Illegal herbalists exploiting cancer patients for profit

Regina Pasipanodya

After getting so many herbs from different herbalists in Harare who claim to cure cancer, Kundai Zhungu (38) a mother of three from Mufakose (pictured) feels that she has been cheated by people who took advantage of her desperation.

She was convinced that herbs will work out for her.

 “But none of the traditional herbs worked, up until today I am still battling against the deadly disease,” said Zhungu.

She took all sorts of herbs, be it powder, dried roots, leaves, tree bark. She also took organic tablets that she bought from different herbalists in town.

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Hers is just one of many cases of illegal herbalists who are cashing in on desperate cancer patients offering them false hope.

Agony of a cancer patient’

“All my life I never knew that one day I will live to tell a story as a cancer survivor,” she said as she narrates her ordeal.

It is now about three months after Zhungu went through a surgery that saw her right breast being removed and is now facing a prospect of chemotherapy, a treatment that employs potent chemicals to destroy a body’s rapidly proliferating cells that expand far more swiftly than most other cells in the body.

Watch: Zhungu talk about her ordeal

 “I was diagnosed with an infiltration lobular carcinoma Nottingham grade 2, a kind of cancer that is said to be aggressive so the oncologists advised that I should also do chemotherapy a process that makes me restless. Of late I have been so anxious and I do not know what to do and what will happen to me after this procedure. I have been using different herbs and forked out a lot of money to save my life. Some of them would cost about $50, $150, $30 depending on the type as I was told by herbalist but nothing worked,” she said.

Zhungu started using herbs as a complementary treatment for cancer after she was convinced by several testimonies she had read on social media, but for her nothing changed.  She feels hers could just be an ill-fate situation.

Her agony started soon after she removed her third child from breastfeeding in April 2022.

“Since weaning is something that I am very familiar with, I failed to understand why this time around one of my breast continued to be sore and becoming hard inside for almost a year. By each passing day the condition was getting worse so I decided to visit the clinic for a check-up in February 2023.

“Unfortunately, when I got at the clinic I was referred to the hospital for further examinations but I had no money during the time for hospital consultation,” said Zhungu.

Sadly, when she finally visited the Parirenyatwa hospital in June, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, one of the most common cancers amongst women.

According to World Health Organisation cervical cancer is the most prevalent amongst black women (33.5%), followed by breast (11.7%), Kaposi sarcoma (8.9%), eye (6.5%) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (4.9%).

Cancer Association of Zimbabwe revealed that cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide. Nearly 10 million people succumbed to cancer in 2020 making it a major cause of morbidity and mortality in the country with over 5 000 new diagnoses and over 1 500 deaths per year.

The National Cancer Registry states that between 2009 and 2018 cancer has emerged as a major public health concern in sub-Saharan Africa. In Zimbabwe, the cases have almost doubled due to factors such as poor access to early diagnosis treatment and palliative care.

However, the Ministry of Health and Child Care National Cancer Prevention and Control Strategy for Zimbabwe attributed the rising figures of cancer cases to HIV & AIDS and other infections, unhealthy lifestyle choices and an ageing population.

How the illegal herbalists are taking advantage of the dire health situation?

In Zimbabwe most cancer patients have been struggling to raise money for the treatment due to astronomical costs.

According to Zhungu, before she could get an operation, she had to undergo so many tests like biopsy which costs about USD190, after paying out USD15 consultation fee to Parirenyatwa Hospital.

“For the operation the deposit which is required for the surgery is about USD500, and after that, the removed breast is then sent to the laboratory for more tests and this cost about USD150. On top of that I had to buy some medication which I was supposed to use for a month and a dosage for each day cost me USD20,” she said.

“I failed to raise the money for this treatment and only used 2 doses.

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And now that I have to go for chemotherapy, I am supposed to do CT scan, Ultrasound scan among other tests before I start the sessions which ranges from USD100 to USD170. After that radiotherapy should be done and it costs about USD4000,” said Zhungu.

To avoid such bills, she resorted to herbs as an alternative, but that did not work.

A survey conducted by She Corresponds Africa in Harare revealed that many cancer patients are turning to fly by night herbalists, after failing to raise medical fees.

