Neglect condemns cancer patients to death

Mary Mundeya

RUDO Matare was 38 years old when she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in 2017. Her decision to follow the doctor’s advice to undergo a mastectomy in order to remove her left breast to stop the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body turned out to be disastrous.

Her friend and breast cancer survivor Monica Simande says Matare’s life took a dramatic turn for the worse when her removed left breast was taken to Lancet Laboratories for further tests which indicated that it was cancer free.

“Upon receiving results from Lancet Laboratories that her removed left breast did not have any cancer, she suffered from cardiac arrest and died. We were all left shocked as to how it was possible that someone could be diagnosed of an advanced stage of breast cancer when she didn’t have it at all,” Simande said.

“It all made sense when several days after my friend’s death, Dr Edwin Muguti (former health deputy minister) appeared on national TV saying that the cancer machines we had in Zimbabwe were not working properly since certain elements had gone obsolete.”

Matare’s story is typical of the untold horror that cancer patients in Zimbabwe have been going through for the past decade as a result of the malfunctioning and obsolete cancer diagnosis and treatment machines in affordable public hospitals.

In February 2017, after undergoing 18 sessions of chemotherapy for the stage three breast cancer she had been diagnosed with, Maria Tembo received devastating news that her cancer had spread to the lungs.

Doctors at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare told her that in order to curb the cancer from spreading from the lungs to the rest of her body, she was supposed to undergo another cycle of chemo therapy.

 She says: “Having seen other people go through another cycle of chemotherapy and dying, I knew that my chances of survival were close to none. Besides, my body was spent from the 18 sessions of chemo I had already gone through.

“A month later, my husband and I resorted to getting another opinion in South Africa where we were told that I was free of cancer, meaning the cycle of chemotherapy I had gone through had worked and there was no need to go for another cycle.”

 In April 2017, after her South African trip, Tembo went to a local private hospital where the results she had received in South Africa were corroborated.

 “If it was not for my husband who sold our car so that we go to South Africa for another opinion on the diagnosis that I had been given, I’m certain that I wouldn’t have made it to today,’’ Tembo says.

“Its such a shame that other cancer patients without financial resources to seek treatment at private institutions or go out of the country end up dying because of the current state of cancer treatment in our public institutions,” Tembo said.

According to the World Health Organisation, cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020. Zimbabwe’s ministry of Health and Child Care National Cancer Prevention and Control Strategy for 2014 to 2018 highlighted that, cancer is a major cause of morbidity and mortality with over 5 000 new diagnoses and over 1 500 deaths per year.

 The paper indicates that over 5 000 new cancer cases are diagnosed in Zimbabwe annually.

The statistics are however believed to be a tip of the iceberg as many cancer patients are not captured by the routine National Health Information System because they do not present for treatment. Some deaths are also not formally recorded.

 In 2020, the World Health Organisation’s research on cancer revealed that Zimbabwe was losing half of its cancer patients, and among the many reasons for this is the late detection of the disease.

Another reason is that the country’s public healthcare system is not equipped to deal with cancer at its various stages and in its different formats.

The absence of properly functioning cancer testing and treatment machines at Zimbabwe’s public hospitals has also led to many cases of mis-diagnosis that have resulted in the death of patients.

Speaking at a meeting for senior health and government officials who were gathered at a hotel in Harare in February 2022 to discuss issues and problems related to cancer treatment in the country as it faces a critical shortage of radiotherapy and chemotherapy equipment, Dr Nothando Mutizira, a cancer specialist at Parirenyatwa Hospital, said: “Cancer treatment services in the country are highly unreliable.”

Cancer Association of Zimbabwe (CAZ) general manager Junior Mavu concurred with Mutizira’s sentiments highlighting that investing in cancer testing and treatment machines for the country’s public hospitals was the only way to beat the cancer mis-diagnosis that has been rocking the country for years.

“Our public health institutions do not have properly working cancer-related machines hence the increased numbers of cases where people are being misdiagnosed and are ending up dying because of wrong medication,” she said. “As a nation, we need to equip our public health institutions with properly working cancer machines so that we avoid such occurrences,” she said.

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