Before breast cancer, I thought I knew pain…

find your happiness even in your darkess pain

It is breast cancer awareness month. What better way to honor a vibrant survivor than to share her story. But first, she’s going to go way back to a different struggle, a time she thought she knew pain. It is the struggle of many young women in our society. Especially in the African community because of our belief systems and cultures.

There is this song by a popular Nigerian artist Flavour titled “Ada Ada”. It is a beautiful typical wedding song that vividly portrays what an ideal wedding party in most parts of the African continent looks like. Massive wedding preparations featuring glitz and fanfare, tables and chairs in array to receive the more or less eight hundred wedding party guest, happy groom with his groom’s men, an excited bride with her “ashuabi” girls in the most recent “ngele” designs. And most especially, a pair of over the moon parents of the bride and groom. However, the highlight of the song is the catchy phrase at the end, where the artist says, “in nine months’ time, we would come visiting, with a boy and girl”.

That catchy phrase wasn’t just meant for beautiful lyrics. It is almost every guest’s expectation. One year in and no baby? Why? What are you waiting for? It seems to be the natural course of events, marry, and start procreating! Imagine the dismay women feel when pregnancy doesn’t happen within the first year? Very few women ever think about trying and failing. Or pay attention to anyone talk about their own struggles until they get to that bridge. With the mounting pressure from Mothers, Mothers-in-law, and the general society at large….

Like clockwork, everyone is expecting a baby bump within nine months of marriage…

Baby Search…

“Fortunately, or unfortunately, I found myself amongst the many women who would not be able to “come visiting with a boy or girl” in 9 months. In fact, make it four years! My struggle to conceive was one of those things that I had never remotely dreamed will happened to me. Neither was being diagnosed with breast cancer. But until things happen to us, we rarely stop to ponder about them.

I started really getting worried after about two years of trying. It was beginning to dawn on me that there seemed to be a problem. I chose not to make a big deal about it but this was becoming hard because I always had to explain my childlessness to curious family members and friends. Now that I look back if people did not repeatedly ask me what I was waiting for or try to give me unsolicited advice about how to easily conceive or the advantages of having my kids early, this stage of trying to conceive may not have affected me as bad as it did. 

I finally conceived in 2014! I was so excited and told a few close friends and family as soon as the stick showed positive. Everyone was ecstatic! At about 9 weeks, however, I started to bleed. It started as spotting. I called my doctor and they told me it could be normal but to watch out for excessive bleeding or pain in my pelvic area. The bleeding stopped for a day or two but started again and this time accompanied by a very sharp pain. We rushed to the hospital and my worst fears were confirmed. We had lost the baby. An ectopic pregnancy. As if that wasn’t heart-shattering enough, my Fallopian tube had ruptured. It was taken out leaving me with only one tube and reducing my chances of conceiving naturally.

This was a very trying period for me and the beginning of my depression. I would cry almost every night. Pray without ceasing and shut down for moments. I did not talk about it. Just kept it all inside. And continued to endure questions from all and sundry about why I did not have children yet. I hated going out for events, yet I went. Everyone expected me to be pregnant at these events.

I remember once I left an event crying because someone had pulled me to the side to explain that she understood I looked good physically and probably wanted to maintain my shape but it was wiser to have my kids now. She told me to put my priorities in order and put having kids at the top. I felt sick to my tummy. I still hate going out to events where there is bound to be a lot of private quiet conversations. Someone will always say something that is none of their business!

However, we began to try again from time to time. I wanted nothing more in this world than my own child. After a couple of hospital visits and consultations to make sure nothing was wrong with either of us or that we could try again, I got pregnant!!! We were very excited but I decided I was not going to tell anyone. So I kept it to myself!

I was pregnant with twins. I will lose both babies, one at a time, fourteen weeks apart. In these moments, I thought nothing could beat the overwhelming sense of pain, depression, and sadness I felt. And I responded the best way I thought I should, I shut down and wallowed in my depression.

I did however talk with a few close friends and began to learn that miscarriages were so much more common in our society than I imagined. Almost everyone I spoke to had had a miscarriage at some time or knew someone who had. But why aren’t we having more conversations around the subject, so women do not feel so alone? If I could see beyond myself then, maybe I would have championed the course and be a ray of sunshine for every woman trying to conceive? Create a community of hope to let them know they are not alone?

I could not see an inch above my circumstances. I was drenched in my pain, little did I know, the worst was yet to come. But before that, feeling very distraught we decided to go the IVF route. After months of consultation, just before we had to go in for our final IVF consultation to start the process, we found out I was pregnant again!!

To every couple trying to conceive, you are not alone…Never lose hope, keep the faith

We were excited but honestly not as much as normal couples would. We did not know if this baby would make it, if my health and Fallopian tube were at risk and if this would push the IVF process further ahead if we lost the baby and had to wait again to start trying. With little hope, I would go for my hospital appointments and be prepared for any news. I went in for 8 weeks appointment and all was good. Then 14, 18, 20 weeks and finally 40 weeks! My miracle baby had made it!!! My rainbow baby! I was going to be a mother! I had a bouncing beautiful girl on 02/02/2017!

Another Nightmare!

