Janet Kanini Ikua was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in September last year. Her chances of survival were poor, but she went on to beat the cancer through prayers, a positive attitude and treatment. The charming TV presenter is now actively involved in creating cancer awareness and is planning to start a cancer foundation. She takes LILY RONOH through her courageous and inspiring journey fighting the scourge.
I am a cancer victor,” Janet candidly tells me as we settle down for this interview in her home. She is smart, inspiring and very engaging. Candid, too. I hadmet her a few days earlier during the cover shoot and the person I had gone to pick from the parking lot was totally different from the person I had in mind. It was difficult to imagine that she had gone through a chemotherapy session less than a week before. I was moved by her positive attitude, determination and will to live. Perhaps it is these traits, and her charming smile, that saw her steadily rise in the media industry to become one of the most respected and loved TV presenters. But that was before April last year when life happened.
Encounter with cancer…
Eight years ago, Janet’s father was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. The diagnosis couldn’t have come at a worse time as Janet was planning her wedding and she wanted no person to walk her down the aisle other than her father, and she told him as much.
“My father was a great paedetrician and I loved him to bits. It was heartbreaking to see him suffer. I also wanted him to walk me down the aisle. The cancer was spreading fast but he held on. On my wedding day, my father did his last duty: he walked me down the aisle in a wheelchair and wearing an oxygen mask. He died two weeks later, almost a year after the diagnosis,” she recalls.
They say time is a healer and indeed it is as Janet picked up the pieces of her life choosing instead to celebrate her father. And so when one day in April 2015 she woke up with a sharp pain in her leg, which was swollen, cancer was the furthest thing from her mind. Janet indulges in what she does with gusto and diligence and not even the pain could stop her from going to work; she was then presenting the award winning property show – N-Soko Property Show – on NTV.
She took painkillers that eased the pain albeit temporarily. She says as she was planning her day, a visit to the doctor came last on her to-do list, which she didn’t even honour. The following day, she woke up with both legs aching and she reached out for her saving grace: painkillers. Still, a visit to the doctor was not her priority. A few days later, the pain became unbearable and a visit to the doctor was inevitable. The doctor recommended a Doppler ultrasound on both legs.
“The ultrasound revealed that I had a blood clot. I didn’t really understand the severity of that prognosis until the doctor told me I had to go to hospital immediately. Like many Kenyans, I didn’t really know much about deep vein thrombosis (DVT). I looked up information on DVT and what I read scared me and I understood why everyone around me was anxious,” the mother of two explains.
She was given blood thinners and stayed in hospital for five days. But two months after being discharged, she noticed she grew breathless even after doing simple chores. Now wiser, she went to see the doctor immediately. The doctor reported that the clots in her legs had cleared but was worried about her breathlessness. She was referred to a cardiologist who, after an echo cardiogram, detected that Janet had a clot in her heart and some in her lungs, also known as pulmonary embolism. Time was of essence.
“Again, the severity of the condition did not hit me immediately until the doctor told me it would take a slight movement for the clots to block my pulmonary artery, causing instant death. I ended up in the high dependency unit, put on blood thinners and asked to stay still. It was traumatising to say the least. Most of my ward mates were unconscious and couldn’t tell what was going on and I was here, fully awake, watching as sick people were brought in while those who died were wheeled out,” she explains.
She went through thrombolytic therapy, which involved the use of drugs to break up or dissolve the clots. A CT scan on her lungs detected a lesion and they hoped the thrombolytic therapy would clear it. She was discharged after 10 days and put on oral medication. Unfortunately, five days after being discharged, she developed a massive clot in her right thigh. It was confusing. How could this happen yet she was on medication to thin her blood? Unbeknown to them, it was a sign that they were dealing with something bigger than DVT but still, cancer was nowhere in their wildest imagination.
Further tests and cancer diagnosis…
Further investigations were done to see whether the mass in the lung was still there and sure enough, it was present. This necessitated a biopsy to be done on it, which was found to be suspicious for a malignant tumour. Blood tests revealed that her tumour markers were way above normal. Indeed, something in her body was malfunctioning but what?
“The doctor suggested they surgically remove the lesions. But my husband and I were averse to it. We also did not want to go through another set of tests so we decided to travel to India for a PET scan. We wanted to know, once and for all, what was ailing me,” she tells of her decision to travel to India.