Most of the country’s hospitals are struggling as they do not have enough machinery, drugs, consumables and are manned by demotivated staff. Cancer patients have not been spared by the country’s crumbling health-care delivery system.

The chances of survival among cancer patients are often compromised owing to the failure of the health sector.

Herbalists are now taking advantage of the situation.

Just like Zhungu, another breast cancer patient, Tendai Mamutse*, said she had also fallen victim to illegal herbalists.

“When I learnt that the lumps in my one of my breasts was cancerous, I decided to go the traditional way which saw me buying herbs from different distributors in the Harare Central Business Department,” she said.

“By using herbs, I thought that the cancer was going to disappear without having to undergo any surgery.”

Her biggest fear was to burden her family with hefty hospital bills that are charged in hospitals for one to get treatment.

However, just like Zhungu, Tendai’s situation did not improve.

Do herbs really cure cancer?

Speaking to She Corresponds Africa Simon Muzangirwa a local herbalist from Glenview said that he is one of the herbalists who has been helping different cancer patients in his area.

“I started selling herbs in 2018, which is something that I learnt from my grandparents. I grew up living with them and we used to eat ndorani and other herbs like ‘mufandichimuka’ for different ailments and I can confirm that cancer just like any other disease can be cured traditionally,” said Muzangirwa.

Muzangirwa has been selling herbs cancer treatment herbs for a minimum of US$50.

“So far I have helped people with prostate, breast cancer and cervical cancer and I have confirmed the results myself,” said Muzangirwa.

But, over the years with the rising cases of cancer there has been an upsurge of bogus herbalists sprouting around the country claiming that they have found the cure for cancer.

“People are taking advantage of the situation, selling herbs that they do not know or rather do not work. They just put a sticker on a packet of some powder written “mushonga wegomarara” (cancer treatment) just to make money. The reality is that not all of these can really cure cancer it takes a calling to know the correct medicines,” said Muzangirwa.

Muzangirwa’s sentiments was shared by Mbuya Mavhu a traditional healer of 30 years from Stoneridge Waterfalls, who is accredited with the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association.

“I has been helping people with different issues since I was in Grade 7, and cancer is not unique. What I know is that it only needs people with a calling to understand the right treatment for each given case.

As traditional healers we guided by the ancestors who through our spiritual communication can guide us through the treatment procedures and dosages as well,” said Gogo Mavhu.

However, she raised concerns on how people are taking advantage of desperate people and fraudulently take their money for something that they know does not work.

Zvinorwadza kuti vanhu vazhinji vakunofira pasi pemuti vachinyeberwa kuti vari kurapwa apa vachibirwa mari dzavo. (It’s painful that a lot of people are losing their lives under the name of getting help).

George Kandiero, President of Zinatha said traditional herbs can cure different ailments and have been used over centuries. He however said the upsurge of herbalist who are selling herbs in the streets are worrisome.

“Not everyone is that gifted, it is not something that a person can learn from the books but rather takes a calling and spiritual guidance.  I would rather urge the people to be cautious about using these herbs and avoid buying from uncertified traditional healers. Most of them are just fake who are looking for an opportunity to make money,” said Kandiero.

A local herbalist in Harare who requested anonymity said information nowadays is shared from social so it has become easier for people to know about herbs.

“Most these issues are shared on social media, therefore, it is not that difficult to know about herbs. What we follow are the instructions that are available and hoping that it would work for my clients.  

Clinical oncologist, Dr Nomsa Tsikai said the treatment of cancer involves a multi-disciplinary setting involving clinical oncologist, breast surgeons, pathologists, radiologist and other relevant specialties.

“The issue of herbal medicines is a highly contentious and controversial subject, to our knowledge as doctors there is no evidence which has shown any herbal medicines as an effective alternative.

There are however, multiple unverified social media testimonies on these herbal therapies with claims of efficacy,” said Dr Tsikai.

Dr Tsikai confirmed that several patients who have used herbal medicines sadly have not had good clinical outcomes, a finding that oncologists find disturbing. She urged the public to be aware of the dangers of using unregistered medicines.

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