Poor Health Care and Poverty Impede Fight Against Cancer

For many cancer patients, without money and a functional health system, their fate is already sealed.

Eight months ago, cervical cancer claimed the life of her sister. Now, 21-year-old Sizalobuhle Ncube, a hotel waitress, is battling breast cancer, bed-ridden at her late sister’s home in the Mathetshaneni rural areas of Nkayi.

In Victoria Falls, about 500 kilometres from Bulawayo, 51-year-old Mildred Mhlanga is battling the same disease, which has resulted in a severe heart problem after undergoing successful chemotherapy as her cancer cells had advanced, a state commonly referred to as stage four.

“I hardly sleep and at night as the pain sharpens, and l often cry with very little help as my family does not know how to assist me,” Ncube says.

Ncube has not been able to go to Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo, where she was referred to by Nkayi nurses to be examined by a specialist.

She fears that just as her sister succumbed to the same disease and with a collapsing health system in the country and prolonged lockdowns to slow down the spread of COVID-19, her chances of survival are slowly narrowing.

“I have no money, and I started feeling some lumps and severe pains on my left breast when my sister died, but at the hospital, they told me that for me to get treated, I will need about US$ 500 for the first pills, consultation, and examination before the chemotherapy process on top of transport money to Bulawayo.”

“I don’t have it, and that’s why l am in this anguish. I don’t have money for treatment,” says Ncube, breast cancer patient.

Breast cancer has become Zimbabwe’s new health headache, and it is not alone, having teamed up with cervical cancer. For any cancer patient like Mhlanga, what decides the treatment depends on the stage of cancer.

Even though she successfully finished her three-year-long chemotherapy in February this year, Mhlanga faced yet another severe disease, a side effect of the treatment process.

“I was supposed to go for my right breast removal, but I’ll not be able to because I now have a heart problem.”

“When l visited the doctors in Bulawayo, they told me that those are side effects of chemotherapy, so I’m now on twin medications that l have to purchase at US$30 each per month.”

The two unemployed women have the headache of medical bills and have children to look after, which further complicates their situations.

In 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that annual cancer deaths globally reached 8.2 million, adding that the numbers were expected to triple by 2030.

With breast and cervical cancers as the country’s twin evils haunting hundreds of women here like Mhlanga and Ncube, the Health and Child Care Ministry says approximately 1 500 women succumb to cervical cancer each year.

Not only that, but Zimbabwe’s Cancer Association says breast cancer alone claims more than one thousand women every year. Even health experts concur cervical and breast cancer have wreaked havoc in Zimbabwe.

But women rights activists have blamed the government for the deaths of their colleagues from breast or cervical cancer.

“Government is solely responsible for the lack of service in hospitals, and that means cancer patients like women with breast or cervical cancer are at the receiving end of the crisis in hospitals,” says Fungisai Sithole, from Citizen Health Watch.

“What has worsened their plight, even more, is the government’s total neglect of critical illnesses like cancer in favour of COVID-19. People are dying with little help because before they are attended to by any specialist, they need to pay a huge amount of money which is way beyond their reach and yet they are not even on any medical insurance.”

According to Zimbabwe’s Cancer Registry, from 6 548 registered cancer cases in 2013, figures had shot up to 9 220 in 2018.

The World Health Organisation notes that Zimbabwe registered 1 848 cases for breast cancer, the same period that the disease caught up with many like Ncube.

Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, who doubles up as Health and Childcare Minister, says plans are underway to create the Universal Health Cover that will exist side by side with medical aid societies, to cushion chronically ill patients like Mhlanga and Ncube.

Source: The Citizen Bulletin

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