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CANCER WARRIOR: My faith kept me alive



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Dennis Milanya enjoyed keeping fit and eating healthily. He never missed an opportunity to take a brisk walk. Like most fitness enthusiasts, he took great satisfaction in making deliberate effort to take care of his well-being.

But life is full of surprises, and some of them are utterly devastating. The 46-year-old father of two shares his experience on battling cancer and finally emerging victorious:

I developed a painless swelling on the left side of my throat around February in 2017 but didn’t make much of it at first.

By November, it had grown significantly and the area started itching. This was accompanied by constant back pain that made me realise that it was time to see the doctor.

The family doctor recommended an MRI scan because she suspected I might have caught tuberculosis.

The results showed that I had some kind of growth and upon inquiring, I sensed an edginess around her. She asked me to get another test, a biopsy.

A few days later, the results were out and they bore grave news; the growth was cancerous. The news hit me hard. It was shockingly unbelievable especially since I had always been deliberate about healthy living.

I was referred to Professor Riyat, an oncologist who would be in a better place to give me more information and suggest treatment options.

During the consultation, Professor Riyat explained that my symptoms presented Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which is a cancer of the lymphatic system.

Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer cells are centralised in one area whereas non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer cells spread out to different parts of the body. Since the symptoms of these two are very much alike, further tests were needed to single out which type of cancer I had before beginning the treatment.

More shocking news awaited me. The results showed that I had stage three Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and that I had had the cancer since 2015.

It was one of my darkest moment in life, I felt confused and anxious in equal measure. It seemed surreal that for the past two years, when I thought I was the peak of being healthy and whole, a disease was slowing building up in my body.

My oncologist had scheduled a symposium in the United Kingdom before I took the test and so we agreed to delay the treatment until he was back. He wanted to be there for me every step of my treatment journey.

As soon as he got back, we started discussing the treatment options. The first option was radiotherapy which would destroy the cancer cells, but also interfere with the good cells. I ruled that option out.

The other one was chemotherapy, which would only target the cancer cells but take a toll on my body. He explained in great detail what each option meant.

I vividly remember asking him how much time I had left. He told me that Hodgkin’s Lymphoma had an 86% to 91% healing rate. This was encouraging to hear, a glimmer of hope amidst a tirade of bad news.

We started the 12-week chemotherapy treatment in December 2017.

The treatment was nowhere near anything I have ever experienced. A session lasted eight hours long leaving me so exhausted and demoralised.

Being an outdoor person, I was not acquainted with long hours of inactivity. The first three sessions were tough. The nausea, muscle cramps and having to move around with a drip made me so irritable and frustrated.

At one point, I told my doctor that I wanted to switch the treatment to radiotherapy, but he calmly explained that it was impossible to do so. There was no turning back and I had to find a way to cope and go through with the treatment.

I have always been a person of faith, but it had never been tested before then. My faith grew and I learnt patience.

During my fourth session, I spotted this young boy—not a day older than six years old—whose hair had fallen out and his finger and toe nails were discoloured from the cancer treatments.

Despite his appearance, they boy had a cheerful disposition about him that changed my whole perspective about the treatment. He seemed to lit up the room instantly and I asked God, ‘If this boy can take the treatment so well, who am I not to?’

I began sharing my experiences with family and friends instead of sulking all the time. The thing about illness is that it can make you very selfish. Sometimes I wanted everyone to drop whatever they were doing and come be with me. It did not concern me that some of them were out there working hard in order to pay my hospital bills.

I thank God for that young boy because he changed my treatment experience for the better.

I took to singing which made me feel so energised that at times people would wonder if I truly had cancer. I still had the burden on my back. The only difference is that I learnt how to walk with it.

I even began a support group of sorts because other cancer patients were reaching out to me.

When I got to the 8th session, I informed my doctor that I was feeling lethargic. He beamed and explained that the lethargy was a sign that the treatment was working.

The adverse effects I was experiencing from the treatment was simply because there was no disease left to fight. The doctor scheduled a PET scan to ascertain the remission and we flew to India to get the scan done.

Before leaving for the India on July 2, 2018, I prayed fervently and even requested friends and family to intercede for me. I had faith that my trip would last for only two weeks, the time needed for consultation and the PET scan.

My wife had insisted on getting a return flight ticket with a one-month window, but I refuted this and asked her to get the one for two weeks. I believed that cancer journey was drawing to an end and I spoke my faith into existence. The scan was booked for the day after we landed.

Two days after the scan, the results were ready. We sat around a table—my wife, the doctor and I.

The doctor scanned the report and thankfully, cut to the chase by delivering the most wonderful news I had heard in a while: There was no disease in my body.

He started saying something about white blood cells but I interjected, ‘You mean there is no cancer?’ to which he answered in the affirmative. I could not believe it!

The doctor said a bunch of other things and thankfully, my wife was there to take note. I was overwhelmed, lost in thoughts of gratitude and awash with relief. All I can remember from that moment is falling on my knees at the hospital’s reception as I prayed and thanked God for the victory.

Cancer has changed my outlook on life and taught me things about myself which I didn’t know. I’ve learnt to be patient and to reach out and share my story with others. I encourage them with my cancer journey which I now call my miracle.

I did not beat cancer. My faith in God did.

Fact Box

Lethargy is a pathological state of sleepiness or deep unresponsiveness and inactivity.

A positron emission tomography, PET scan, is an imaging test that helps reveal how your tissues and organs are functioning. It uses a radioactive drug or tracer to show this activity. This scan can sometimes detect disease before it shows up on other imaging tests. (Source: Mayo Clinic)

The Cancer Warrior story series tells the stories of cancer survivors. To share your cancer story, email [email protected]