Elizabeth Njeri of Kenya was 50 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In order to stop the cancer from spreading, she had to have one of her breasts removed. The aftermath of this was something that Njeri was not expecting. Her friends and family began to mock her appearance. Njeri had never felt so alone.
There is an enormous stigma revolving around breast cancer and the removal of a breast. In a world where a woman’s appearance means so much, to be stripped of the qualities that make a woman feel sexy and attractive was devastating to Njeri, as it is for most mastectomy patients.
Njeri won her battle with cancer. Now, eight years later, she offers help to others who are experiencing the same humiliation and devastation that she once felt. She and 12 other breast cancer survivors from Kenya formed the organization Slopes Cancer Awareness Network (SCAN) to educate both men and women about the disease that claims so many lives each year.
“We have been moving across the country sensitizing those people already with cancer, telling them they are not alone, and those without it to go for check-ups early because early detection saves lives, it saved mine,” said Njeri.
Cancer is the third leading cause of death in Kenya and most patients cannot afford proper medical treatment. The women who survive the disease because of the removal of one or both of their breasts feel stigmatized by society, just as Njeri did.
“I have seen women sink into depression because they do not feel like they are women enough without a breast or hair,” said Njeri.
These women will go to grueling lengths just to hide the fact that they have been affected by the disease. Njeri understands that if breast prosthetics were less expensive, more Kenyan women would take advantage of this option to gain back their sense of womanhood. This is why Njeri and her SCAN team are now making their own breast prosthetics.
“I touch their lives by giving the survivors wigs and breast foams,” Njeri said. “I’ve used my tailoring skill as an opportunity to restore the dignity in women who do not feel beautiful and to tell them they are not alone.”
Njeri collects materials from tailor shops that the owners regard as waste. She creates the shell of the prosthetic with these materials, and then she fills it with washable cotton and fiber. SCAN also receives donations from local supporters. The prosthetics and wigs that SCAN creates are then given to cancer patients for free, along with other things like armpit cushions, health tips, and words of advice and inspiration. 200 women have already benefited from their donations.
“Women, whether young or old, are very conscious about their physical appearance,” said Njeri. “I keep on sharing my stories with as many people as possible to let them know they are not alone. And when they hear there are other women going through the same they too can be strong and survive.”
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