I have never known life other than what I live. It hasn’t been the perfect life either. I have experienced the loss of people I love dearly, I have seen loved ones suffer in sickness, I have been abandoned by those whom I had completely trusted, I have had to struggle to make ends meet and I thought I had experienced life.
Actually I hadn’t.
Whenever you hear what someone else has gone through in their life you actually realize that your problems are nothing. You have never seen problems.
When for the first time I decided to volunteer my image consulting services to patients who needed them I wasn’t ready for what I would face.
I stumbled on a Cancer Support Center when doing my research online. I sent an application requesting to meet the patients and help them feel good about themselves.
When I walked into the Centre I was greeted by the sight of about 30 women gathered together in small groups. Some seemed like they were catching up while others were fiddling with their mobile gadgets. I heaved as I thought to myself; well they don’t look so bad after all. Easy peasy. Just tell them to be positive, dwell on happy thoughts, dress right and they would feel right.
As each woman stood up to introduce themselves and give a brief history of their condition, I realized how behind each smile was hidden pain and anxiety.
While I was reading up on the socio-physical effects of cancer before my presentation, I had learnt a lot. I knew chemotherapy treatment led to hair loss in some cases and I always thought wigs/hats/scarves would sort that out. I never thought that this hair loss included the eyebrows and how this greatly impacts one’s appearance. Some of these women had to learn how to draw their eyebrows on. As I scanned through the crowd I noticed some had unmatched eyebrows, ridiculously long eyebrows, no eyebrows drawn at all, or ridiculously thick eyebrows but I dared not laugh. There was nothing funny about it.
Who cares about eyebrows when your life is hanging by a thread, when you have no idea how to raise funds for the next chemotherapy treatment, when you are worried about your children or spouse-how will they cope when you are gone- When you know you need to eat healthy to build your immunity and all this nutritious food costs money which you don’t have? What are eyebrows in comparison? I tried hard to swallow the lump in my throat.
Using a head covering to conceal hair loss on the head works for some, many of these ladies wore whatever they could get their hands on as a head covering. From caps to heavy woolen shawls to ill-fitting wigs to old lessos tied anyhow on their heads. One needs to have time, patience, sense of style and money to pull off head coverings. Time- to shop around for nice hats/scarves/wigs which will be comfortable on the skin. Patience- to try on different hats/scarves/wigs to see what suits your facial structure. Sense of style-so you don’t end up looking like your great grandmother. Money- to buy good quality that will last. But when you are fighting to survive…………do you think about sense of style?
Mrs. Mathura’s introduction brought me back to my senses. She seemed like the oldest in the group. Having survived cancer twice in her life while her husband survived cancer once, she encouraged the new ones in the group telling them to be positive and live life; To never fear cancer recurring. Deal with it when it comes.
I wanted to stand up and applaud but I was glued to my seat. The only battle Mrs. Mathura fights each day is oedema (swelling of tissue) in her right hand. She pulled up her sleeve to reveal a hand one and a half times bigger than her normal hand. This was as a result of mastectomy (breast removal) of her right breast. So the oedema fluctuates meaning she has to adjust her custom made sleeve size every now and then. Her fundi, stitches her long sleeved blouses with one sleeve bigger than the other to accommodate the swelling hand.
This was too much for me. Maybe it was a bad idea for me to be here. These women go through so much why would they waste their precious time, emotions and energies on me?
Can you try and conceptualize mastectomy? Let me help.
When one or both of your breasts are surgically removed, your chest area is already disfigured. One needs to wear prosthetic breast (s) to appear normal. This costs money. If it’s too much of a hassle, or too expensive or you have better things to spend your money on like nutrition, then who cares about walking around flat chested or with an un-proportional chest? I could tell that many in the crowd had stuffed pieces of clothing in one side of their bra to act as a breast. Some were overdressed in heavy sweaters but I could still see through it. There was nothing funny about this either.
Breasts are a woman’s femininity. Even if one has an understanding husband I hated to think of how mastectomy affected their sexual lives.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that cancer survivors don’t have money, time, sense of style etc. Those with a good support structure around them try to work around it. The problem is cancer treatment in Kenya is very expensive and cancer in itself does not spare those of little means. Many of them have to travel from the remote parts of Kenya to Nairobi for treatment. So when you mention shaped eyebrows, stylish head gears and prosthetic breasts it’s Greek to them since they have other important things to worry about.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to hug each of them and plant a kiss on their cheeks and tell them that they are beautiful and that I love them. I was here to advocate for having the right image but I wanted to tell them that it’s okay to lose your sense of style or fashion when you’re fighting for a better course.
Before I could privately ask my host whether we could do this some other time, I was called up next and my slides on image and fashion were up on the white sheet against the wall. I glanced around once more at these beautiful, heroic women and started my presentation. The words were coming out of my mouth since I had memorized the presentation but my mind wasn’t there and my heart ached.
To all the women I have seen walking in the streets of Nairobi with funny looking eyebrows, funny head coverings and with no sense of style: I always stared wondering who let you leave your house like that.
I am truly sorry. Now I know some of you could be going through heavy things in life.