- relives her breast cancer battle
- says Lesotho must invest more in prevention than curing diseases
DEFEATED and certain that her husband would end up transporting her body back to Lesotho in a coffin, medical practitioner and former Health minister Pinki Manamolela is a living testimony that cancer knows no educational background, race, gender or wealth.
Dr Manamolela broke her silence for the first time since her 2007 battle with the deadly disease in a recent exclusive interview with the Lesotho Times.
Nothing can adequately prepare anyone for the news that they have cancer, Dr Manamolela says.
Despite her medical expertise, Dr Manamolela had a lingering glimmer of hope that she was wrong about the lump in her right breast when she first discovered it while sitting in a consultation room at her Lisemelo Poly Clinic, in Mohale’s Hoek.
Opened 24 years ago, Lisemelo Poly Clinic was named after Dr Manamolela’s first born Lisemelo. Dr Manamolela and her husband Dr Charles Mohale Makhube are blessed by two children – a girl and a boy.
Terrified and to some extent in denial, Dr Manamolela kept the news to herself until she was brave enough to confide in her supportive husband.
“I kept it (lump discovery) to myself for some time but I later disclosed the news to my husband,” Dr Manamolela said.
“I remember leaving the country for South Africa with my husband to see a doctor. I had already booked myself for a mammogram because of my own suspicions,” Dr Manamolela said evoking the same emotions she had in 2007.
She added: “When we got there, my doctor suspected that I had cancer and immediately advised me to do a biopsy. A few days later they called me to go and get the results which came out positive, confirming my suspicion that I had breast cancer. That was the most devastating news ever; it shattered me”.
While ordinary citizens would think that medical doctors like Dr Manamolela would not be terrified after receiving such news, the 60-year-old is proof that doctors are human after all.
Dr Manamolela was to go under the knife for a partial mastectomy (removal of one breast) immediately after the confirmation that she had breast cancer. After the procedure, she remembers how difficult the journey back home with her husband was.
“We were both awkwardly quiet on our way back from Bloemfontein and only talked when it was necessary,” Dr Manamolela remembers.
The journey was even made worse by the fact that the results came on her husband’s birthday.
“You can imagine giving him such news on his birthday. I was so devastated. I thought I would die and saw my life coming to an end.”
However, that was not the end of the story. She still had to break the news to close relatives and sibling and that ate her up.
“The night before breaking the news to my siblings and close relatives was the longest night of my life. I couldn’t sleep. I cried the whole night and felt as if that was the end.
“I really do not know how to describe the feeling of knowing that you have cancer. You are in pain and you feel helpless. At some point I felt as if someone close to me had died and I could not stop weeping.
“But the support that I got from my friends and family was amazing. They would always check on me throughout the whole episode.”
After the partial mastectomy, she went through chemotherapy– the administering of a drug that kills cancer cells.
At that time when the cancer was diagnosed, the disease had advanced to stage two and doctors encouraged her to immediately go through the surgical procedure and chemotherapy since the cancer had affected her lymph nodes.
Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped organs that produce and store blood cells and help fight diseases and infections. Lymph nodes are scattered throughout the body, including the neck, armpits, abdomen and groin. Some cancers are said to cause swelling of the lymph nodes. Cancer may start in the lymph nodes, or more commonly, it may spread there to somewhere else in the body.
“Chemotherapy was long and it traumatised me. It was the longest and toughest months of my life,” the soft-spoken All Basotho Convention (ABC) Stalwart said.
The chemotherapy left her weak and she remembers one painful incident that left her wondering if she would complete the treatment.
The incident happened when she had taken their children to school in South Africa with her husband and decided to spend the night in a hotel before returning to Lesotho the following day.
While at the hotel, she decided to take a shower, hoping that she would feel refreshed afterwards. But that was not to be as she felt so weak to an extent that she failed to finish her shower and resigned to the thought that she would die that night.
“I felt like my husband was going to take me back home in a coffin. I felt like I was going to die that night. I have never felt so weak in my life. I thought I was dying. However, I survived.
“My doctors recommended radiation but because of the trauma I had gone through, I literally refused. I told the doctors that I would not go through that and that I would rather die if I had to. This was because of the pain that I endured through chemotherapy.
“Just after my operation, I had seen the effects of radiation on my chest and knowing that it affects internal organs such as lungs and the heart; I flatly refused to go through it again. I felt like I had sacrificed enough and was not going to survive it again,” Dr Manamolela said.
After her chemotherapy, she then went for hormones replacement for two years.
While life is full of challenges and Dr Manamolela has had her own fair, she said cancer was the toughest of them all.
However, she might have been traumatised throughout the whole cancer journey, being diagnosed with cancer was a blessing in disguise for Dr Manamolela.
Her relationship with God took a special turn and changed her life in “an overwhelming and special way”. She drastically saw life differently. She prayed more than she used to and continuously nurtured her spiritual life.
“You know in life when you come across the life-threatening illnesses like cancer you run to God because He is the giver of life. For the first time in my life, I surrendered before God. I told Him my sins and asked for forgiveness for all I had done wrong and believe me; from that day I felt different; I saw life differently. I cherished life and thanked God for every breath He has been able to grant me.
“My life changed. Today I love life even more and I began to live everyday as if it was my last. After all this, I was healed. In fact; I am healed. The trauma is all gone and I can safely say that I am fortunate enough that while many people spend over 10 years battling with the consequences of cancer, I am no longer experiencing any of that.”
