Odds weigh against survival for Ugandan woman with cancer

| February 13, 2014

(GIN)—A decade ago, Dr. Jackson Orem was the sole oncologist serving 39 million Ugandans at the Uganda Cancer Institute. Today, with a small team of specialists, he brings hope to his patients with late term breast or ovarian cancer.

But, the majority of patients who visit Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala have a slim chance of getting adequate and timely care.

“We get about 22,000 new cases [annually],” said Orem. Of those, 20,000 die within a year.

“Cancer literacy is very low and it does not matter whether the patient is educated or not,” added Dr. Fred Okuku. “Doctors, teachers, bank managers all turn up late at the Institute.”

Last week, communities around the world marked World Cancer Day in the face of a “tidal wave” of cancer, according to the World Health Organization. Half of all new cases could be prevented, they say, by tackling smoking, obesity and drinking.

But in Uganda, women face additional hurdles. Drug shortages and lost biopsies lead to dangerous delays in care. Chemotherapy is supposed to be free at the cancer institute, but when it runs out of drugs, patients must buy their own.

Since the cancer institute does not yet offer surgery or radiation, women turn to Mulago Hospital with its aged radiation machine. Patients there are referred from Kenya, Rwanda and South Sudan so that the machine is kept running night and day.

Women may be fired from work for taking days off for treatment and others fear their children will be not be considered for marriage if their own condition is known.

For years, cancer was not a public health priority despite causing more fatalities than HIV, malaria and TB combined. The government spent only $50,000 a year on cancer treatment in 2004, compared to $50 million on HIV prevention.

“Uganda’s Neglected Epidemic of Breast Cancer” was recently the subject of a special series in The New York Times, which reported on women-led support groups to help others avoid the pitfalls they might encounter.

Josephine Bamuwamye, 63, a retired midwife treated for breast cancer 13 years ago, considers herself lucky to be alive. Despite missteps in her own treatment, she volunteers at the cancer institute, where she persuades other women with breast cancer to start chemotherapy and stick with it.

“I tell them their hair and their strength will come back,” she told the Times. “I was very sick, but now I’m okay.”

And, a Women’s Cancer Support Organization (UWOCASO) has a Facebook page. Photos of the group can be seen on their page.

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Category: Africa Briefs, Health

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