“For my children Kwame, Sekou, Tengo, Desire, Lunga and Natasha to whom Africa will be a livable challenge” is the dedication in David Rubadiri’s 1967 novel, “No Bride Price”. Two children later, his last and ninth born, Olinka would be born. He could not have known how true his words could ring.
The first thing that strikes you about Olinka Shalita Rubadiri is how smooth her pate is. It is hard to imagine her spotting the dreadlocks she says she wore nine years ago when she first made the decision to shave her head and keep it that way even if her hair follicles grow today. She is wearing a pink T-shirt, blue ripped jeans and studded pink ribbon earrings. Olinka’s finger nails are painted pink too, save for the white on the middle finger of each hand where a pink ribbon is painted. It is a day after the Pink Affaire, a high tea party, themed “Supporting the fighters, admiring the survivors, honouring the taken and never, ever giving up hope” organised by Olinka and her friends. The Pink Affaire, she says, which she organised for the purpose of, along with the theme, reintroducing herself into Ugandan society, is the first of many such events.
Olinka’s infectious personality and confidence is typical of people who went to Namasagali College in the 1980s, during Father Grimes’ times. Born to a Malawian father and Rwandese mother and raised in Uganda, she travelled to the US shortly after high school and lives in California today, but nonetheless calls Uganda home.
Olinka is passionate about breast cancer awareness and even more passionate about life — with good reason.
Olinka received “a death sentence” nine years ago when she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in June 2007. After a chance self-examination while lying on her bed, she discovered a lump in her left breast. During a routine check three months prior, Olinka had been given a clean bill of health. There is no history of cancer in her family as far as she is aware.
Anyway, the doctors prescribed chemotherapy to shrink the cancerous tumours.
“It was a devastating prognosis, but I had my son, Max, to live for. There was no time I felt I had the option of not fighting. It was what it was. God was going to be central to this fight.
“At the time, I had a great job as a project manager at a nutrition company and while I was allowed to work from home, I chose to get out and go. During my treatment, sometimes, I went to work and I believe it was harder for everyone around me than it was for me. I came from bubbly Olinka with dreadlocks to… no hair,” she says, twirling the pink rubber wristband that says FAITH.
“Chemo has its side effects. It was a difficult time. Some days were worse than others. There was the constant nausea and weakness. It can get depressing when you go for the treatment and the person you sit next to everyday is not there anymore and the nurses tell you the person has lost the fight.
“My mother came to nurse me. I was lucky to have her around. My siblings and I are scattered all over the place, but, bless them, there was no time I ever felt alone,” she says, smiling as her sister, Natasha, in whose house we are, sets some juice and glasses on the table.
Eight months later, the scan showed that Olinka was disease free, in remission. She had won the battle, and along the way, lost her marriage. That was 2009.
“There was so much animosity and distance. We just couldn’t get back. I have to respect that it was just hard for my spouse. So I started a whole new life with my son, my family and my Church as my centre.”
As a survivor thus far, Olinka was expected to go to the clinic every three months, then every six months, then every year, for routine checks to make sure she was disease free.
“At this point I was living as normal a life, I just had to pop into the clinic every so often.
In 2011, at 41, during these checks, having graduated to the six-month check, she was given bad news. The beast, as her doctor refers to it, was back. It had spread from her breast into her liver. Again, there had been no signs of discomfort but she admits that if she had gotten a mammogram done a little earlier, maybe they would have caught the cancer before it spread into the liver.
Unfortunately, this time it was going to be harder on her financially, with no medical insurance, having been laid off from her job in 2010, following the economic slump.
“I was blessed. I had been working for 12 years, so I could benefit from my social security fund.”
Olinka began chemotherapy yet again and after six cycles, once again she was free. The cancerous tumours had shrunk so much that she did not need surgery, but she, along with her doctors, agreed that a double mastectomy, a surgery where both breasts are removed, was the safest way to go.
“Again, I was blessed to have the choice of breast reconstruction; many women do not have that.”
In December of 2013, cancer free, healed from her surgery and in between routine checks scheduled by her doctors, Olinka was cleared to travel back home. The family held a thanksgiving. The Rubadiris and the Shalitas (maternal family) all convened in Uganda for the celebration. It would be her first time back in 20 years.
The victory was short lived. On her return in 2014, they found more cancerous cells in her lungs. Her prescription had to change since she had been found to be resistant to the chemotherapy drugs she had been using previously. Three months down the road, Olinka was cancer free gain, but her doctors concluded that her cancer was too aggressive. She would need to receive chemotherapy every three weeks, indefinitely and possibly for the rest of her life.
Olinka knows there is every possibility that her story could have been a lot different had she been in Uganda. Cancer Awareness has only started to shake the waves of Uganda over the last three years.
“I have had so many blessings, I have to share them. I do not mind being the poster child for this disease if it means one more life will be saved. I want Uganda to make so much noise about cancer we are able to get the machines to fight the disease through early detection and change the attitude towards terminal illness,” she says enthusiastically.
It is in that spirit that Olinka visited Gayaza High School recently to talk to the young ladies about the realities of the disease and the importance of hope and support.
“Cancer can be a lonely disease. It can be just as hard for the family as it is for the individual. The smallest gestures make all the difference. A glass of milk or even a ride to treatments. Most of those girls have lost people to the disease. They feel hopeless and sometimes only find out after their people have been taken. I want to change this,” Olinka says with a conviction that suggests that her father was right about that challenge.“It has been a long fight, it is still is, but Olinka is strong. She has made us strong,” Olinka’s mother, Janet says, echoing Natasha. There is no question how proud they are of her.
As I leave, the old lady laughingly insists I mention that her daughter talks too much.
P.s I wrote this for the paper, but I want you to know about it too because these are some of the things I am passionate about, breast cancer awareness. My Aunt…your grandma’s sister is in remission, so cancer is no stranger to our family. We have fought…and we’ll keep winning. That is why I was initially, and by chance, drawn to her story.