What She Said: After Surviving Cervical Cancer, I Just Want Peace

June 9, 2021

Navigating life as a woman in the world today is interesting. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, it’ll amaze you how similar all our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their experiences on everything from sex to politics right here. This is Zikoko’s What She Said.

The subject of this week’s What She Said, is a 25-year-old woman who has been through so much and would just like to be at peace for the rest of her life. She talks about how unlucky she’s been with friends, her tense relationship with her mother, beating cervical cancer, and how therapy helped her figure out life. 

What’s your earliest memory of your childhood? 

When I fell into a gutter and broke my leg because I was trying not to get caught playing with the neighbours’ children. I was five. 

Why didn’t you want to get caught playing with them? 

My parents are weird. They didn’t want us to have any friends. My mum, especially, thought the neighbours were witches, so she didn’t want us to play with them.

Damn. Does that mean you didn’t have friends? 

I actually didn’t. I was shy, had social anxiety and was too terrified of my parents to try making any. Then I started university, and the friends I had were not that great. 

I got into a private university in Benin City when I was just 13, which is quite early, so I tried to keep my head down and focus on my studies. 

My friends, however, constantly made fun of me. They picked on my weight, which eventually made me anorexic. Looking back, I see that we were all insecure children trying to find our way, but I don’t think I’ll ever forgive them. 

Wow. They must have been really awful. 

Yes. They did so many bad things to me. They put weed in my food once, and I blacked out. When I woke up, I was naked in bed with one of my friends. She might have assaulted me; I’m not sure. I just remember my nipples being sore and wet, nothing more. I was only 13.

The second time they drugged me, I was in my second year. They were experimenting with a random pill and were too scared to try it themselves, so they put it in my drink and only told me after I drank it. All I remember was being very happy and floaty and then waking up in a hotel room. 

I finally snapped when one of them raped my boyfriend. 

I’m sorry, what? 

I was 16 then. I had a boyfriend whom I was happy with, but one of my friends wasn’t happy about it. She told my boyfriend she would be better than me in bed because I’m frigid, unfeeling and like firewood. She eventually drugged him, raped him, made a video, and then showed the video to me. 

When I confronted her, she said she was tired of seeing me get men’s attention though I hardly socialised or made an effort. 

After the entire incident, I cut off the entire friendship group. I also broke up with him. I think it’s one of the saddest things in my past, one of the things I’m most embarrassed about. 

So all of this coupled with the fact that I had an eating disorder, anxiety and severe depression that was making me skip exams, my parents decided to transfer me to a university in Uganda to finish medical school. 

Wait, how did your parents go from “no friends” to “let’s send our daughter to a new country”? 

My parents are complicated. My mother is a mix of feminism and misogyny. She’s all for getting your own education, but get it so your husband will be proud of you.

She was the one that pushed me to travel to Uganda when I wanted to drop out of med school. When I wanted to drop out of med school, she instead brought up schooling in Uganda. She had been bragging to her friends about me being in medical school and didn’t want to deal with the embarrassment. 

Also, she was in Tanzania, so she wasn’t too far from me. 

I thought your family lived in Nigeria? 

My family moves around a lot. For most of my time in medical school, my mum was perambulating around East Africa: Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, a truly disastrous stint in Uganda, then to Burundi.

I’m pretty sure my dad is in Ghana right now, but a few weeks ago, he was in South Africa. My brother is in Cotonou; I’m in Uganda. My sister is the only one still in Nigeria. 

Wow. What made your mum’s stint in Uganda disastrous?

She got me in an arranged engagement with an already married man, and when I refused, she disowned me. 

Excuse me? 

I have trouble confronting my mum. When she and the man set up the engagement, I just sat there. I didn’t want to cause a conflict, so I just let it go on. It went on for four months. I had seen him just twice and spoken to him for about an hour. I don’t know how my mum expected me to marry someone I had just spoken to for an hour. 

