WHEN 13-year-old Barbra Chikomo (not her real name because she is a minor) was admitted to Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals in April, she weighed just 13 kilogrammes. Looking frail and malnourished at the time, no one imagined she would survive the week.
By Wongai Zhangazha
Barbra was transferred from Marondera General Hospital to the country’s largest referral health centre early this year as her condition deteriorated each passing day. Unlike her age-mates who are either seniors in primary school or are in Form 1, Barbra’s life has been blighted by rejection and pain. As she required more attention, her guardians chided her for failing to do her daily chores due to her condition.
The teenage girl from Macheke developed a strange condition that made her skin dry and cracked with scale-like flakes which made many dread having any direct contact with her.
What also caught the attention of those who met her was a huge lump on her left knee which was the size of a handball. Knowing that their little sister suffered from osteosarcoma — a type of cancer that develops in the bone — which had spread significantly on her right leg, made her family lose hope that Barbra would one day smile again.
After being forsaken by her elder brother and sister, who defied their rural mother’s instruction to look after Barbra, life became unbearable for the girl as she lay in her hospital bed with only her doll by her side.
According to the cancer.org website, osteosarcoma is common in children and young adults and is usually found at the end of long bones, often around the knee.
Doctors and specialists decided the only solution to stop the spread of the cancer was amputation of the leg. Well-wishers were driven by empathy and Barbra was saved.
Voluntary caregiver Pamhidzai Majera, who has provided support to Barbra since the diagnosis together with other helpers, described the girl as a fighter.
“Barbra was so sick when she was admitted to Parirenyatwa, but what was most sad was she had no one to visit her during visiting hours. Since April they have not followed up on her,” Majera said. “Signs of ill-treatment were there, she looked malnourished. She would lie helplessly on my lap. Her skin was badly damaged that some staff were hesitant to properly treat her. So we peeled off the scaly flakes; we would apply petroleum jelly all over her body and gently filed off the flakes.”
But that story of despair has turned to hope, notwithstanding the battles she fought.
“Further tests showed that Barbra still had some cancer cells left and she needed chemotherapy,” said Majera.
“Discussions were done as to whether her leg should be further amputated to the pelvis, but it was eventually agreed that she undergo chemotherapy sessions. So far she has had four with the recent one being last week where she was admitted to hospital for a week. After a week she is discharged for three weeks and comes again for another session. She is left with two more sessions until they can determine what to do next.”
Chemotherapy has not been easy for Barbra who is nicknamed “Mai Chipo” at Parirenyatwa Hospital because of the sentimental attachment she has to her doll that she named Chipo (Blessing). The chemotherapy sessions make her drowsy and that has also affected her appetite. She has more than doubled her weight to 30kg following her therapy and experts say she could recover after her chemotherapy sessions.
Barbra is now perfecting writing her name as she has never been to school. Her blood tests and medication bills were met by an international organisation , KidsCan Charitable Trust, while government, through the Labour and Social Welfare department, pays her hospital bill and anonymous donors help with groceries and her general upkeep. She has now found a new home at Shungu Dzevana Trust Children’s Home in Hatfield where other vulnerable children are taken care of.
Barbra is just one of a few lucky children from rural areas who are fighting cancer, and have received considerable support. However, hundreds of children still suffer in silence and face rejection, culminating in agonising deaths.
Last month, the Zimbabwe National Cancer Registry (ZNCR) expressed concern at the high number of new malignant cancer cases which continue to be recorded around the country with the latest statistics showing a 7% rise.
In a latest 2014 annual report released on Tuesday, ZNCR said a record 7 018 new malignant cases, representing the 7% increase when compared with the preceding year, were registered.
A total of 252 childhood cancers (age 0-14) of all races were registered in 2014. These comprised 147 (58,3%) boys and 105 (41,7%) girls. Paediatric cancers represented 3,6% of all the cancers recorded in 2014.
The most common childhood cancers of all races recorded in 2014, according to the International Classification of Childhood Cancers, were as follows: leukemia (19%), renal tumours (14%), soft tissue and other extra osseous sarcomas (12%), lymphomas and reticuloendothelial neoplasms (12%), central nervous system and miscellaneous intracranial and intraspinal neoplasms (11%), retinoblastomas (10%), malignant bone tumours (5%), other malignant epithelial neoplasms and malignant melanomas (5%) and neuroblastomas and other peripheral nervous cell tumours (4%).
Official figures show that in 2014 a total of 126 childhood cancer deaths were recorded in Zimbabwe.
Oncologist Bernadette Ndoro said new cancer cases are on the increase due to dietary changes and high costs of fighting the disease as well as a shortage of skilled personnel.
“We should very much be concerned about cancer because there seems to be an increase in cancer cases in Zimbabwe,” Ndoro said in an interview with the Zimbabwe Independent.
Ndoro said the HIV and Aids pandemic was another factor leading to the increase and cancers which are associated with HIV include Kaposi’s sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancers of the eye and cervical cancer to a certain extent.
“Most common cancers in children are blood cancers, leukemia, but these days we are also seeing lymphomas maybe as a result of immune suppression from HIV. Contamination does occur in industrial agricultural areas mines and in towns, and the presence of some heavy metals can cause gastrointestinal cancer and kidney cancers,” she said.
According to the Cancer Association of Zimbabwe (CAZ), nearly 30% of all cancers and deaths are due to the five leading behavioural and dietary risks, obesity, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco and alcohol use.
Experts believe that one in four cancers can be linked to diet.
“Limit alcohol intake, alcohol increases risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and breast. Avoid fizzy sweetened drinks and limit red meat rather include fish, chicken (without skin), kapenta, beans, lentils, soya products, flying ants, edible worms such as madora/amacimbi (mopani worms),” reads information from CAZ.