Cancer is one of the Non Communicable Diseases on the rise in Africa. This is an added burden to our poor health infrastructure. Cancer is no longer something we hear about on TV but is affecting many loved ones in our communities.Below is a touching tribute to Dr.Manasseh Phiri (Facebook post)
OF ASHES AND PEACE: TO DR MANASSEH PHIRI
Doc, old friend. Wherever you are, I know you have found peace. I never got to say goodbye but it is well. God knows best.
But for your passing just over a week ago, I’d have stayed away a few months longer than the two months I have been off Facebook.
The break in transmission is one not many will understand but when you have been sucker punched by a disease as debilitating as cancer, you need time away from the madding crowd to cope with the physical, emotional and psychological toll it takes on you. You need time to put your house in order and to come to terms with the reality of your own mortality. In your own way and in your own space.
You and I last met at the Cancer Diseases Hospital after quite a while late last year. I must have looked like a scarecrow, having lost 14.2 kg after surgery to remove a malignant tumour from my gut. The shock in your eyes when you saw me was unmistakable.
You, on the other hand, looked bright and dapper. Smartly casual, with a dandy Andy Capp on your head, I recall. And of course, the trademark smile.
I was due for a session of chemotherapy—you, for the injection you got once a month. It wasn’t half as bad as chemo, you said. And it showed. I was happy for you—happy that you seemed well and truly on your way to beating cancer.
And then you said: “Edem, I’d like you to come on my radio show on 5FM we talk about cancer.”
I didn’t respond immediately and I think you sensed my reluctance. Maybe, it was the timing. Maybe it was the place, but I felt it would be better to talk away from the dreariness of hospital and well away from the pall of gloom that hung over us like a dark, ominous storm cloud.
Appearing on your show, Doc, was not a problem. After all, I’d been a guest on your show on Radio Icengelo in Kitwe years before—when you were quite an institution on the airwaves of Kopala. The Rock of Manasseh is what you were, what I called you. More imposing than the Rock of Gibraltar, I liked to joke and you’d laugh as though your funny bone had really been tickled.
I remember that evening like it was yesterday when I featured on your show as your “surprise guest”. You chatted with me about my flagship column in The Post and the array of zany, oddball characters who inhabited it. For some reason, your favourites were Ba na Cherry and the flamboyant pastor of The Church of the Living Bread and Wine Plc and you talked about them like you knew them. Are they based on real people—people we might know, perhaps? you asked me on air. And I laughed and said: Doc, if I told you, I’d have to kill you. Brian Haangala, who was doing the shift after yours, was in the studio and we had a roaring good time, talking old-school beats. Osibisa. Sipo Gumede. Jabu Nkosi. Fela Kuti. Sankomota…
And then you gave me a chance to play some songs of my choice. And I surprised you with “Makeda” by Les Nubians. You’d never heard of the group until then, which surprised me because heck, when it came to music, you were The Man.
Not to be outdone, you introduced me to a Southern African project band called Mahube which featured, among others, Oliver Mtukudzi. You also played the title track of Paul Hamner’s album, “Trains to Taung” which, I must confess, I was hearing for the first time.
Next thing, you, me, Frank Mutubila and Doreen Mukanzo were making up a delegation to attend a WHO Media and Health Conference in Nyanga, Zimbabwe. The four of us discovered a cosy little a la carte restaurant away from everyone else who were queuing up at the buffet.
For five nights, that would be our haven, where we’d retreat at the end of the hard days of deliberation and liberate bottle after bottle of fine wine and discuss music.
When we returned to Harare en route back to Lusaka, you and I lost Frank and Doreen and disappeared into a music shop to see what we could find. From that trip, I picked up a rare Thomas Mapfumo CD, recorded live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I can’t remember what you bought, but you left with quite a stash.
But that was then. This was now. Music, media and friendship had brought us together. Now there was something else we didn’t bargain for. Cancer. And it hit us both hard.
To be honest, I wasn’t ready to be on your show on 5FM when you asked me. In a couple of months’ time. maybe, but not now. “Doc,” I’d said, “let me get my voice and my weight back. I don’t want to be an object of pity when people hear me on radio and get the feeling I’m about to log out permanently. Aikona man! I am going to beat this cancer just like I know you will. And then we can talk as long as you want and play some great jazz on radio.”
But while you had a one-off show in mind, there was something else I had been thinking about long and hard, all those nights I lay in a hospital bed in India. A media campaign on cancer. On my wall and on radio. Thirteen weeks or more of uncompromising radio. I’d script the concept as well as series as a journalist and cancer patient would and you, Doc, would nail it down with your silky smooth radio voice. We’d both produce, with the series relying on your expertise and your contacts in the profession as a medical doctor. In my head, I saw something epic and life changing. Something investigative and intensely topical yet unpredictable. All in all, treating the subject and related topics as a public health imperative.