One Saturday morning, his wife sent a text to inform me that she was married to the man. She also mentioned she had gotten three abortions for him because he said he never wanted kids. I found that strange because a few weeks before, he got the spare key to my house from my mother, showed up without my permission and demanded we start having children immediately. 

My friend and I decided to search social media for pictures of him and his wife, and we found some. I compiled a whole folder and sent it to my mum. She told me his wife was just jealous, and I should carry on with the engagement. 

How did you get out of it?

My mum set up a meeting with all three of us. Me, her and the man. She told me that she’d already told people I was getting married, so breaking it off would be a disgrace to her. 

I yelled at her, she yelled at me, he yelled at me for yelling at her. He told me I disappointed him, and I told him he was possessed to think I cared about what he thought. 

She disowned me then I moved houses and did not inform anyone where the house was. For like two months, I was living free in my own peace, until she randomly sent me money one day. She called me to find out if I had gotten the alert and said she missed me. 

We never had a proper discussion about what happened during those months or what caused her to make that decision. 

Wow. That was a lot. What was schooling in Uganda like? 

For one, there’s nobody out to get you. If you read your books, you pass. My favourite part of it, however, is the freedom. In Uganda, I have learnt to see people first and religion and tribe last. 

Second favourite thing is how I was able to finally discover my sexuality. Uganda was where I finally figured out women and went nuts. Uganda was my first time being really away from my family, and I loved it. It helped me come to terms with all that had happened in my past. 

How did it do that? 

My school gave us medical insurance, and it came with four free psych visits per month.  I went a couple of times, and the therapist forced me to face a lot about myself. 

Therapy is great for me. It’s given me helpful coping tools to deal with my harmful behaviours, and I love that I get to talk about things and get them out of my head.

The process, however, is very painful. I hate it. The past is painful and addressing it in therapy made me realise that a lot of the things I do are a result of being repeatedly traumatised by the people I trust.

I recently discovered that I was circumcised. Apparently, when I was younger, I stayed with an aunt while my parents travelled. One night while I slept, she cut off my clit. Because of that, I’m always tense in my sleep, as if I’m expecting to be attacked. Everything is a trauma response for me. From the way I walk, to the way I sleep. The first week of therapy left me really depressed. 

I am so sorry. Do you ever think of returning to Nigeria? 

I was supposed to move back in 2020, but because of Corona and the fact that I had cervical cancer again, I couldn’t come back. 

Cervical cancer again?

In 2018, I went for a pap smear and noticed I had a precancerous cervical lesion. It got treated, and I moved on. 

Then in late 2019, I had a couple of bad periods that lasted about two weeks and were very heavy. It was so bad, I fainted. So, I went in for a pap smear. Imagine my surprise when they told me my lesion was back and this time it was full-blown cancer. 

In 2020, I got chemotherapy and a trachelectomy. I’m still in recovery but got the all-clear from my oncologist. 

I’m so sorry. Do you ever regret not dropping out of medical school? 

No, my job is fun as hell. I am an obstetrician and a gynaecologist, but I love obstetrics more. 

Do you want any children?

I actually can’t stand children. I’ve seen far too many women die bringing kids into the world. These women have already gotten pregnant; the least I can do is actually help them get the children out alive. 

What keeps you going? 

I’m not a very hopeful person, and 2020 took a lot out of me, so I just want peace. One day, I want the inside of my head to be quiet. No arguments between my self-esteem and my brain. Just quiet. 

That’s not to say I don’t have little sparks of joy in my life. They’re not even little. More like explosions of joy. My blood sisters and the sisters I made by choice give me joy. 

Whenever babies take their first breath, every successful cesarean, successful vagina delivery, managed miscarriage. Every morning when I run up the same four flights of stairs I used to be wheeled up for chemo and blood transfusions without being out of breath. These things give me joy. 

I’m in a relationship now, and they make me so fucking happy. These are the things I love and look forward to. 

For more stories like this, check out our #WhatSheSaid and for more women like content, please click here

Itohan Esekheigbe

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