Uganda Fights Poverty to Take On Breast Cancer

Julian Omidi looks at a report on how poverty and a lack of education about breast cancer is affecting Uganda as well as all throughout Africa.

Breast cancer is the world’s most common cancer in women and is the leading cause of cancer death, with 1.6 million cases a year and more than 450,000 deaths.

Breast cancer in Africa is usually not diagnosed until it has reached Stage 4, the final stage where the cancer has invaded organs or bones and cannot be cured. If the disease could be found earlier, this is known as “downstaging”, and treatment is started at Stage 3, before the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, they could increase a woman’s odds of survival by 30% according to the 2012 World Breast Cancer Report, published by the International Prevention Research Institute.

Unlike in richer countries that offer mammograms every year or two to all healthy women over the age of 40, there are nowhere near machines, or enough trained people in Africa to run the machines, to maintain them, and to read the scans properly.

Earlier diagnosis in Uganda would not require mammograms to search for tiny tumors too small to feel. Instead, American experts hope to help downstage breast cancer in Uganda by teaching doctors to use ultrasound to examine lumps that women have already noticed and identify those who need urgent treatment. Ultrasound works better than mammography in younger women, and can help distinguish cysts and other benign growths from lumps that need biopsies.

Uganda is trying to improve the treatment of all types of cancer. The Ugandan government has paid for a new hospital and clinic that has been added to the Uganda Cancer Institute in Kampala, but they have not opened yet due to a lack of equipment, as well enough trained people.

The biggest problems for breast cancer patients is that the cancer institute does not yet offer surgery or radiation, so women seek such treatments at Mulago Hospital. It has the only radiation machine in the country and it is long past its prime. There is such a high demand for treatment that the machine is kept running day and night, and there is a multitude of problems of bribery that delays or denies treatment.

The new hospital will bring the institute’s first operating rooms, with hope to add a radiation center. Hospital administrators also want to improve its pathology labs so they can perform tests that will help determine which treatments will best suit each patient. In addition, a new cancer research center with another clinic is being built with money from Uganda, the United States Agency for International Development, and the Hutchinson center in Seattle.

Dr. Jackson Orem, the direct of the cancer institute, believes what is ultimately needed is a nationwide cancer program involving clinics in remote areas and a system to refer patients who need specialized treatment to the cancer institute.

“My prayer,” Dr. Orem, 51, said, “is to see that by the time I retire, there is a system in place, a safety net for cancer patients.”

For more information, please check out this article from the New York Times.

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