The idea intrigued you, so I shared some more thoughts I’d scribbled down about where the whole thing could go and what had inspired it.
I’d start with the spectre of misdiagnosis, something I knew from actual experience and had seen in my own family. My niece, Vi, was a victim of misdiagnosis till it was too late to save her from a painful, wasteful death.
How her condition was first diagnosed as an ectopic pregnancy, then cervical cancer and then finally cancer of the bladder is something I will never understand. And to think, a batch of qualified medical doctors got away with it and still remain in active service at the Cancer Diseases Hospital to this day. They got away with guesswork, trial and error and with a Multiple Choice approach to medical science and to disease. If they didn’t know, why didn’t they just come clean and plead ignorance?
And then of course, there is my own story and first-hand experience of misdiagnosis. For eight and a half months, doctors in some of the best hospitals in the city (so called) said I had a chronic stomach infection even I knew was wrong. For eight and a half months, I lived on antibiotics but got from bad to worse. In the end, I had to palliate the excruciating pain I felt in my gut with opoids because regular painkillers weren’t helping.
When doctors finally got my condition right, they didn’t give me much hope. They could operate, yes, but the chances of success, one doctor told me, was ONE per cent. He still wanted to go ahead with the surgery—as long as I was prepared to pay K34,000.
Doc, if I had gone ahead with it, I’d be dead by now. Desperation for a second opinion forced me to consult the most powerful oracle of our time. Google. Blind searches for cancer hospitals in India yielded 101 results. We wrote to as many of them as we could. A few responded and based on the details in their responses, we whittled the number down and finally chose one. Jaypee Hospital in Noida. Uttar Pradesh State.
Raising money to travel for treatment took five months, but eventually, my wife and I made the journey. After a battery of eight tests in three days, I was given a treatment plan that did not involve immediate surgery. The tumour, tests showed, had fragmented and spread and operating on me to remove them would be a huge risk.
So I was put on a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy over five weeks. The idea was to shrink the tumour and make it easier to remove. Which is what happened.
My story isn’t peculiar, Doc. Two months ago, a Facebook buddy who has since become a friend cried out to me late one night. After months of being misdiagnosed and mistreated for haemorrhoids, doctors finally told him he had colon cancer. He was so devastated to be hit so coldly and so callously with the news, he had difficulty processing it. He called me because he knew I was also dealing with colon cancer.Doc, I tried to hold his hand across the awesome chasm of cyberspace as he lives and works in a distant town.
How many more of us are out there, suffering from one thing and being treated for another and believing we are getting better when so-called medical experts are killing us slowly?
But misdiagnosis is just one of the issues I thought you and I could get to the bottom of, find answers and explore the possibilities of seeking legal redress from those who have put us in these situations?
Doc, the more we talked, the more you agreed there was plenty of material to make a series. Even the total lack of counselling when it comes to the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. First, you are given to believe that cancer is a death sentence. They don’t prepare your mind for the impact and the implications of the disease before they hit you with the bad news that actually have it.
So, for instance, if you have prostate or testicular cancer, can you still have sex? Can you sire children? How exactly will your life change and what should you do to cope and mitigate the effects of your condition?
And to think cancer isn’t one disease but many. There are well over 100 different types of cancers in the world, with just over 30 manifesting themselves here in Zambia. On the noticeboard on the ground floor of the Cancer Diseases Hospital, there are loads of graphs and statistics about cancer in Zambia, including information about the ten most common types and prevalence, province by province. The Copperbelt tops. Question is: why?
The journalist in me wants to know why. Does it have anything to do with the effects of mining? If it does, what are the chances that the new Copperbelt, the North-Western Province, could see a spike in the incidence of certain types of cancer? Plenty of question but no answers. Yet.
Doc, I really looked forward to working with you to make this radio project happen. Now you have left me alone to do what we could have done together, should have done together. But it is well. This relay race will go on.
For now, I hold the baton and will run my leg and hope I can pass it on to other runners so that the race does not end with you or me.
Just know that I have started the spadework. One radio station owner who has seen my struggles up close has offered me time on his channel. Even if I don’t have a sponsor yet, I think the programme is worth starting now. With your spiritual intervention, I know this will work. If there is one thing I have learnt in the last two years, it is this: never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
Our time is not our own. The melancholy I feel is deep because I will not lie, I am deeply affected by your passing. But I also feel a sense of relief that I can draw strength from who you were when you lived and go on. Thanks for the memories.