Gabriel Chege Ngugi, 39, was in so much pain that he begged to die. The father of two, had lost his hair, nails, sense of taste and smell, had trouble swallowing and big black boils broke out on his skin.
All these was because of the cancer treatment. It began in May 2015 with a painless irritation in his tonsils, two lymph nodes on each side of the back of the throat. Unfortunately, even strong antibiotics would not clear it.
A battery of tests later showed there was nothing wrong. However, the red flag was raised when Ngugi began to nosebleed after taking his morning showers. Shortly after, his neck began to swell on one side and an ENT specialist recommended a CT scan.
“Hours later, he had not come back and I got worried. As I was heading to the clinic, I saw him, walking with huge X-ray envelopes. He said he could have cancer,” Ngugi’s wife, Lydia Gathoni told Healthy Nation in their Makongeni home, Thika. “We were scared because four months before the bad news, throat cancer had claimed an uncle.”
The couple consulted four more doctors who gave them the same prognosis: Cancer. A biopsy — tissue removed from the lymph node to discover the presence, cause or extent of a disease — was needed.
The results showed Ngugi had nasopharynx cancer and it was progressing to stage three. A week later, Ngugi had lost four kilogrammes. Within a year, he went through 30 different treatment sessions — 25 radiotherapy and five chemotherapy — in India and Kenya. While cancer cells were being killed in these sessions, the effects were devastating. Ngugi got weak, tired and developed pain and sores in his mouth also called Mucositis.
Eating became a nightmare. COULD NOT TASTE OR SMELL ANYTHING “Doctors told me I had two to six years left. I could neither taste or smell anything,” Ngugi said.
Nairobi-based Oncologist Gladwell Kiarie said chemotherapy and radiotherapy affect fast-growing cells like those of cancer.
“It kills healthy cells that normally grow and divide quickly, like those in the mouth, digestive tract, and hair follicles,” she said.
Gathoni said she knew it was just a matter of time before her husband’s body gave in. “From my readings and talk with cancer survivors, nutrition was an element that was missing in his healing.
Good eating wards off infections and provides energy,” she said. With that, the journey of healthy eating began.
The family did away with sugar, fresh milk, iodine salt and processed meat, replacing them with natural honey, ginger, lemon, sea salt, turmeric, chia seeds, mint leaves and wheat grass.
“Ngugi takes wheat grass juice at least three times a week. Sometimes he takes cucumber or carrot juice.
We use olive oil or coconut for cooking and take fresh traditional vegetables such as African nightshade (managu), armaranthus (terere) and spinach.
We also use whole grains like black dolichos beans (managu),” she said. At times, Ngugi takes the mixture of vegetables raw.
Ngugi and his wife take a concoction of ginger, lemon and turmeric with honey before supper. “We have limited potatoes and many other carbohydrates but do brown rice.
He also takes a lot of water and fresh juice. He takes them within 20 minutes of being prepared.
Sodium bicarbonate in warm water is also important as it reduces acidity,” Gathoni added. Dr Kiarie cautions that while healthy eating is ideal, patients should not be misled into removing or adding certain meals from menus.
“Cancer patients need unprocessed red meat as it is rich in vitamin B12, the raw material for bone marrow which produces red blood cells,” she said. She warned against the juicing fad.
Many believe by juice from fruits and vegetables helps control or cure diseases like cancer. “Cancer patients should not take too much carrot juice.
The body only needs little amounts, otherwise it becomes toxic,” she said. Some foods, Dr Kiarie added, are not safe when taken with cancer drugs, as they may speed up or slow the effects.
The oncologist said cancer sometimes has a genetic component and could be triggered by environmental factors like chemicals, tobacco or radiation from ultraviolet rays.
“A disease must be treated with evidence-based drugs but what is worrying is that people generalise cancer and assume what works for one will work for another.
Nutrition improves the life of patients but conventional medicine is very important,” she said. Ngugi is sticking to his new diet. He exercises at least three times a week “to expel toxins from my body”.
He also takes two Gefitinib tablets daily to treat non-small cell lung cancer that has spread to surrounding tissues. The drug blocks a type of protein called tyrosine kinase from sending signals that make cancer cells grow.
This, he believes, has paid off. “On March 15, 2016 while in India, doctors ran some tests and the radiotherapy specialist told me no traces of the disease could be found,” he said. “They were telling me the disease is gone. I could not believe it.
It has given me hope. Cancer is not a death sentence,” Ngugi adds with a smile.
Common side effects of cancer treatment: For radiation therapy to the head and neck Loss of appetite.
Changes in the way food tastes. Pain when swallowing. Dry mouth or thick saliva. Sore mouth and gums.
Narrowing of the upper esophagus, which can cause choking, breathing, and swallowing problems.
For radiation therapy to the chest Infection of the esophagus.
Trouble swallowing. Esophageal reflux (a backward flow of the stomach contents into the esophagus).
For radiation therapy to the abdomen or pelvis Diarrhoea. Nausea. Vomiting. Inflamed intestines or rectum.
A decrease in the amount of nutrients absorbed by the intestines. Source: US National Cancer Institute