Butaro cancer center a milestone for local treatment
One of the biggest challenges facing the control of non-communicable diseases in general, and cancer in particular, in Rwanda is that information about these diseases is scarce, especially in rural areas, as well as limited resources which make access to diagnosis and treatment hard.
Among all the non-communicable diseases, cancer is currently the most under-addressed and most daunting. As the national cancer registry revealed, 3 420 patients were diagnosed with cancer between the years 2007-20011, and 320 of them were children.
Lack of awareness and proper diagnosis tools and equipment hampers quick treatment, which is crucial to increase the chances to cure the disease. A good illustration of this is what happened to Gaspard Rubanda, a 52-year-old resident of Cyanika sector, Burera district, who went from one health center to another, and different hospitals without the health providers being able to detect what was making him sick.
“I even went to traditional healers, but still there was nothing they could do,” remarked Rubanda. “Finally the Cyanika health center people transferred me to the Butaro hospital where, after results of tests sent to US came back, I was told I have colon cancer.”
Evelyne Kamagaju, a breast cancer survivor and founder of the Conquer Breast Cancer Association, also emphasized the fact that ignorance can be deadly for women who suffer from the same disease that she was able to beat. “In rural areas, women have not heard of things such as screening or self-examination,” she pointed out.
Even those who are diagnosed cannot easily access treatment, due to the high cost. “I know a young girl who was told she must get chemotherapy in Uganda because it is cheaper,” Kamagaju said. “But even then her money ran out after a few sessions and she could not keep it up.”
The problem of limited resources is one of those that will be addressed by the Butaro Cancer Center of Excellence, which was inaugurated on Wednesday July 18, and is hosted at the Butaro hospital, Burera district.
“We receive patients from all over the country who are diagnosed with cancers that are in the Rwandan national protocols,” explained Dr. Neo Tapela from Partners In health, one of the partners of the health ministry that made the existence of the cancer center a reality. Dr. Tapela explained that at Butaro Center, cancer patients will receive treatment for free, as well as socio-economic support that includes transport and food.
Patients and care givers at the center are grateful to those who are making the access to cancer care available. Cecile Nzamwitakuze is mother to a 4-year-old boy, Fabrice Irakoze who developed kidney cancer and is now starting treatment that will include chemotherapy, surgery, another round of chemotherapy and then radiation.
“I honestly don’t know how I could have afforded all this,” she said. “I am grateful that my boy is being treated here, and the way they take care of us. Now he has a chance to get well and build a life in the future.”
The opening of the Butaro cancer center is part of a five-year national strategic plan to introduce cancer prevention, screening and treatment on a national level that will also see the establishment of cancer wards in 3 other hospitals: CHUK, Kanombe military hospital and King Faisal.
Diagnosis has also been a challenge – in the past, it has been necessary to send biopsies to supporting Boston-based hospitals. This is also being addressed as a fully equipped pathology lab is being developed so that Butaro can serve as a national referral pathology lab, allowing for local cancer-related testing and diagnosis.
The Butaro cancer center also has trained staff including nurses who specialized in non-communicable diseases. It will serve in the implementation of standardized cancer training that will be given to different health providers and provide a comprehensive care that includes screening, diagnosis, chemotherapy, surgery, patient socio-economic support and follow-up, palliative care and referral for radiotherapy.
Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, the Health Minister, said that the hospital is symbol of the progress that was made in health care. “The sector is proud to start its journey towards high-quality specialized cancer care,” she said, adding that this will not require sacrificing any other area of healthcare, but actually adds to the primary care already available.
Former US president Bill Clinton, who presided over the inauguration of the center in the same place where he laid the cornerstone of the Butaro hospital in 2008, expressed his appreciation of the partnership between the Rwandan government, Partners in Health, the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation and Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, which made the cancer center a reality, calling it a “partnership in pursuit of equal dignity and equal opportunity.”
“People with intelligence, concern and resources meet all the time, talk about the problems, then go away and do whatever they were doing before,” remarked Clinton. “No one has asked them to do anything together.” He pointed out that it’s the reason the Clinton Global Initiative, which helped bringing the partnership together, was founded: to meet or run into each other with a purpose. “Where there is creative cooperation, good things happen.”
Kamagaju of the breast cancer association remarked that the center brings hope to cancer patients, but the information about the facilities that are available needs to be given to the public. An outpatient infusion center will be set up on the Butaro hospital campus to care for patients requiring chemotherapy infusions, blood transfusion.