Then calamity struck again, my dad passed in February of 2018, two days to my daughter’s first birthday. I still find it hard to write about this.  I am a daddy’s girl and his passing destroyed me, I came undone, I felt so alone. Losing my dad took a toll on me. I was back to depression yet masking it like all was well. And 10 months after that I would be diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.

In December 2018 I found a lump in my breast and after tests, it was confirmed to be Breast Cancer. My union had been rocky for a while now and will only go downhill. You would think that after all the tumultuous years my cup of suffering was finally at its brim, No! It had to run over! 

I called on God. Called on my dad and begged that they help me go through this. There was some assurance, strength, and peace I felt going into the treatment that I knew could only have come from God. I started my treatment in February 2019 and completed the main part (chemo, surgery, and radiation) a year later. Chemotherapy was grueling. It was hard! Days and nights I would beg to die! The pain and the feeling were too much to bear some days. I would cry and struggle but I knew so many people were looking up to me, praying for me, and needed me to be strong so I would try to push through.

I cannot help but think back on all the years of trying to conceive and how miserable I was, just existing! The pressure society puts on women about having children is unimaginable! And I let all that get to me. Going through Chemo, surgery and the countless doctors’ appointments made me realize I could have handled that season of baby search differently. Yes, most women want to have children but it is a battle for some women. However, you cannot stop living! I cannot emphasize this enough.

Chemo was grueling, painful, exhausting… but I tried to smile most days

My cancer diagnosis paved a path to deep soul searching and self-discovery. I found my purpose in my pain, and most especially, it made me give myself permission to truly LIVE. Granted, It felt like a death sentence at first. I hated that I had to suffer this much! Was I a modern-day Job? Wasn’t this too much for me?? I would however look at my daughter. My baby. The miracle that I prayed for, for months! The one I cried for. The one who brought me unimaginable joy and laughter. I had unconditional love for her that I did not know existed. So I knew I had to live for her. I knew I had to fight for her. And fight for my family and friends.  

Shura Miyanwie… I needed to fight for her

It burgs me that over the years I have tried so hard to be strong and not take time to myself and just be alone to recuperate. Living for others, not for me. Caring a lot about external opinions and acting accordingly. I was a people pleaser, always trying to make everyone happy. I did not know how to say no. Even when I wasn’t happy. I would go where I wasn’t comfortable. Spend so much time with people who barely tolerated me.  I was a high-level over-thinker, and lastly, what my therapist couldn’t wait to tell me, I was dealing with serious anxiety and also had social anxiety which I tried a lot to mask. 

Dare To Live With Anjoh: Fighting Against Breast Cancer

Before I was done with my treatment, I had become an advocate and a voice for the fight against breast cancer here in the US and in Cameroon. The nonprofit Dare to Live with Anjoh officially launched on October 5th of 2019. We give back to women who are affected by breast cancer. I had found myself and my purpose. A lot of people have told me my whole life that I am kind, caring and I have an open hand. I knew my purpose will come from something that had to do with me GIVING. Thus, creating the nonprofit and working on meeting our vision is one of those things that gives me so much joy and happiness.

Live through every pain…

I could talk nonstop about our activities and goals. Most nights are sleepless just thinking of the work we have to do and above all fantasizing about our little achievements now and the big ones to come. I realized cultivating activities of kindness and giving keeps me less occupied with my feelings and helps me not to be too self-centered. If only I could see that glass as half full during the baby search years, I could have been a “a lonely-mama-wana-be’s” dear friend.

Thankfully, Dare to live with Anjoh has great aspirations for breast cancer awareness and helping the best way we can. The nonprofit creates awareness on breast cancer, especially among young women (I was diagnosed at 33). We also provide resources to breast cancer patients and survivors and encourage everyone to strive to live life with hope and faith. Trusting in our unique journeys. I realize how privileged I was to have gotten the medical care I got, with top-notch equipment and an amazing team. Something conspicuously lacking back home in Cameroon. I hear stories of young girls diagnosed with stage one breast cancer but in no time it has spread to their lungs. Dare to live with Anjoh dreams of better facilities, diagnostic and treatment options for women.

Breast Cancer awareness events, Yaounde, Bamenda, and Douala Cameroon

Within two years of existence, we have been able to create huge awareness on breast cancer in Cameroon via Awareness Walks, Sensitization, Radio and TV appearances, vlogs, interviews, short films, Awareness events where we offer free screenings and via our social media pages. We have done patient care visits in hospitals and their homes. Donated care packages to patients and sponsored patients’ treatments. We have been able to collaborate with other organizations such as The Welisane Foundation and The Royal Warrior Foundation, hospitals such as Mbingo Baptist Hospital Bamenda, and the General Hospitals in Yaounde and Douala among
others and also with breast cancer survivors to spread awareness on breast cancer, provide free or subsidized screening, provide counseling to patients and donate resources.

Radio Interview with Welisane Nkeng and our teams, CEO of Welisane foundation, CRTV Cameroon

I pray that I continue to inspire somebody out there to try to live through their struggles with hope and faith. Live in their true authentic self and love and forgive themselves first”. 

Breast Cancer Awareness Walk 2020, Douala Cameroon

Akwi Anjoh Tah