Mrs. Margaret Okello, aged 56, recalls 2007 as not only the most challenging year but also a turning point of her life. After going through unknown health conditions, she was finally diagnosed with breast cancer at Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI), Mulago hospital. The announcement of the test result came with a feeling of coldness that suddenly ran through her body. The mother of four boys and one girl was filled with fear and anguish. She went into a state of momentary confusion as she could not balance the thoughts of danger that ran through her mind, the imagination of what was next in her life, and most importantly what would be the fate of her children.
“After some minutes, I held myself together. I asked what my options were. For I always have the belief that there are always certain options even in the worst situation.”
Margret recalls, adding that,
“I learned that both of my breasts were affected and that I had to undergo a bilateral mammography surgery.”
This meant she had to undergo a lumpectomy, a surgical process in which the part containing the cancer is removed. She was perhaps more scared of the procedures than the revelation of having the disease. To her, the evenings of her life was approaching too fast than she could comprehend or come to terms with. Life was at a balance.
However, through professional counseling and good care she received from the doctors, she picked the courage and belief that she still had a chance to live. “This courage was further firmed by the support and encouragement I received from my relatives and friends.” She said. Margret added that, “At this stage is when I recognized the significant role that the family and friends can play in a patient’s recovery process.”
Indeed, through all the perils, she finally recovered after one year and broke the myth that cancer cannot be treated as is believed in her village and many places. During her worst moments, Margret implored God to support her to recover so she can live to tell her story which she believed would support those diagnosed with cancer. “Heal me and I will serve you!” she repeatedly implored God. Margret wanted to devote her ‘second life’ to serve the people of God, the life giver. Consequently, after recovery, she made consultations with her doctors and shared with them her dream. It was uncommon then for patients to volunteer like she wished to. Her desires were granted. And in 2008 she abandoned her teaching profession to become a volunteer counselor at UCI. It is now nine years since Margret made a turn in her life and she has never looked back.
Margret explains that over the years, cancer survivors at UCI have formed a formidable team of more than two dedicated volunteer members. This, she says has beefed up the efforts. Furthermore, the cheerful woman adds that their team commitment increased when the doctors at UCI started giving them regular training on cancer. “We are being provided with the facts about cancer to ease our campaign.” She said. Margret also said UCI further provides them with other skills like that of public speaking as well as communal campaigns skills. Asked whether she had the basics of counseling, she said:
“I have a certificate in counseling, thanks to UCI which arranged for us specialized counseling training,” she said. Margret also said that her teaching profession is an added advantage in her engagement in community outreach programs. “And of course, there is no better counselor than a survivor of the disease.” Margaret notes.
She further acknowledges that God gives her the strength to carry on and that patients who think they are under extreme danger always lean on God. “Although we conduct professional counseling, and have the advantage of being a survivor with real life experience, that is not enough. The faith in a patient grows better when he/she is reminded that there is a healing God,” said Margret.
Margaret says that one of the challenges she has faced as a counselor is gender related. “Clients often don’t approach counselors of the opposite sex for help,” she observed. The issue of ethics is another challenge to Margret and her team. “Observance of confidentiality of the patient is a challenge. Some patients take long to authorize the counselor to disclose their condition to their relatives yet they require to be taken care of,” Margret sadly observed. Under such a situation, Margret says constant engagement is done and patience is exercised. “You may never know what they are going through unless you were also a patient at a certain time in a similar situation,” Margret softly added after a short moment of recollection. “I fully understand what they are going through and I have fully dedicated every day of my life to share with them in their pain. Most times they don’t want to acknowledge, let alone talk about their condition. The fear and vulnerability in them makes their hearts heavy with grief. This is when they need someone to support them most. And, UCI is always there for them!” Margret reassured.
She hinted that some of her patients suffer from social psychological effects especially because the family does not give support to the patient. She sometimes has to talk to the family member too. Margret further said, “Neglect of the patients by their families has resulted into depression, stress, grief, anger, and emotional breakdowns. These usually result in refusal of patients to take medication which might further weaken their health. It calls for longer sessions to handle and extended period of recovery. I talk to them to provide some peace of mind during these hard times.” The counselor called on all people to care for the sick because tomorrow it may be their turn.
As part of the challenges she has observed, Margret said that the most challenging patients to handle are those who have been newly diagnosed or refuted treatment or are using local herbs.
Roles and Achievements
According to Margret, counseling is the most rewarding opportunity in her life. She feels at peace with God and the community for what she is doing. She believes she is an achiever because through her engagements, she has witnessed many cancer patients accept to undergo treatment and become determined to fight their ailment. Besides, many spouses, relatives, and friends who at the start had negative perceptions have most often accepted to care for the patients.
She adds that UCI plays a key role the society by helping people understand the needs, concerns and interests of cancer victims, through support and research. They have also focused on using a victim centered approach to conduct cancer awareness, boost hope and belief as well as provide individual knowledge for dealing or coping with the disease. This she says supports her in her tasks.
“More people are now undergoing treatment and screening. This is a huge achievement for us as a team.” She observed.
Further, she says that she has also empowered young girls, women and other citizens both in rural and urban areas, all thanks to the opportunity granted by UCI team. Counseling at UCI, she says, has given her better opportunities like sharing and exchanging ideas, skills and experiences. That aside, the American Cancer Society has also helped the institute establish a convenient office for counseling services. Other activities that have been financed by the body are field campaigns and paying staff facilitation.
Mrs. Margret Okello concluded that what delights her most is when the population embraces the interventions to prevent cancer, show responsibility for their lives by voluntarily screening for cancer regularly, when they ensure early treatment of cancer, and finally when everyone takes care of the victims of cancer.