Harriet James @PeopleDailyKE
When Nancy Njeri Githoitho came from the US to visit her family for Christmas a few years ago, she did not anticipate that the visit would transform her life forever and give her a passion for a cause she was not prepared for.
Her mother always complained that her left breast hurt and had a lump. Njeri would often urge her mother to go for a check-up, but she would put it off, saying the pain will go away.
“I asked her to go see her gynaecologist and that she should not take the pain lightly as her sister was breast cancer survivor for 13 years,” she says. It was only after a breast examination six months later that Njeri’s fears were confirmed.
The mammogram revealed her mother had cancer. A second opinion at Kijabe Hospital, where Njeri’s aunt had been operated operated on 13 years earlier, revealed the same results. “I assured her that she’ll be fine and that we should wait for a month as my doctor in the US had agreed to do the surgery for free. However, she refused the invitation, opting to be treated locally,” Njeri recounts.
Nearly 78 persons die from cancer everyday according to The Kenya Cancer Association. Approximately 80 per cent of these deaths are as a result of late diagnosis and inaccessibility to treatment. Armed with new strength, Njeri returned to Kenya and started researching on alternative prosthesis to assist her mother recover.
It was during this search that she came across Knitted Knockers, an organisation that provides free knitted knockers to breast cancer patients, and sought assistance on how to take care of her mother.
She contacted the founder, Barbara Demores, a breast cancer survivor, who was excited to assist women in Africa suffering from breast cancer learn how to make the knitted knockers.
After learning all she could on breast cancer and the knitted knockers, Njeri approached her high school friend Judy, who floated the idea of starting a cancer non-profit organisation to help cancer patients create lemonade out of the bitter experiences of having cancer.
This is how the Limau Cancer Connection began, an organisation initiated to assist breast cancer survivors form meaningful friendships through knitting circles and also to end cancer stigma.
Breast cancer survivors undergo a lot of physical changes, including hair falling off after a mastectomy. Some patients cannot afford a reconstruction after the procedure so the other option is to go flat. She wants breast cancer survivors to feel confident when returning home. “Limau means lemonade in English .We pride ourselves in connecting cancer survivors, one stitch at a time.
We desire to help them create lemonade out of the lemons that cancer throws to them,” Njeri says. They started by training knitters in Umoja who include handicapped persons, women living with HIV/Aids, breast cancer survivors, men, young boys and single women.
In addition, they train breast cancer survivors at Kijabe Hospital as well as orphans from Hidden Talent Centre in Dagoretti to knit the knockers. The group, which they named “ Limau Knitters”, is trained for free and given yarn and double-ended needles to make the knockers. Unfortunately in June last year, her mother passed away.
Despite the grief, Njeri used some of her mother’s experiences to frame certain activities in the organisation. For instance, she trained their breast cancer survivors support group, which meets to chat over a cup of tea and laugh together as they encourage each other. Njeri recounts that her mother lacked morale when seven of her friends died from cancer.
Because of stigma, which later on brought down her self-esteem, her late mother moved to the village and here she had no cancer support group to motivate her. “She loved her knitted knocker and even learnt how to make them to help her stay busy while exercising her weak hands. Two months before she died, she made five knockers, which she gave her friends who were survivors, ” she says.
“I feel like if I had launched it earlier, my mother could have been alive and able to establish new meaningful friendships, through the knitting groups,” she regrets. But running an organisation is no cup of tea.
Finances to run the organisation, buy the recommended 100 per cent cotton yarn as well as paying for transport for these survivors who come from low-income families are amongst the many challenges she faces. Moreover, preventing commercialisation of the product too has been a challenge as she intends it to be free.