PORTSMOUTH � As she begins to make her own funeral arrangements,�Charlotte Ngarukiye wants to talk about the cancer that will likely soon leave her husband a single father of three young children.
Ngarukiye was 33 last year when she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, just two weeks after giving birth to her son. Ultimately, the cancer was found too late for doctors to have any treatment success � it had already spread to her liver and lungs. She is currently receiving hospice care in the comfort of her home.
Ngarukiye’s husband, Gaston, is a refugee and survivor of the Rwandan Civil War, where he lost both of his parents at age 11. The couple met while attending the University of New Hampshire, and now call Portsmouth home.
During her third pregnancy, Ngarukiye experienced a tremendous amount of pain, and ultimately left her job one month before giving birth, resulting in a loss of her health insurance. For nine months, she was assured by doctors the pain was pregnancy-related.
“I want people to know if something feels wrong, it probably is,” Ngarukiye said. “I think the biggest thing is that I was so young that I didn’t suspect that this was going to ever be a problem in my life.”
The American Cancer Society says there has been a 51% increase in colorectal cancer among those under age 50 since 1994. More young adults than ever are getting colorectal cancer and dying from it.
A survey released in 2019 by the Colorectal Cancer Alliance found 67% of young-onset colorectal cancer patients saw at least two doctors and as many as four before being diagnosed, leading to late stage 3 or 4 diagnoses for 71% of those surveyed.
Ngarukiye said it’s been estimated she’s probably had the cancer for five or six years, going back to her late 20s. “I saw multiple doctors during my pregnancy with my son because I was having significant pain and no one was really taking me seriously. All of the doctors I saw said, ‘Oh, that’s the baby.’ It was a long time coming that I got my diagnosis.”
Her cancer journey has since involved multiple rounds of chemotherapy, two clinical trials, radiation and stays at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Ngarukiye said she tells everyone now to get a colonoscopy, no matter their age, “just because if people knew what I know now, that there is a rise of so many people in their 20s and 30s getting colon cancer. I know someone as young as 11.”
Despite the excruciating physical pain and understanding she will ultimately leave three children age 5 and younger, she has stood firm in her faith � the Baha’i religion.
“We believe in an afterlife that is very close to this life,” she said. “A spiritual and material world that co-exists together. So I tell my children I’m always going to be there with them, they just won’t be able to see me. I may lose my physical body, but the soul continues eternally.”
A community-wide raffle is currently taking place to support the Ngarukiye family, and tickets can be purchased at the following businesses through March 1: Wink Salon and Spa, We Fill Good, Making Faces and BARE Waxing Boutique. Raffle prizes include beauty and hair services, gift certificates to local restaurants, a personalized nutrition consultation, photography class, car detailing, among many more.
A GoFundMe page has already raised more than $50,000, allowing Gaston to take a month off from work in Boston to care for the children, instead of spending funds on expensive childcare.
Ngarukiye’s friend Erica Ojougboh is organizing the raffle. Ojougboh is continuously astounded by her friend’s selflessness and care for others during her battle. Ojougboh also noted Ngarukiye’s husband and family are “amazing” in how they have mobilized around her diagnosis.
“She has had so much grace,” Ojougboh said. “You never see her feeling sorry for herself. Through all of this, it’s everyone else she worries about. it’s her husband, her children, other families going undiagnosed.
“To be able to wish well for people when you’re in such dark times, it’s unreal. She’s just been an incredible friend. I’ve never known anyone like her.”