have left me with lasting memories. Seeing their condition improve is one of my greatest satisfaction. To see someone who was demoralized and feeling hopeless reviving makes me know that I have made a difference. It is priceless.