At the sound of the word cancer, most people imagine an ailing person with no more hope to live. This demonstrates the fear that is attached to this very deadly disease.
For 60-year-old Getrude Jabu Stephenson, the story is different. She holds herself in high spirits despite the gloomy possibility – that her life may end any minute.
She is an initial survivor of breast cancer, but is back to hospital after she was this time diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. For the new diagnosis, the experts say her last hope is making it through her current cycle of chemotherapy.
Despite the physical and emotional stress that comes with the ailment of cancer, Getrude is one of many other patients who must also endure an inefficient system.
More than 600 cancer patients in Zambia are still waiting to receive crucial cancer treatment due to the lack of linear accelerators at the Cancer Diseases Hospital in Lusaka. The lack of access to these life-saving machines has left many cancer patients feeling helpless, hopeless and others dead.
The linear accelerator is an essential tool used in radiation therapy, which is a common treatment for cancer. The machine uses high-energy radiation to target and destroy cancer cells, while minimising damage to healthy cells.
Without access to this treatment, cancer patients are left with limited options, and their prognosis is significantly reduced.
The situation is made even worse by the fact that the radiotherapy machine at the UTH Cancer Diseases Hospital has been faulty since 2021, leaving patients with no access to this critical treatment.
The latest fault has lasted since mid 2022. Inside sources fear that it might even take longer.
“From the look of things, we might not even get the radiotherapy machine this year either. I have to say, this is really frustrating, even for us as experts working there. We go to the hospital and send patients back because we have no way of helping them.”
Despite promises made by the Minister of Health to procure two radiotherapy machines by the end of 2022 at a cost of $10m, there is still no sign of the machines at the hospital.
“The situation is bad, and the worst part is that it seems the Minister of Health is not given an accurate picture of how bad the situation is.
People have to wait long hours on end before getting assisted, or in a lot of situations, before they are told to go back because there’s no medication,” says Getrude Jabu Stephenson, a cancer patient at the Cancer Diseases Hospital.
“They’ve told me even now, the medication I’m on is the last resort. After this, they won’t be able to do anything. If it doesn’t work, that’s it. I’ll just go home and wait to die. There’s no hope for radiotherapy.”
This dire situation is not new in Zambia, where cancer is a leading cause of death, with over 7,500 people dying from the disease annually.
According to the Zambia National Public Health Institute, the country recorded over 12,000 new cancer cases in 2018, and without proper treatment facilities, these numbers are likely to rise.
The Zambian government must prioritise the procurement and installation of linear accelerators to ensure that cancer patients have access to life-saving treatment.
In recent years, the government of Zambia has taken steps to address the issue of cancer treatment in the country. In 2016, the Ministry of Health launched the National Cancer Control Program, which aims to improve cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. The program has focused on increasing public awareness about cancer, improving cancer screening and diagnosis, and expanding access to cancer treatment.
One of the key components of the program has been the establishment of cancer treatment centres across the country, which provide cancer patients with access to chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Despite these efforts, challenges remain in providing adequate healthcare to cancer patients in Zambia. The cost of cancer treatment can be prohibitively expensive for many patients, and the country’s healthcare infrastructure is still in need of significant improvements.
While the establishment of cancer treatment centres would be a step in the right direction towards improving access to cancer treatment, this has not happened.
The lack of access to linear accelerators and radiotherapy machines in low-income countries is a matter of life and death for cancer patients, and stakeholders are calling on government to act quickly to address this critical issue as thousands of cancer patients in Zambia depend on it.
Credit: Diamond TV