When cancer robs one of both parents

After spending more than Sh4 million on treatment, Coast family could only watch in misery as one died of oesophageal cancer and the other of breast cancer

In Summary

• Mary Keli's parents fought long and hard against different types of cancer

• She has come to view it as a death sentence after her family's trials and tribulations

Mary Keli at her apartment in Bamburi, Mombasa county. She lost her two parents to cancer
Mary Keli at her apartment in Bamburi, Mombasa county. She lost her two parents to cancer

Mary Keli, a single mother with a brother and two sisters, is traumatised after losing both parents to cancer.

When she hears someone has been diagnosed with cancer, she instinctively feels that death is calling.

She does not believe that one can be cured after being diagnosed with cancer, she just sees death!


Keli used to think someone would become cancer-free and celebrate with family and friends, but then, BOOM! After showing progress, death just takes the person away.

All she can do is to pray for all those who have cancer and pray she will not lose anyone close to her again to cancer.

The nightmare started when her father, Stanley Keli, was diagnosed with stage 4 oesophageal cancer back in 2010.

Things became serious when he started sneezing, while blood oozed from his nose.

They took him to hospital and he was given medication, but still, it did not stop.

“His doctor then said he should be tested for cancer and that is when he was diagnosed with the disease,” Keli said.

He then started his chemotherapy sessions but was also complaining of headaches.


The chemotherapy sessions were stopped because doctors identified a tumour inside him the size of a golf ball that needed to be removed.

He had 30 per cent chances of survival as told by the doctor, and everybody was holding their breaths for the surgery to be successful.

“We thank God because the tumour was removed successfully and he resumed with his chemotherapy sessions,” she said.

As if that was not all, he started to get small infections, such as pneumonia, whose treatment was added to his cancer treatment.

Things got worse and he was being transferred from HDU to ICU and the wards. The struggle was too much and he eventually succumbed to cancer four months since he started receiving treatment.


The doctor told the family that smoking might have caused the cancer. This tallied with what they knew of his lifestyle.

“He used to smoke a lot. All my life I knew him, he used to smoke and he was also an alcoholic, and that was the main cause,” Keli said.

When they were struggling with the father in hospital before he died, their mother, Norah Keli, was complaining of a lump in her breast.

She did not want to trouble people by complaining more about it because they were already struggling with treatment for the father.

When their father died, that is when they took their mother to hospital, and when the lump was removed to be tested, they got a shocker when they were told she had breast cancer.

She was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, something that they were not expecting that soon.

“As a family, it was a very big blow for us because we had just recently buried our father just a month ago, and we received news that our mother has breast cancer, it was very challenging,” Keli said in tears.

They knew they had to be strong for their mother’s sake. They decided to be strong in prayers and start treatment for their mother.

The same doctor who was treating their father was the one who took up their mother's case. She started her chemotherapy sessions.

It was very challenging as they had to travel all the way from Mombasa to Nairobi for the chemotherapy sessions.

She finished her sessions and the doctor advised them it was necessary for her infected breast to be removed. It was removed through surgery back in 2011.

An MRI was done on her and it was discovered that the other breast was already infected and it also had to be removed.

They were then advised that she should undergo radiation sessions. She underwent 21 sessions and it was found that they were not enough.

“She had to undergo almost 40 sessions of radiation,” Keli said.

All her treatment took three good years. The main challenge they faced was how the medication was extremely expensive.

“We were using Sh10,000-15,000 every month for her medication, and she used to take almost eight tablets a day,” Keli said.

They were happy she was progressing well. When she had finished all her medication, she was told she is cancer-free in 2012.


Afterwards, she started complaining of headaches and eventually her voice disappeared and she was straining to talk.

They decided to take her back to hospital and were told it was the side-effects of the treatment she received.

They gave her painkillers to ease her pain, but things were getting worse.

The doctor then advised that a full-body scan be done on her, only for them to discover that the cancer had spread to all parts of her body.

“The doctor told us the only treatment now was to give her painkillers because the cancer had already spread to her kidneys, liver and all parts of her body,” Keli said.

She was in so much pain, she lacked the strength to look after herself and they had to join hands to do everything for her, including bathing her.

Things got worse and she was put on a life support machine in June 2013. Within three days, death took her.

“It was a very big blow because losing both parents to the same disease is quite challenging, and I wouldn’t imagine or want someone else to undergo what we went through at that time,” Keli said.

They used more than Sh4 million in the treatment of both parents, but they are grateful that the father had health insurance cover.

A big challenge, she said, is going all the way to Nairobi to get treatment. She wished it would not be that far since one has to think of the fare, accommodation and the treatment.

She described chemotherapy as being the hardest part of a cancer patient’s life.

“The chemotherapy process is very painful. If your immune system is weak, then I would say this is when many suffering from cancer die. I used to look at my mum and it traumatised me,” she said.

Among the effects she saw in her parents were loss of hair, nails becoming black, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, skin colour change and the eyes turning yellow.

She has become skeptical that someone diagnosed with cancer can survive.

“Both my parents had the best treatment and they died, so when someone tells me they are cancer-free, I will not be convinced since my mother was told the same but she died from it,” she said.

After the death of both their parents, the family had to unite, all four of them, and provide support to each other, emotionally, psychologically and financially. 

Edited by T Jalio