Unsung Heroes – Facing the battle with cancer

| August 21, 2013 - 9.06UTC

When Shaira Adamali battled through cancer she resolved to provide support for others who were living with the disease. Ngwatilo Mawiyoo met her to find out more.

In 2003 Shaira Adamali had been working for PriceWaterhouseCoopers for nearly 30 years. She was a partner and head of the tax depart-ment; a high-flyer. She’d raised two daughters and had recently become a grandmother.Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

With medical facilities in Kenya a far cry from their current standards, Shaira flew to the UK to see an oncologist, who prescribed a treatment plan that included surgery and chemotherapy. While there, she visited The Fountain Centre, run out of the St Luke’s Cancer Unit of the Royal Surrey County Hospital. The centre provided a place where cancer patients and their carers could meet other patients, receive counselling, complementary therapies and useful information about the illness they were battling. The Fountain Centre offered great comfort and support to her, such that when she returned home and started her 18-week course of chemotherapy she became starkly aware of the gap in cancer care in Kenya, even as facilities improved and high-level treatments became available.

Shaira won her battle with the disease and continued with her duties at PriceWaterhouse-Coopers until 2008, when she decided she had “made enough money” and could retire early. That’s when she founded Faraja Cancer Support Trust, inspired by her experience at Fountain Centre but with even broader ambitions.

Faraja is housed in a cosy, yet spacious, wing of the Cancer Care Centre near MP Shah Hospital in Parklands, Nairobi. Cancer patients treated at the Cancer Care Centre and all other hospitals in the country can access Faraja at no cost.

Faraja has three employees and calls on a host of therapists, counsellors, masseuses and other volunteers (including Shaira herself) – about 50 in total – who provide their services and time at no cost. Most are cancer survivors or simply consider it important to provide this support. Even Shaira was surprised by the number of skilled people who volunteered their time and expertise to help. Most of the patients would be unable to afford a session of reiki, yoga, lymphatic drainage, massage stress relief, body talk, psychotherapy or a consultation with a nutritionist, offered at Faraja. These therapies are shown to improve patients’ wellbeing, their ability to cope with gruelling cancer treatments, and their capacity to adopt a healthier and more positive lifestyle.

Another important aspect of the centre is the interaction among patients, survivors and their families during the support groups or in group exercise sessions. In fact, Faraja is the only place in Kenya that currently offers cervical and prostate cancer support groups. These interactions do much to encourage patients and their families, give them renewed hope for a future beyond cancer, and to help them to tackle the disease with determination.

Today, three years after its inception, more than 1000 people have used Faraja’s services, and that number is rising rapidly, with 40-50 new patients coming through their doors each month, and up to 85 attending the monthly support group meetings. And Shaira is nowhere near content: Faraja is expanding its facility at the Cancer Care Centre and is in talks to open a new facility at Kenyatta National Hospital this year, one in Kisumu in 2014 and another in Mombasa in 2015.

Ever thoughtful about people with limited means, Shaira is also keen to see Faraja provide free cancer screening and is pushing to raise funds to support those newly diagnosed, mindful of the trauma they would undergo if they discovered they had cancer but didn’t have the means to treat it.

With thoughts of retirement far from her mind, Shaira acts as if she’s launched herself into a second career altogether, one that includes the number-crunching of her past life and the additional complexities of medicine, humanity and mortality. Indeed, seemingly aware that even she cannot go on forever, Shaira is building an endowment fund to secure Faraja’s future.

“Working for 31 years in the corporate world, you really forget that there is another side of life,” she says. “Giving money is one thing, but one needs to do a combination and also give a bit of time.”

It’s clear her extensive experience in corporate Kenya has given her the tools and network to make Faraja the success that it is, as have her values on transparency, excellence and accountability. As a final note, she cautions women doing the dance of family and career: “With mothers, everything else takes priority over themselves. Don’t ignore any signs you get, and learn how to manage your stress.”

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