While she was emotionally healed within a short time, Dr Manamolela said she has only God to thank for that and she has now decided to devote all her life to her maker.
“I must say that when it comes to my spiritual life, the illness became a blessing in disguise because through it all, I was able to see life differently. I changed,” the National University of Lesotho (NUL) Bachelor of Science in Science and Technology graduate said.
“You know it is amazing how I started to appreciate the sunshine, the beauty of the star struck. I’d look at the sky and admire its beauty. I loved the smell and the look of nature. Actually, appreciated every single thing about life. At some point, I said if it was God’s way of bringing me back to order, I thank Him because I saw His power and appreciated it.
“However, I must say there are challenges that kill people or demoralise them but for me it gave me life because I came out very stronger. Believe me when I tell you that I fear nothing now but God only; even death, I’m not afraid of death.”
Now 12 years after her diagnosis, Dr Manamolela says she only feels ready to share her story now. Before the exclusive interview with the Lesotho Times, she had only shared her story with some of her patients away from the prying eyes. This she did to give them hope.
“Even if I have to undress, show them my body as part of a testimony that there is life after losing a breast, I do but I haven’t gone to a seminar or anything. This is because before now I was never ready. I am naturally a quiet and secretive person. I opt to act rather than to speak and that is part of the reason for which I have not shared my story in public for the last 12 years.
“Even during my time as Health minister, I never thought of sharing my story on cancer awareness months. Some people approached me but I wasn’t ready.
“I think now I have passed that stage and feel like I’m not doing it for me by breaking the silence. I’m doing it for people to know that there is hope and life after cancer. I also want them to understand that it is an illness that anybody can get no matter how rich or poor they are.”
Dr Manamolela said she has taken numerous lessons from her battle with cancer both as a medical doctor and a Health minister (from 2012 to 2015 during Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s first stint as a premier).
She also said it was important for Basotho to have access to information. Dr Manamolela said educating the nation by availing information to them and ensure that they go for cancer screening on time was the only way Lesotho could win the fight against cancer.
While she said that Lesotho’s topography made it harder to reach women in the hard to reach areas, the women should not be left behind and that there is a need for a turnaround strategy to ensure that they are part of awareness campaigns to ensure that no woman is left behind.
“Women and girls in rural areas do not even have access to information about such illness and it becomes a challenge because they also stand a risk of getting cancer and they must be considered.”
Dr Manamolela said it was important for the Ministry of Health’s structures like the Village Health Worker programme to be revived to ensure that they patients to the nearest health posts or clinics.
“From there, such health facilities need to be fully equipped for them to cater for cancer services such as screening for cancer of the cervix, prostate or breast cancer. It is crucial at that level since that is where the people are. That is where such services are needed,” she said.
She said the country would get its health system right once patients access services from the bottom to the top instead of the current situation where patients go straight to the country’s only referral hospital – Queen Mamohato Memorial Hospital (QMMH) – known as Tšepong.
“In our case, from the village or health centre, we jump straight to Tšepong. It is clear that if all these services were provided from the grassroots, we were going to escape the escalating cancer related deaths. The current situation is frustrating because we are burdened with illness.”
Dr Manamolela said other challenges that force the country to be in the obtaining situation were that health education department – tasked with playing the focal role in ensuring that education and information is spread out to the public about illness such as cancer; remained passive.
She said the department needed to be seen outside the ministry’s offices doing campaigns to sensitise the public about cancer and other illness – from prevention, screening and curing. Instead, she said, the country’s health education is dead and the government needs to invest in it.
“Education is key to every nation hence the importance of educating the masses to see progress on the efforts made. If that department is not resuscitated, we are not going to see any progress in fighting the burden of cancer and all these other diseases. We are always going to be stuck and the diagnosis will always be late which attracts expensive treatments because of lack of understanding and information among our people. This is also not their fault.”
Dr Manamolela said prevention was the cheapest and most efficient way of providing health services. She added that it was time the government invested in prevention by going out to the public to educate them until the respective topic becomes monotonous rather than focusing more on the treatment.
“Yes, treatment is needed when there are cases but they wouldn’t be as bad when preventative measures are exhausted.”
Dr Manamolela said the Ministry of Health needs support from other ministries in order to have a healthy and productive nation, adding that the “All for health and health for all policy” must to be practiced.
“The country needs a healthy nation that is productive to grow the economy but when we are a sick nation, none of this will be achieved.”
Born and bred at Ha Noosi, Qacha’s Nek, Dr Manamolela was raised by her grandmother who ensure that she completed both her primary and high school education to pursue her dream of becoming a medical practitioner.
She later enrolled at NUL’s Faculty of Science and Technology and was fortune enough to meet her husband – Dr Makhube – in the same department. The two lovebirds went on to pursue their career dreams at the University of Zambia, studying Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor Surgery.
“I may not have practiced medicine for my first degree but I am currently living my childhood dream of becoming a doctor.”
While pursuing their career dreams in Zambia, they both decided to tie a knot seven years into their relationship. The two medical doctors did not just come back to Lesotho with their academic certificates but a marriage certificate as well. Marriage however, did not stop Dr Manamolela from pursuing her dreams because she went on to work in South Africa for a year and moved back to Lesotho to co-establish a private clinic with her husband.
“Even today when I motivate children, I tell them that they can become what they want to be as long as they remain focused and committed to what they want to be. Dreams do come true. I’m the proof of that,” Dr Manamolela said.