Cancer treatment: An expensive battle that affects many female survivors in Zimbabwe

Cancer patients in Zimbabwe struggle against the stigma surrounding the disease.
Cancer patients in Zimbabwe struggle against the stigma surrounding the disease.
PHOTO: FatCamera/Getty Images
  • Cancer in some rural areas and traditional settings tends to be mistaken for witchcraft.
  • There are no working cancer treatment machines in Zimbabwe's public hospitals.
  • While blaming a lack of political will, cancer patients are forming support groups to ease their pain.

For about a year and a half, Precious Mpofu, 42, nursed her mother as her health deteriorated, while the family concluded she had been bewitched.

After her mother's death, there was a witch hunt that threatened to tear the extended family fabric apart.

Mpofu would later learn her mother succumbed to cancer, and had they taken her to hospital, instead of consulting witchdoctors, she could have survived or lived longer.

About a year later, at the age of 38, Mpofu would find out she was on the same path her mother and a few other women in her family had walked.

Instead of taking the witchcraft social diagnosis that seemed to hold water within the family, she opted for a science-based solution.

She said:

My mother had cervical cancer, my aunt had jaw cancer, and my grandmother had cervical cancer. I have breast cancer. I got to understand that I inherited it.

At first, doctors did not think she had cancer. They did numerous tests until she told them she suspected cancer because there was a history of the disease in her family.

"I saw the women in my family die, and I didn't want that for myself. The cycle had to be broken," she said.

Mpofu started chemotherapy and was prescribed drugs.

Her battle with the disease continues.

"Over the years, I have lost a breast. I have also had my thyroid glands removed. In the long run, I have been advised that I might have to remove my cervix and ovaries.

"I could be left with nothing one day because I want to stay alive," she said, holding back tears.

The disease has cost her a normal life. She has no children or boyfriend. 

She does, however, have fellow cancer sufferers and survivors with whom she shares her experiences.

Mpofu said:

I wear an artificial breast and the stigma around cancer makes it hard for men to accept me for who I am.

"The people I have are other cancer patients. We share our experiences. At times, I wake up at 02:00 to answer a call from a cancer patient going through things that I once experienced. We talk on the phone and give each other tips on how to deal with pain. It helps a lot," she added.

Lista Ncube is her friend. They met through a social group of cancer survivors and patients.

Ncube has stage one cancer - meaning it is not widespread.

She has also lost her breast and is undergoing chemotherapy at a private hospital.

"It's a drain. I don't like the mood swings and the reality of my hair falling out as I walk after chemotherapy," she said, adding at times she hoped she had a "less lethal" condition such as HIV or diabetes.

Mpofu said beyond the pain of treatment, she also had to suffer side effects, such as nausea and weariness.

She said:

Most people think of treatment. For me, the after-treatment period is the hardest. You sink into depression or suffer from anxiety. That's where counselling comes in. It's an important stage of treatment.

One of the organisations that offers palliative care in Zimbabwe is Island Hospice and Healthcare. where one session costs R270.

"It's expensive. Imagine if you needed at least 10 sessions of counselling to come to terms with your situation, you would need a lot of money," Mpofu said.

Compared to civil service salaries, which average R918 per month, most cannot afford counselling services and that stretches beyond cancer care.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics, almost a million Zimbabweans suffer from one or another mental disorder and are in need of care.

State of affairs

A healthcare professional from the government spoke to News24 on condition of anonymity.

He painted a gloomy picture of Zimbabwe's state of preparedness for cancer treatment at government facilities.

For radiotherapy, he said there were "five specialised cancer treatment machines in the country. Three are installed at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals in Harare and the other two at Mpilo Central Hospital in Bulawayo".

However, they have all broken down.

Most of the equipment was manufactured and installed by Varian Medical Systems from Switzerland, which has a regional office in Johannesburg.

He said:

The biggest challenge is that our equipment has had no service contract from Varian since 2015.

A government report claimed in 2017, Varian Medical Systems proposed R36 million was needed to maintain Parirenyatwa's radiotherapy equipment for five years. A slightly lower figure was projected for Mpilo Central Hospital.

"Our request as cancer fighters is for the government to fix the radiation machines and provide free medication for cancer patients because cancer drugs are very expensive," said Ncube.

Some patients fail to finish their cycles with drugs such as herceptin. 

"I was given 18 cycles but one cycle costs R6 480 every three weeks," said a cancer patient who refused to be named.

Breast cancer patients also take drugs such as tamoxifen, which costs R630 for a pack of 10. This treatment is taken for at least five years, and some have to take the drugs for 10 years.

READ | Cansa plays key role in breast cancer’s early detection

In rural and remote areas of Zimbabwe, there is not much cancer screening being done. Many succumb to cancer in those areas, and it is passed off as witchcraft.

Tracy (not her real name) has had to look for cancer treatment in South Africa.

She was put on a waiting list and the doctor who diagnosed her in Bulawayo estimated she would live for at least five years.

Her children, based in South Africa, decided to get treatment for her there. Ten years later, she's alive.

She said:

I pay a consultation fee of R136 when I go to the doctor in SA. In Zimbabwe, the cheapest could be R1 700 just to be seen by a doctor.

Mpofu said one of the biggest letdowns in Zimbabwe was the lack of political will.

"Treatment is beyond the reach of many. We wish the government would take that seriously and at least have functioning machinery because there are many who die when their lives could have been prolonged by a simple radiation process," she added.

Another issue she raised was the public should know it was not just breast cancer; there were many other cancers, some of which, like prostate cancer, affected men as well.

"Cancer is remembered in October when people find it fit to use our condition as a fundraising initiative. However, little of that money goes to cancer treatment or research.

"It's not just breast cancer out there, there are many of these things and they need urgent attention, especially in black communities where we still lack openness and blame some issues on witchcraft," Mpofu added.

Media activist Hopewell Chin'ono has for some time been an advocate for cancer treatment.

He occasionally exposed the luxuries the political elite, including those in charge of the health sector, enjoy while hospitals are in a dire state.

For example, money that was used to buy sport utility vehicles and German saloon cars for hospital bosses could be channelled to fixing and servicing cancer machines.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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