Friday Sermon: Breast Cancer: A painful End to a Promising Life

By Babatunde Jose

Cancer, also called malignancy, is an abnormal growth of cells. There are more than 100 types of cancer, including breast cancer, skin cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, and lymphoma. Symptoms vary depending on the type.

When a tumor successfully spreads to other parts of the body and grows, invading and destroying other healthy tissues, it is said to have metastasized and the result is a serious condition that is very difficult to treat.

According to the American Cancer Society, Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the US. The World Health Organisation estimates that, in 2015, about 90.5 million people had cancer. About 14.1 million new cases occur a year (not including skin cancer). It caused about 8.8 million deaths (15.7% of deaths).

The most common types of cancer in males are lung cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer and stomach cancer.  In females, the most common types are breast cancer, colorectal cancer, lung cancer and cervical cancer. If skin cancer other than melanoma were included in total new cancer cases each year, it would account for around 40% of cases. In children, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and brain tumors are most common, except in Africa where non-Hodgkin lymphoma occurs more often. In 2012, about 165,000 children under 15 years of age were diagnosed with cancer. The risk of cancer increases significantly with age, and many cancers occur more commonly in developed countries. Rates are increasing as more people live to an old age and as lifestyle changes occur in the developing world. The financial costs of cancer were estimated at $1.16 trillion USD per year as of 2010. (Wikipedia)

Breast cancer is cancer that develops from breast tissue. Signs of breast cancer may include a lump in the breast, a change in breast shape, dimpling of the skin, and fluid coming from the nipple, a newly inverted nipple, or a red or scaly patch of skin. In those with distant spread of the disease, there may be bone pain, swollen lymph nodes, shortness of breath, or yellow skin.

Breast cancer is more common in the left than in the right breast. The feel of a breast lump depends on its cause, location, and growth. They can vary greatly from painful, hard, and immobile to soft, painless, and easily moveable. According to BreastCancer.org, lumps are most likely to be cancerous if they do not cause pain, are hard, unevenly shaped, and immobile.

That is the cancer that killed my wife twenty years ago. By the time the lump was diagnosed, and mastectomy carried out, chemotherapy and radiotherapy that went on for nearly a year, the stubborn cancer refused to go. It spread like wild fire, ravaging her body; through the lymph nodes, then the spine, lungs and finally the brain. For four agonizing years, we witnessed the painful wastage that cancer could cause. Like a terrorist in the body, it consumed all that was on its way. With time we had to accept the fact that it was terminal and got prepared for the end. But that was the easy part. That end was not only very painful and agonizing, but very depressing. It was like no end you could imagine. I had seen papa Titilayo, my uncle in the final throws of prostate cancer, but this was on the home front.

It was not the doing of witches from her village or her wicked stepmother. It was not as a result of God punishing her for neither her iniquities nor the machinations of her enemies. Cancer does not distinguish between saint and sinner. As they say Allah knows best.

That was not how it was planned it in the beginning. It was not how we envisaged the end would come. Life had been good and we were both thankful to God. God had been merciful and with three adorable children, the future was promising. She had made a career in the civil service after a brief stint in the private sector; not as a ‘charge and bail’ lawyer but as  a counsel in a high profile law firm in Lagos. At the Justice ministry, she had been posted to various departments of government as legal officer until she was posted to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture in Abuja, where she served as legal adviser and director.

It was a very promising career. But, in the early hours of December 25, 1994 what would bring our life crashing reared its ugly head when she drew my attention to a lump in her breast. She was booked to travel to London the following day and on arrival she went straight to the hospital.

A biopsy was done, which later returned a verdict of advanced breast cancer that required mastectomy (cutting away of the offending breast). It was a radical procedure, but we had no fear since we were both witness to my mother’s encounter with the same affliction for which she underwent the same procedure, including a follow-up in a London clinic that pronounced her cured of the cancer in 1981. Then, my mother did not require chemotherapy of radiotherapy. Unfortunately for us, her cancer was of a radical and aggressive type.

Despite the mastectomy and the psychological trauma of going through life with only one breast and its attendant need to be padded when going out, even when receiving visitors in the house, the cancer did not leave matters at that. Despite a year of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the cancer metastasized.

She had to retire from the service on health grounds to take up a job in Lagos where she would be under the care of her family. It would be an agonizing four years for all concerned.

When she sensed that the end was near, she asked that our daughter should come home on holidays from her school in America. At first I was reluctant but she then made a prophetic statement that; ‘life is short’. I got scared and made bookings for her to come home. Our daughter arrived and we now had a full house as the other children were also on holiday; and enough time for her to say farewell, even though unbeknown to them she knew that it would be the last time they would be seeing her.

Towards the end, she insisted that she wanted to travel to London to see her doctor. I was advised by the Professor treating her here, that we should let her go in order to fulfill all righteousness. She travelled to London on that fateful Thursday night and our daughter changed planes in London for her abode in California.  It would be their final farewell. That weekend, she went into coma and died the following Friday August 14, 1998; my brother Adam who flew to London from America to be with her was by her bedside. On receiving the news, I had the agonizing duty of informing the children. She was brought home as cargo on Sunday the 16th and was buried according to Moslem rites at the family grave at Atan on Monday 17th of August.

At the graveside, our Imam asked me, that if God had granted our wish for her to live;’ would I or the family have been able to cope? In all honesty, we would not and no mortal would have been able to bear the agony of seeing a loved one waste away in excruciating pain.

As we mark 20 years of her demise, we thank Almighty Allah for her short life and the life of the children she left behind. Though it has been a living torture, each time we remember her ever smiling face, her beauty, her vivacity, her seeming innocence and her genial nature. We are of good cheer, that God had used her death to spare her the pains and ugly ravage of that cancer which consumed her. May Allah make it easy for all of us.

The takeaway from her death is that we should never be careless with our health. We should listen to our body when it talks to us. There are so many ifs, but in the end death must surely come when it’s time.

O Allah, surely Zainab Onoriode Jose is under Your protection, and in the rope of Your security, so save her from the trial of the grave and from the punishment of the Fire. You fulfil promises and grant rights, so forgive her and have mercy on her. Surely You are Most Forgiving, Most Merciful.

(Ibn Majah, Abu Dawud)

Barka Juma’at and a happy weekend


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