Nancy Githoitho, a mother of two boys and in her late 30s, lost her mother to breast cancer in 2017.
Since then, Ms Githoitho has founded the Limau Cancer Connection, a cancer support group which makes and distributes knitted prosthetics to breast cancer survivors.
She shared her story with Nation.co.ke.
Who is Nancy Githoitho?
I am a mother of two adorable boys, a daughter, the only girl in a family of three boys, friend, mentor, bold and resilient. I fight for the voiceless.
Describe your childhood?
Growing up as the only girl, third born in a family of boys, I was a Tomboy and very aggressive and competitive.
Tell us more about Limau Cancer Connection?
Limau means lemons in Kiswahili. Derived from the famous quote: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We are a platform of hope for cancer patients. We provide resources that enable cancer patients and their families live better lives after diagnosis. Whether it is by providing knitted boobies — we are lemons.
How did you come up with the idea?
My mother was diagnosed with stage 3b breast cancer in June 2016. I lost her in June 2017. After her diagnosis, she lost her self-esteem after she lost her breast after mastectomy. She suffered a lot. I bought a $400 (Sh40,000) silicon prostheses, which she never liked as it was heavy and sweaty. I came across knitted prostheses that are light, affordable and washable.
We trained Mum’s friends how to knit them and, voila! Mum loved being in the knitted circles to chat and reconnect with friends. She knitted like four sets, and donated them to her friends before she passed on. I decided to help women regain their self-esteem through knitted boobies.
Why breast cancer?
Breasts are vital parts of a woman. When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, she loses part of her womanhood that is so visible, unlike women who have had other hidden organs removed.
The Limau journey started after my Mum’s breast cancer ordeal and the stigma she underwent. I decided to be a lemonade and grab this monster by the horns.
What were your greatest challenges in the programme?
Funding. I sold my furniture and gave up my apartment to set up this organisation. I have used up all my savings to bring it to where it is today.
I spend my own money to buy the yarn, which is 100 per cent cotton, at Sh850, to knit; buy the fibre and needles. The knitters are mostly breast cancer patients who require a stipend to cater for their treatment. We have been moving from one county to another training cancer support groups, creating awareness. That has taken a toll on my finances.
We lack funding for our cancer awareness programmes in the slums and the villages, where we train women to do self-breast examinations.
What are you doing apart from heading the foundation?
I have many hospital bed donations from the US, and would love to set up cancer centres for poor patients to access free or affordable cancer care. I have access to pharmaceutical companies that have been donating free cancer medication to referred patients. We would love to have a centre to ascertain that the donated meds are landing in the right hands.
How many women have you helped in the programme so far?
Over 5,000 and counting. Most have passed away for lack of money to continue with the treatment.
Do you sell the boobs or donate them to women?
We started by donating them, as I was paying the women who were knitting. Having ran out of cash, we can no longer afford to buy yarn. Sometimes well-wishers donate yarn but transporting it from the US is costly. I have to wait for friends visiting Kenya to bring it.
What decisions did you make that you regret most?
Quitting my job before the firm stabilised. It has take a toll on my finances. I can no longer support the group nor create awareness for lack of funds.
Where do you get the materials for knitting the boobs?
We buy them in town. I have previously received donations from a yarn company in Lyon, France, called Plassard, and Love Knitting in the US. But the big challenge is shipping them here. I approached Kenya Airways, who turned me down on that. KLM has helped me with extra luggage when I travel on a humanitarian ticket.
I buy the fibre from my pocket. As for the knitting needles, we use an artisan from Gikomba Market, who makes wooden ones at Sh15 each. Sometimes I buy mshkaki sticks and sharpen them at both ends. We use four double-pointed needles.
What else do you offer cancer patients, besides restoring their self-esteem?
The support groups are not just for breast cancer patients. They are a support network for all patients and families impacted by cancer. Where they meet and share their stories to empower and encourage each other.
As for the ones who have lost their loved ones, we have Limau Angels — a mourning and grieving group. I have created an online petition on change.org — gathering almost 35,000 signatures — to zero rate cancer medication.
We have economic empowerment groups where cancer patients knit boobies, make cancer-themed jewellery and sell to make money. We provide referrals to patients where they save money or access free services.
Who are your role models?
My mother; she epitomised resilience. My dad John Githoitho, also. He helps me run the group and supports me financially when I am down.
What are the achievements you are proud of?
As a mother, I have set the bar high for my children. As a daughter, I always wanted to make my dad proud. I have created a legacy for my family and for our fight against cancer.
I have just been nominated a CNN hero for 2019. I hope I win, so that my vision of building community cancer centres can come to realisation.
I was a nominee for the ZURI Awards 2019 for women impacting lives. I have over 5,000 cancer patients who have benefited from Limau.
What would you change about cancer, given a chance?
I would declare the disease a national disaster and allocate at least 60 per cent of the healthcare budget to it. I would work with healthcare consumers to make sure patients have a place to go to.
Do have time to relax, given that a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every day?
No, I suffer mental breakdown sometimes, as I am overwhelmed by the many patients and families.
Not being able to assist, hurts. Friends call me occasionally and I get to enjoy a weekend out of town.
What is your dream holiday destination?
Bali and Estonia, to experience what everyone who has been there talks about.
Be a lemonade to someone else. When life gives you cancer, tengeza maji ya limau.