This week, 10 years back I interviewed fellow journalist Eliud Abong’o who was battling an aggressive form of colon cancer.
“I am down but not out,” was the headline of the article published in the Daily Nation on 11th May 2010. Elly, as his colleagues fondly referred to him, was determined to beat cancer.
Sadly, he died a few days after this interview.
The article on Lakita’s dad, Elly Abong’o published in the Daily Nation on 11 May 2010
But I remember his young daughter Lakita, who pensively sat next to Elly during the interview; curious about the news crew that had visited their Donholm home to speak to her daddy very early that morning.
She was only three years old when she noticed something had changed with daddy. He was sick most times so daddy and daughter couldn’t take their long walks anymore. But he always made time played with her indoors, she remembers. When he died, she remained daddy’s little girl.
Sadly today a dark cloud hangs over daddy’s girl, as she fights bone cancer. Just like daddy did a decade ago!
Lakita Frida Abong’o.
We meet her in the unlikely context of a shadow that threatens to interrupt her young and vibrant life. Lakita is managing cancer thousands of miles away from home.
Lakita and her mother, Joyce Wambui Abong’o, have been in India for 115 days since Sunday, 26 January this year. Leaving the hospital now isn’t an option because staying promises to take them closer to the treatment plan.
She is currently undergoing treatment in India for a form of bone cancer known as osteosarcoma. It relapsed in January this year after a successful round of treatment.
Lakita was first diagnosed with osteosarcoma, cancer of the bone, of the right leg in September 2017. The doctors believe that the cancer was triggered by genetic link caused by a condition known as Li-Freumani Syndrome which is is a rare disorder that greatly increases the risk of developing several types of cancer, particularly in children and young adults.
Their home is this transplant ward on the14th floor of Medanta hospital in India.
Four concrete walls, a linoleum floor, a bed in the middle of the room connected to a syringe pump that gives medicine through a timer and a cabinet by the wall to keep her few personal belongings. A pen, eraser and paper are always nearby. Lakita loves drawing.
A teenager lies on the bed wearing a blue hospital gown and an orange top. A clock above her bed seems to be moving slower than usual.
During the day, mum and daughter sleep to pass time. At night, they pray that the new day will renew their hopes and bring Lakita closer to a stem cell transplant for bone cancer.
Lakita is 13 years old.
She also loves dancing.
She also keeps her sketching pencil closer when the cancer treatment side effects become intolerable
The genetic link can be traced to her dad, Elly. But that doesn’t matter now. We need to stand with Lakita who has such a fanciful personality.
Lakita was recently diagnosed with Li-Fraumeni syndrome which is associated with mutations in the TP53 gene that increases an individual’s link of developing cancer. Mutations in this gene can allow cells to divide in an uncontrolled way and form tumors.
This condition was named after two American physicians, Frederick Pei Li and Joseph F. Fraumeni, Jr., who first recognized the syndrome after reviewing the genetic link of the medical records and death certificates of 648 childhood cancer patients.
Lakita with her mum, Joyce
But what makes her heart ache is that the doctors recommended she undergoes a bone marrow transplant.
Here is the story from Lakita’s eyes.
She misses her friends.
Her taste buds also miss Kenyan food. A good serving of hot ugali with a generous serving of sukuma wiki and a side plate of nyama garnished with a slice of avocado is a meal she cannot wait to relish.
“When I return home the first thing I want to do is eat Kenyan food. I also miss cooked bananas and chicken. I just miss our food,“ she says during this virtual interview from India.
Her favourite book is “The Power of a Praying Teen,” by the bestselling author Stormie Omartian. She talks to God everyday and reminds Him that HE is not done with her yet; they are walking together side by side in this treatment journey.
When the days are dull, she closes her eyes and whispers a prayer to God. When she opens her eyes, she finds her mother’s eyes welled in tears. She lays her hand on Mummy’s shoulders and assures her that all will be well. “My role model is my mum, she is hard working and I love her courage,” she says.
She also misses school.
“Being in hospital for so long makes me miss my friends. I am frustrated because it will be hard to catch up after missing for so many months,” says Lakita who is looking forward to sit her national examination, KCPE.
Has her current experience influenced her future career aspiration?
“I aspire to become a pediatric surgeon. I want to take care of children in hospital,” Lakita says.
She also has a side-hustle in mind. Every Kenyan has one, right? “I also want to be a make- up artist for movies,” she adds.
She is also a budding author. “If I wrote a book, it would be about my life and encourage other children with cancer,” she says.
Why does she want to become a doctor who performs surgery on children?
“During my treatment, I have learnt so many things from the doctors and nurses. Sometimes when I am talking to adults back home they find it odd when I use medical terms. I now know the names of the various medicines I have received during chemotherapy. I have also learnt the functions of blood components like the red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets, “she says.
She is also reflective about her formative years.
“I miss my dad. We took long walks together” says Lakita.
As a teenager, are there rules she prefers to be relaxed at home?
“It would be great if mum allowed me to at least get some junk food at times, she is very strict on my diet,” she says in a cheeky laugh.
When did it all begin?
According to her mother,Joyce Abong’o, Lakita began experiencing pain on her knee especially after sports day in school in 2017.
“I would massage her to ease the pain but on one night in September 2017 the pain became intense, we sought medical attention and a scan revealed she had a tumour,”
Currently, Lakita’s mum is fundraising for her daughter to undergo an autologous stem cell transplant at the Medanta Hospital. This means that Lakita’s own stem cells will be used for the transplant.
After the stem cells are harvested, Lakita will get high doses of chemotherapy or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. This is called conditioning. The high-dose treatment kills cancer cells, but also eliminates the blood-producing stem cells that are left in her bone marrow. After the conditioning, the stem cells are then collected given (transplanted) back to the patients. This lets your bone marrow make new blood cells that are cancer free.
According to her mother, since the tumour was removed by amputating her leg, the doctors want to prevent chances of a relapse since chemotherapy didn’t work well last time and the cancer relapsed.
She is optimistic that this will be the transplant will be lasting solution to her daughter who has Li-Fraumeni syndrome. The cancers most often associated with Li-Fraumeni syndrome include breast cancer, a form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma, and cancers of soft tissues (such as muscle) called soft tissue sarcomas
“Nothing is as painful as watching your child in pain. I have made a vow to do whatever i can to see her live many more happy years,” she says adding that Lakita is her only child. God has brought me this far throughout the challenges and I have been able to cope.
She describes her daughter as a positive and strong girl who keeps herself busy by drawing or watching movies.
Joyce is a video editor but resigned to take care of her late husband and later went into business. Times have been tough.
She was earlier in India for the 11 months during the first round of treatment and surgery that cost eight million shillings.
We have also been travelling every three months for her check ups and she also fell and broke her prosthesis in 2018 and they had to fix it through surgery. This cost eight million shillings that Joyce paid from her savings and a few friends and family members.
“I am trusting God that I will get the money needed for her transplant and prosthesis,” Joyce says.
“As a mother it breaks me not to be able to give my child the basic needs,” she says.
Want to bring a smile back to Abong’os family?
So far, they have raised three million shillings and need a further 2.5 million shillings to proceed with the treatment.
Kindly donate on through M-Pesa Paybill Number 8011987, with the sender’s name as the account name to help Lakita fight cancer.