Back to Index
know in every fibre of your being what your purpose is, because
it makes you sing: Interview with Andrea Whatman
April 24, 2012
with Andrea Whatman
What started with one woman reading stories once a week to paediatric
cancer patients in the Parirenyatwa Hospital's Cancer Ward,
has become a voluntary organisation, playing a pivotal role in raising
funds for the treatment and psychosocial care of children suffering
from cancer. Andrea Whatman is the brains and passion behind Kidzcan,
and works tirelessly with a team of volunteers to help these children
when they need help the most. A childhood cancer survivor herself,
this woman has many dreams for the future of paediatric cancer patient
care in Zimbabwe. Read on to learn more Andrea Whatman and her work.
begin by introducing yourself and telling us how Kidzcan was started?
I'm Andrea Whatman. I have a great husband and a twenty-year
old son. The reason that I started this work was because as a little
girl of ten, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
That was in the sixties and if a child got leukemia, it was a death
sentence. The doctors told my mum and dad that I only had two months
to live. There were no bone marrow transplants; there was no chemo
in those days. A Methodist minister called Reverend Frank Mustle
used to come and visit me in hospital and pray. The two months came
and went and I was still around. And my doctors, said, "Whatever
you're doing, carry on doing it. We don't know what
is happening here." It took nine years for me to get better.
I was in hospital for 3 years, intermittently. I just believe that
God had a plan in that. I think that that's the reason I'm
Once I'd left hospital, I went back to school. I then went
on to Art College in Durban, where I became a graphic artist, and
eventually worked in advertising for 10 years as a studio manager
and art director, which I loved. By then I was married, and I had
been told that I would never have any children. And again God had
a different plan; I had a little boy.
Then decided I wanted to give back. The thing that I remembered
when I was sick in hospital was that there was no recreational fun
for the kids. We used to take the syringes for our blood, and do
water fights, and we used to have wheelchair races, but the matron
nearly killed us. So, I thought, "What could I do for a child
in hospital?" And I thought, "I'll go and read
a book." And that was how it started!
shed a bit of light on some of the challenges that children suffering
from cancer face.
One of the challenges is fear, fear of the unknown. I think children
are much braver than adults. And the parents' reaction to
cancer has a huge impact on the child. Speaking from experience,
it's actually worse for the parents or the siblings who are
watching their loved one suffer, than it is for us, as a patient
who just has to trudge through it. They have much more baggage;
they have bigger fears. A child definitely lives in the 'now'.
And so, you'll walk into the hospital, and you'll see
a child one day who's been on chemo, who's vomiting
and feeling dreadful, and you'll go and say, "How are
you today Tatenda?" and Tatenda will groan and say "I'm
feeling sick", but the next day, he's on top of the
world and he's ready to play football. So I think children
feel the responsibility of their parent's suffering, as well
as the physical side of it.
is the most common type of cancer found in children in Zimbabwe?
These statistics have been taken from our Cancer Data Registry,
in Zimbabwe, which is based at Parirenyatwa Hospital and compiled
by Eric Chakanonga. The biggest cancer in boys is called Retinoblastoma,
which occurs in the eye. It's very easy to diagnose, even
by a non-medical person. It manifests as an opaque white iris. So
if you see any child with this, take him/her to the hospital. We
can save the child's sight, the child's eye and the
child's life. The main one in girls is a thing called Wilms
Tumor, which is a cancer on the kidney. At Harare Hospital, we have
a paediatric operating theatre and we have numerous paediatric surgeons.
And they surgically remove the tumor and then it's backed
up with chemotherapy or radiation, depending on what the doctors
are the survival rates of these children?
20% of children are in the developed world, and have an 80% survival
rate. So they've made huge strides in getting childhood cancer
to a curable rate. However, 80% of children are in the developing
world, and they only have a survival rate of 20%, which is actually
a human rights outrage, as far as I am concerned. There are issues,
here in the developing world, i.e. poverty, malnutrition, lack of
transportation, something as simple as how far away a child is from
an area of excellence, that can actually compromise a child's
is a field involving a lot of pain and suffering for children. How
do you keep yourself positive and happy, despite the pain, suffering
and low survival rates?
First, I have so much to be grateful for. I've got a great
life. Why shouldn't I be happy? Second, mood is very transferable.
If you walk into the wards, sometimes you can feel a very heavy
mood, maybe the kids have just gone through their chemo, or we've
lost a little soul and we're all sad. We can divert their
focus. I feel that the gift that the Kidzcan volunteers take in
is joy. The women from my church often come in and we sing choruses
like "Tinomurumbidza." For so many of the mothers who
sit there by their children's beds, and for so many of the
children, it's amazing how therapeutic singing is, and you
can literally feel the atmosphere lift. To be quite honest, if I
didn't believe that these children went straight to heaven,
I could not do the job. I just believe that God decides what happens.
I have to let go and let God take over. He has a plan.
us about the work Kidzcan is doing.
We're very blessed that Parirenyatwa have given us a 25-bed
paediatric oncology unit. And it's presently the only paediatric
oncology area for referral. And Kidzcan has come in to support them
with what they need to help the children. We don't replace
the doctors. We don't tell them how to do anything. And the
reason that we do this is because many of these children are rural
children and come from child-headed families. Many are orphaned
completely or deserted. The doctors and nurses can only do so much,
but who's going to be that child's family, and make
them feel great? And that's what Kidzcan does. Initially,
we started by setting up the playrooms, and every single toy has
been donated. The response and the amazing outpouring of love and
generosity have been so exciting. At Christmas we do Christmas handouts,
and I wish you could see the kids' faces. And for some of
our children, unfortunately, it's their last Christmas, but
if we can give them one day of joy, then we've done our job.
are the challenges Kidzcan faces and how do you overcome them?
We don't have the drugs to actually give the child. And I
think it's sad that if you are rich in Zimbabwe, and your
child gets cancer, you immediately go dome to South Africa. But
what happens if you are poor? Does that mean your child's
life is not worth as much as a rich person's child? We also
need the doctors. We need specialized paediatric oncologists. We
have one in the entire nation. We've got brilliant doctors
here, but they are also facing huge challenges. So what we also
want to do is get some of the younger doctors to study paediatric
oncology with a view to building up an area of excellence in Zimbabwe.
parting words of advice for women out there, who want to follow
in your footsteps and do similar work?
The thing that I would say to them is just do it! Don't wait for
things to be perfect. Don't wait until you've got an office. Don't
wait until you've got a vehicle. Don't wait until you've got funding.
Because when we started we didn't have anything. In a way we did
it back to front. It was a case of, "The kids need medicine! How
am I going to do it?" You don't have to be an Einstein. You have
to be willing. You have to be passionate and you have to just do
it. You know in every fibre of your being what your purpose is,
because it makes you sing. So don't do anything, unless it makes
Visit the Kubatana.net
Please credit www.kubatana.net if you make use of material from this website.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.