I hate cancer; always have. I am not sure it’s possible to hate it more than I already
did, but I am going to say that I hate it more now, than I ever have. I watched cancer
devour and incapacitate my mother’s body, and ultimately stealing her breath in its
Cancer was never a spoken of disease in Botswana, let alone in Africa. Most African
languages don’t have a word for cancer. The Setswana word is ‘kankere’, which
is really a version of the English word. There is very poor data on the scourge of
cancer in Africa; some countries have no data at all on the disease. Some countries
don’t even have oncologists, and yet there is an estimated 1 million new cases every
year in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.
That number is expected to double by 2020. And by 2030, it is believed that 70% of the world’s cancer burden will be in the developing world. How can we fight a disease for which we don’t even have any name? Or diseases so ugly, many don’t have the will to engage in the battle?
My mother had no fight in her. Her spirit seemed to sag limply as I told her the gravely morbid news. The doctors wouldn’t tell her what was wrong. No one wanted to address the diagnosis; and no one knew how to treat it either.
The resources were just not available even if we had known how to treat her. I sat on the edge of her bed and told her how the doctor said that he suspected abdominal TB, and that was treatable. (She wasn’t fooled, and neither was I). His second most likely diagnosis
was ovarian cancer, which was already widespread. She sat silently as I relayed the news, and seemed to stare into an eternity she was preparing to enter. An ugly feeling swarmed my insides. I had never thought I would tell my own mother of her impending death. I held her hand, stroked her face, told her I loved her and that we would do anything we could. We would plan to take her to another hospital and get her treatment. But she just got more ill, and became too unwell for the poison that is anti-cancer treatment.
I am not sure which is worse: telling my mother the diagnosis and prognosis, or telling my family. The questions were many, the moments tense, the air thick with expected grief. There were many prayers that were cried and whispered; many answerless questions that were asked. I heard myself talking matter-of-factly while on the inside my heart was being shredded by what I knew would be coming in all likeliness. As the days went by, my measure of faith bargained with God and begged for healing, while the doctor in me struggled to deal with the undeniable.
I had never experienced cancer in this proximity, let alone in Africa. Many things tugged at my soul as an ICU doctor watching her mother contend with cancer in those two hospitals in Botswana. What I take for granted in practice in New York City doesn’t even exist in Botswana. What I consider basic necessities were considered great luxuries. Each discussion I had with medical personnel often left me sad and disheartened. Those discussions enlightened me to the great need for medical improvement and future developments, a call to action I do not take lightly.
My mother died on a spring evening in Botswana a year ago now. I was by her side. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to tell her how much I loved her one more time and the chance to say good bye. There is no woman I have met who has impacted my life quite like her. She loved with an intricate and sure ease. She treated each person in her life with reverent dignity, no matter their societal standard. She gave with unparalleled generosity and selflessness. She was clothed with compassion, and her kindness preceded her. I will love her always, and hope to live in her legacy.
Unami Mulale was born and raised in Botswana, and now practices Pediatric Critical Care Specialist in Brooklyn, New York. She is passionate about doing justice and championing children. She hopes to one day return to Botswana and run a Children’s Hospital and ICU. She enjoys art, reading, writing and traveling in her spare time.