Former Miss Malawi Blandina Khondowe (nee Mlenga) is now a family woman. She talks about her experiences and being diagnosed with breast cancer at 32. She takes Paida Mpaso through her paradoxical journey.
How was your tenure as Miss Malawi?
Miss Malawi opened a lot of opportunities for me. In my days, one became a tourism ambassador after winning. This involved a lot of local and foreign travel promoting Malawi as a lucrative tourism destination. I became popular and I still get people referring to me as Miss Malawi 12 years later.
What did you do after the crown?
I met so many successful people as beauty queen and that made me want to become successful too. I, therefore, left Malawi for the United Kingdom in 2003 and returned in 2007 with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in business administration.
Tell me about your cancer diagnosis.
The news was shocking. I never imagined that I would be diagnosed with breast cancer at 32. I had a breast cyst aspirated over five years ago on the left side. That was dealt with. When I got pregnant in 201I, I felt a lump on my right breast at five months. I saw two doctors who told me that because of my history with cysts, it had to be a recurrence of another as cysts are common in pregnancies. They advised for treatment to be taken after delivery and months of breastfeeding. God blessed me with a gorgeous baby boy in August 2012 and I breast fed normally.
I felt persistent pain in my breast at some point and again called one of the doctors who told me it was normal and just advised me to take pain killers. I got worried when I felt one of my lymph nodes in the armpit. Eighteen months after the discovery of the lump, I was told I had breast cancer. That was on October 7 2013, five days before my 33rd birthday!
How did you react?
I read so much about it prior to the confirmation so I gained strength and courage to battle it. I knew too much about God to falter. I knew God as a healer and being surrounded with close friends that are born again Christians made me confident. There were times when I cried as it hit me that I was to go through a long painful road. Looking back, it has not been as bad as I thought. The Lord has truly been gracious and merciful to me. He saw me through it all and I will live to declare the works of the Lord.
Take me through stages of your treatment.
After the biopsy, I had surgery to remove the tumour and axillary lymph nodes. Following surgery, a pathologist—an expert in examining cells under a microscope—notified my medical oncologist. A pathologist’s role is critical in the treatment of breast cancer as his report gives helpful information about how to select treatments for the breast cancer and tell what kind of cancer it is. Next, I saw a medical oncologist who took me through suitable subsequent treatment plans such as chemotherapy and hormonal therapies. For breast cancer generally, one requires six cycles of chemotherapy, once in 21 days and is administered intravenously.
I had my first chemotherapy after my surgical wounds healed and my first experience was brutal. The feeling of sickness cannot be matched with anything I have experienced before in my life. It was agonising, painful and atrocious. I had no appetite as the nausea was intense. I had persistent headaches. I was down for a good week.
I was advised to undergo radiotherapy after the first chemotherapy as it was not ideal for me to remain in India to complete chemotherapy as it is a lengthy treatment. I began radiotherapy as soon as my body recuperated from the initial chemotherapy and that took two weeks.
Radiation is given with a large machine that is used to treat a specific, well defined area of the body. It is more like going for an X-ray of some sort. Just like chemotherapy, radiation damages both cancer cells and normal cells. However, normal cells have a greater ability to repair themselves following radiation exposure. It is a painless procedure. All I had to do was lie down and assume a steady position for about 30 minutes while technicians toiled. It took five weeks to complete radiotherapy.
A fortnight later, I continued with my second cycle of chemotherapy which was absolutely terrible, but I was excited at the end of it because it meant that I was heading home to be with my family and friends. I left India 10 days after having the second chemotherapy and continued treatment here with the drugs I brought from India.
I have just completed my final round of chemotherapy which is quite a relief. I will return to India for an evaluation on the effectiveness of the chemotherapy. The next treatment I will be on is called hormonal therapy and will last five years where I have to take a pill called tamoxifen on a daily basis.
How did you cope?
My family and friends were by my side the whole time. I had and still have friends. They were always there listening to me crying, laughing and praying with me. I cherish my friends more than ever and in the process I have learnt to be a good friend too.
Any reactions after treatment?
I lost all my hair, my hands have undergone some skin discoloration and some of my nails have darkened, though not severely. I lost some weight but not apparently. I have completed my cycles, my hair will grow back and the skin discoloration will clear too.
What do you do now?
I am a civil servant and work as a senior tourism officer in the Ministry of Tourism. I grew up in Blantyre and moved to Lilongwe in 2008 to work for government. I am the third born in a family of four children.
What now after this?
I will definitely write a book about my experiences and also start health activis. There is a lot of work to be done here in Malawi with regard to understanding and educating women on the disease. People think cancer equals death but this can be prevented. It is important to know that cancers detected early are curable.
Malawi is a sad state with regard to breast cancer treatment and other cancers too. Aside from the lack of radiation therapy, there are no mammograms in any of our public hospitals.
A woman in the village has no way of accessing this as it is only available in private hospitals at a ridiculous cost and because of all this madness, Malawi is losing a lot of women to this disease. What is painful is that these deaths would be avoided.
When it comes to prescribing drugs to breast cancer patients in Malawi, doctors use the trial and error approach. I say this with utmost respect to the medical competence in Malawi as they try to offer the best available treatment with minimal resources allocated to them, however, this is not good enough.
What is your advice to those with breast cancer?
I say put your utmost trust in God. He is the one that turns around situations as there is nothing impossible with God. It is also very important to remain positive as key to overcoming obstacles even as big as cancer. Focus should be on the fight and not the fright! My husband always says this to me: “A positive attitude gives you power over your circumstances instead of your circumstances having power over you”.