AS Zimbabwe this month commemorates breast cancer month under the theme “Think pink, find it, fight it and win the battle”, cancer treatment remains expensive and beyond the reach of most ordinary citizens.
The cost build-up from examination, diagnosis, lumpectomy, surgery and chemotherapy/radiotherapy, runs into thousands of dollars with no subsidies to alleviate the financial burden.
Many people end up dying because they just cannot afford to get treatment.
An elderly woman, Mutsa Dondo from Chipinge, sits in the shade on the lush green lawn next to the entrance to the Parirenyatwa Radiotherapy Centre. Diagnosed with cervical cancer, she has just gone through her regular chemotherapy session and taking a rest before heading home.
She gets up to refill her water bottle at a tap nearby, gulps a few sips and returns back to sit in the shade.
Despite the long and painful treatment, she still manages a smile albeit a weak one, and says treatment has now become part of her routine without which she would not survive for long.
“My life changed on 13 February last year after I had bled continuously,” says Dondo. “It was like I was having a continuous menstrual cycle which is not just normal. I wasted no time in seeking medical attention at a local clinic despite some friends and relatives suggesting it was a clear case of witchcraft as at my age they didn’t expect that.”
At the rural clinic, they referred her to Mutare General Hospital where she was told the devastating news that she had cervical cancer.
She said for her the news was both as devastating as it was frightening as she had no idea how to fight the illness and feared the end was nigh.
Because the hospital did not have adequate facilities for effective cancer treatment, she was referred to Parirenyatwa Hospital.
Since then costs of the treatment have eroded a significant amount of her meagre funds. This is worsened by the fact she is a widow and has a son who is scrounging around for money doing temporary menial jobs which pay little.
Dondo said: “Soon they will want to perform brachytherapy to burn the cancer cells. They want US$500 for this and they require at least half of it so that I can have it done. I have no idea where I will get that kind of money.”
Dondo, who is in her early 50s, is one of the many patients gathered at the health centre for cancer treatment. Some arrive and have to be moved around in a wheelchair as they can barely move by themselves.
At the reception, manned by a female guard in a seemingly foul mood, a group of people arrive with their relative who is in a wheelchair and ask for assistance.
They are asked whether they have brought their cards. Unfortunately, because they were not booked, they were told they need to make an appointment.
They make the appointment and leave without being attended to.
Speaking to one of the staffers, this reporter was told that the centre was fully booked for the week and new appointments were only available at the end of next week.
One can feel the acute distress and helplessness patients go through when they are given such information.
Some patients are limping, some look extremely frail, but the one thing that they all share is a sense of optimism that they will pull through their traumatic experience with cancer.
According to World Health Organisation Global Health Estimates (2013), it is estimated that worldwide over 508 000 women died in 2011 due to breast cancer.
Statistics from the Ministry of Health show that on average, 1 800 women are affected annually by either breast or cervical cancer.
Of the affected, an estimated 1 200 die from the disease annually. A cycle is the time one goes through chemotherapy and then breaks before the next treatment to allow the body to recover. A patient may need a minimum of six cycles and these can go up to 12.
Radiotherapy costs between US$3 000 and US$4 000 for a whole session. In addition, cancer drugs are extremely expensive.
While many people will heed the call to wear pink ribbons, cancer patients and organisations feel awareness should also entail a more dedicated effort from government and even the private sector to make resources available to every patient.
The experience of 47-year-old Faresi Takawira of Warren Park demonstrates that breast cancer can be cured.
“It all started in March 2008 when I discovered a lump on my left breast and armpit,” Takawira said.
At a clinic Takawira had a mammogram (breast x-ray) which revealed she had cysts.
She was then referred to a surgeon for a lumpectomy (surgical tumor tissue removal) that was done on in that month which revealed I had breast cancer. I was then referred to the Cancer Association for counselling prior to the operation called radical modified mastectomy,” she said.
This was the beginning of a “long, difficult and painful journey for me and my family”, she said. She started the “dreaded and vicious chemotherapy”, which ended in September of that same year.
“There was only one radiotherapy machine working in the whole country and it was constantly breaking down due to overuse.
An official from the Cancer Association of Zimbabwe who refused to be named said although her organisation was increasing awareness and more people were aware of cancer, there were still formidable challenges.
“Most treatments are done in Harare and Bulawayo and it’s a challenge for those outside Harare who want to receive immediate treatment. Government should open up different cancer centres nationwide to help the less privileged,” she said.
Last month the Ministry of Health introduced the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine to fight cervical cancer related deaths among women.
A local oncologist who spoke anonymously as he is not allowed to talk to the press said: “I don’t support free treatment of cancer, but existing funds for instance from social welfare should come in and assist the poor with treatment because of the high cost of cancer drugs.”
However, hopes for the setting up of a cancer levy to help lessen the burden of treatment cost, failed this week as Minister of Health and Child Care, David Parirenyatwa, said government is considering shelving the proposed levy as it would further strain heavily taxed workers.