The cherry trees were in full bloom the day Liza Ngenye learned she had stage three lymphoma blanketing her trachea like the downy mat of pink blossoms underfoot. The night before, she had gone to bed a healthy graduate student at the prestigious George Washington University. Within hours she would awake in the night gasping for breath and pleading hoarsely for dispatch to send an ambulance.
At the hospital, with early tests determining nothing worse than a panic attack, she held onto the hope that it was all just one big misunderstanding. That the cough which had persisted since Christmas really was just allergies; that struggling to breathe in a pool of sweat really was all in her mind. By the time the hospital discharged her, the sun was shining and the unseasonably balmy morning of early April dispelled the last of her fears. She began to walk the four blocks back to her apartment. She was nearly home when she got the phone call.
Nobody actually told Liza that she had cancer. It wasn’t until she googled Hodgkins lymphoma that she knew with the clinical certainty denied her at the hospital that she could die. Even then, with death more imminent than she had ever felt in her life and with funeral fantasies playing as daydreams through her head, Liza felt weighted by the knowledge of mortality only by the haunted look in the eyes of those who supported her. During chemotherapy, everyone assumed her grief-stricken mother was the one with cancer.
Of course, Liza’s physical despair was profound: the chemicals conscripted to fight the disease also wreaked violence on her body, producing casualties of war mouth sores, daily vomiting, dizziness, confusion, and thirty pounds of weight loss. But Liza quarantined the sickness to her flesh alone, keeping her heart and mind active and well. So much so that she maintained a 3.8 GPA all throughout the chemotherapy treatments. She never even skipped a class.
“I wish I could tell you I am the smartest person I know,” said Liza. “But it was a complete miracle.”
Finally, in summer 2012, after six months of rigorous chemotherapy, Liza was declared cancer free. In spring 2013 she graduated with top marks from George Washington University with a Master of Professional Studies in Strategic Public Relations degree. On the surface everything seemed perfect. She was a healthy, well-educated young woman with test results to prove both. She had a one-year extension to stay in America and work in her field, and she had an offer from her alma mater, Union College, to return and do exactly that. But as a healthy, professional young woman, Liza felt worse than she had ever felt as a student with cancer.
“I never processed that I had cancer until after cancer,” Liza said. “I was finally healthy but I felt like I was dead.” At her final checkup Liza asked her doctor what to do now that it was all over. “Go live your life,” the doctor said. Liza walked away thinking how do I do that?
Back in Lincoln, Liza was happy to be among the friends and teachers who had supported her through school and sickness, but she still felt hollow, as if the chemotherapy had voided her of more than just the lymphoma. She became depressed, working and sleeping and wondering all the while what had happened to the happy woman who had defeated cancer.
“My body just stopped,” said Liza. “It said ‘leave me alone, I don’t want to go on anymore.’”
That’s when she sought professional guidance. The counselor she met with helped her to see that her depression was a way for the subconscious to make its voice heard, and that it was saying, “We are not ok. We are not ok.” And so Liza began to slow down and listen.
“If I had listened to my body at the very beginning I would have had a full checkup,” said Liza. “We push and push ourselves until our body throws in the towel.”
When her visa expired in spring 2014, Liza moved back to Kenya, where a job awaited her teaching business communication at the Management University of Africa. Amid the joys and rigors of teaching, Liza continued to sort through the rubble of the mortal whirlwind that had raged within her and then departed as quickly and quietly as it had arrived. She made new friends, settled into a comfortable home, and earned the respect of her students, many of whom were working professionals continuing their education, but still, she was haunted by cancer. And then Liza found a cure. Writing.
It took Liza three years and two weeks to write her first book, Honest Words. Three years to heal, physically and mentally, and two weeks to type. “Once I opened my computer and started writing, I didn’t stop,” said Liza. “It was an assignment from God.” The idea to write a book had started as a tongue-in-cheek catchall for the numerous questions about cancer people would ask her. “I’ll just have to write a book,” Liza would tease. But the idea took root. It wasn’t until she experienced the heartache of a different kind that she realized the true evil of sickness, whether cancer or a painful relationship, in its propensity to darken the mind, like a black sheet over a window. “I still had cancer even after I was declared cancer-free,” said Liza. “it is a disease of the brain and soul. Unless we are confident enough to deal with it, it will always haunt us. Until I wrote the book, cancer would never have ended.”
More than just a chance to exorcise her personal demons, Liza wrote Honest Words as a way to provide some measure of hope and clarity to others who are fighting illness, whether of the body or of the soul. “When you share your life with someone else, you are giving back,” said Liza. “Your experiences are not yours alone. Writing this book was how I gave back.”
“This book is my tribute to the experience of cancer.”
Now, as professor of business communications at Strathmore University in Nairobi, where most students receive more money in allowance than teachers do in salary, Liza keeps cool in the face of a different challenge. The transition from teaching working professionals at the Management University of Africa to teaching entitled teenagers has been a difficult one. The career-oriented men and women of MUA understand the value of time, money and education, and behave accordingly; the privileged kids of Kenyan elites understand only that their parents’ money has trapped them in an institution they couldn’t care less about. For your average person, weathering the storm of such apathy would involve battening down the emotional hatches and curling into the figurative, and occasionally literal, fetal position. But Liza is not your average person, and she has weathered storms far worse than the moods of mere teenagers.
“You have to motivate them,” said Liza, who often finds herself more mentor than a professor. “They don’t want to be there.”
In her class of 70 apathetic teenagers, Liza doesn’t leap across desks like Robin Williams in the film, Dead Poet’s Society. She doesn’t speak in cryptic aphorisms or spontaneously recite Shakespeare. But she does demand excellence with the same level-headed integrity that delivered her from the grips of disease and depression. “I feel bad for people who succumb to defeat,” Liza tells her students. “There is more on the other end, you just need to keep going. I expect nothing but success from you.” The message is finding its mark with her students because she is a living testament to its veracity. And with her easy smile and infectious joy, Liza is the ideal gatekeeper of such wisdom.
“Tell people I am happy,” said Liza. “Don’t end it on a cliffhanger. For the first time in my life, I have reached contentment. I wish this joy on everyone else. I am ready for whatever happens.”
By Michael Rohm