Hence September 10, 2015 saw Janet and her husband boarding a flight to India hopeful that they would be able to identify what was causing the DVT, get treatment and be back in Kenya within 10 days. She went through the PET scan on September 11 and the fine needle aspiration cytology (FNAC) to sample superficial masses in her neck the following day. The results of both tests came out on September 13. Janet had stage IV lung cancer.
“The lesion I had in my lungs was the primary site for the cancer and it had spread to the lymph nodes, the abdomen, the liver and the bones, qualifying it to be stage IV cancer. My mind naturally flew back to my father. Did this mean I would automatically go down the same path and die within a year? Other than my swollen legs as a result of DVT, I felt and looked fine. It was difficult to imagine the cancer cells were killing me and I went into denial,” she explains adding they had to stay longer in India for treatment.
End of the tether…
She had left her children behind with her sister-in-law. After staying in India for two weeks, her husband, George Ikua, had to travel back to Kenya to take care of the kids and work as her mother travelled to India to take care of her. It was a trying time and to add insult to the injury, her insurance was running out fast. As she was going through her first chemotherapy, her mind was on the insurance and she requested her mother to check with the billing office. She had surpassed her limit.
“That night, I got on my knees and told God I had nothing left. My family had been stretched to the limit and I didn’t want to be reason why my babies didn’t have food. I told God to take over as we had reached the end of the tether. But I knew I had to be strong for my family and everyone who looked up to me. After praying, my mind kept telling me: I don’t know how we will get through this but we will. I let go and let God,” she poignantly narrates her lowest moments as tears freely flow from her eyes.
Janet had shared the diagnosis with her family and circle of friends who suggested a fundraiser to help her meet the cost of the treatment. For Janet, this was not an option. Wasn’t she a public figure? How could she not have money to handle her own treatment? According to her, it was outright embarrassing! But her friends could hear none of it and went ahead and organised for fundraising both online and through Mpesa’s Paybill via Nation Sacco.
“I decided to tell the public about my condition through my Facebook page and blog. When I was first diagnosed with DVT, I shared about it and it was eye opening for many people who knew nothing about it. So I said let me do it also with the lung cancer and who knows, I might help someone out there. The feedback was overwhelming. Writing about it was also therapeutic and within 48 hours of writing that post, God started answering my prayers. People were calling my husband saying they wanted to help hence the birth of One Nation for Janet. The money came in, I was able to finish two cycles of chemotherapy, buy all the drugs in India and fly back to Kenya,” she says adding that she didn’t need another affirmation that God answers prayers and she knew, without a shadow of doubt, that she would be declared cancer-free.
In January this year, she and her husband travelled to India for a review and another PET scan. The doctors compared the results of the previous scan and the current one and were amazed. True to her conviction, the cancer lesions were gone.
Standing up with Janet…
The doctors told Janet that a lot of people must have been praying for her for which she aptly responded that she had an army of people back home standing in the gap in prayers.
“I got a lot of support from people I didn’t know. I was overwhelmed by the love Kenyans showed me and it was then I realised Kenyans have great hearts. They can give you their hearts, their time, their finances and most importantly their prayers. There were days I was tired both physically and mentally and I believe it’s these prayers that got me through. This has also been a huge spiritual journey for me. It’s true when Jesus said that faith the size of a mustard seed could move a mountain. I am a testament of that,” says the 38-year-old adding she is indebted to her family and friends who have been with her every step of the way.
Finding her purpose…
For the past few years, Janet has been hosting NTV’s N-Soko Property Show while dabbling as the Pampers brand ambassador. But she is currently in transition. She feels she has a responsibility to give back to Kenyans for standing up with her. Her focus is now on healthcare and apart from creating awareness about lung cancer and cancer in general, she is also helping Kenyans who want to travel abroad for treatment to have a pleasant experience, their sickness notwithstanding.
“I work with an agency – Doctors Beyond Borders. The agency links international patients with doctors, hospitals, hotels and even transport. They are not limited to India alone; wherever you want to go for treatment, they are there to help you. You can reach them on Kenya@doctorsbb. co.ke and telephone number is 0717871827/ 0734950351. The reason we are helping people this way is because many people have approached us asking how we went to India and the experience. We had a good experience with Doctors Beyond Borders and we would be glad to be of help,” she explains.
She also hopes that she will be instrumental in ensuring Kenya gets a PET scan machine and Kenyans get access to affordable and decentralised healthcare.
Her parting shot? “Cancer is not a death sentence. If you have been diagnosed, remember ultimate healing comes from God. Eat natural foods especially fruits and vegetables. If you can’t access healthcare, combine cancer-fighting foods, attitude and prayers.”
Published April 2016