Progress made in the battle against breast cancer

Saturday October 20 2018

Monica Salehe (left) and Janeth Mpepo (right)

Monica Salehe (left) and Janeth Mpepo (right) recovering at Ocean Road Cancer Institute.PHOTO | ERIC BONIPHACE 

By Salome Gregory

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. It’s a time when different activities aimed at educating people on breast cancer disease take place extensively.

Activities that take place at different health centres include breast cancer screenings, knowing the signs of breast cancer, breast cancer self check-up, free education on breast cancer and many more.

In Tanzania, every year we have different activities that try to sensitize on breast cancer awareness. These usually take place at different hospitals. Since it is known that early detection is the best way to survive breast cancer, women are thus encouraged to be a part of any activity that raises breast cancer awareness.

Each year family and friends lose their loved ones to cancer. It is one among the leading killer diseases in the country. As Woman shares with you efforts being made by cancer prevention services in Tanzania, two patients with breast cancer share their journey of perseverance and how they are coping with treatment at the Ocean Road Hospital.

For Janeth Mpepo, 44, and Monica Salehe, 41, every passing day is a blessing. The two are battling a disease, which has seen them admitted at the Ocean Road Cancer Institute. Janeth and Monica are among the many patients undergoing breast cancer treatment at the Dar es Salaam-based hospital.

Janeth, a mother of four hailing all the way from Katavi to Dar es Salaam for breast cancer treatment, is lucky to have had a right breast mastectomy last month just in time to prevent breast cancer from spreading to the rest of her body.

Seated on her bed in room number 221, second floor, cancer ward; she says it all started with a small swell on the nipple in July this year. She went to a small health centre and was only given some painkillers which eased the pain a little.

“Two days after taking the pain killers I experienced even more severe pain and I was advised to visit Muhimbili National Hospital (MNH) for further check up. Three days after the check up I was diagnosed with breast cancer and the doctors suggested my breast to be cut,” she narrates.

Her mastectomy process was done in a blink of an eye and a week later she was transferred to Ocean Road Cancer Institute for further treatment.

Janeth is happy and thankful that her treatment never had any complications as is the case sometimes during such procedures. She calls upon women to build the culture of visiting big hospitals for medical checkups before the situation gets worse.

Sharing her own experience, Monica, another breast cancer patient remembers her right breast having a severely sharp pain all of a sudden in March this year while in the outskirts of the city. After several checkups at a dispensary nothing was diagnosed.

She says after two months of suffering from breast pain her family decided to ask for referral to come to MNH. At the national hospital, she underwent checkup and when the results came back she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Monica was then transferred directly to Ocean Road Cancer Institute where she started chemotherapy last week.

She says she will have to undergo a mastectomy in the future as part of her treatment in order to prevent the disease from spreading. The chemotherapy has helped ease the pain to a great extent, after a few more rounds of it she will go under the knife for the mastectomy.

Dr Crispin Kahesa, Director of Cancer Prevention Service at the Ocean Road Cancer Institute, says for the past five years Tanzania has recorded some big changes in terms of women who attend breast cancer clinic.

He says, about five years ago Tanzania used to record 4200 cases of people attending breast cancer checkups. Currently, Tanzania registers about 13,000 new cases in a year. There are about 1.38 million new cases and 458,000 deaths from breast cancer each year according to World Health Organisation (WHO)..

He further notes though, that given the great success rate of recording new cases, there is still a major problem of majority of the patients visiting the clinic at the third and fourth stages of cancer, a stage when the disease has already advanced and cannot be cured.

“It is not easy for a patient who comes to the hospital when the cancer has already reached an advanced stage to get cured. Those who make early detection have a higher chance of surviving the disease,” he says. He thus stresses on the importance of regular health checkups to ensure that you are completely healthy.

The improvement in numbers of women making visits to health centres for check-up comes as a result of efforts from the government and other health stakeholders to make sure education on cancer is well spread to different communities across the country to improve the quality of life. Educating people on the misconception of cancer as a disease has contributed to the increase in numbers of women willing to go for early screenings.

Complete remission

The doctor says cancer can be cured within six months if the patient is diagnosed early. But due to fear and misguided views, majority describe cancer as a death sentence. This is partly due to lack of education. Lack of skilled personnel makes it more difficult for the country to properly educate people on the right perception and approach to breast cancer as a disease.

Some of the major setbacks in the fight against cancer over the years have been the concentration of health facilities in urban centres. With majority of Tanzanians living in rural areas, this situation makes it impossible for them to access the right medical treatment that they need. This is why almost all patients (those who make it) come to Dar es Salaam.

“I am pleased to see that we have made a lot of improvement in overcoming some of these challenges in the past five years,” he says, adding; “Within this period, the budget for cancer also rose from Sh400 million last year to currently Sh9billion for cancer treatment.”

There has also been an increase in the number of experts in cancer treatment – rising from 10 experts in 2012 to currently 40. The experts include oncologists, nurse oncologists, medical physicist and cardio therapists.

Commenting on the effort by the government to extend its services on breast cancer closer to the community, Dr Maguha Stephano, a Public Advocacy Specialist at the Ocean Road Cancer Institute, says the hospital dedicated a five days campaign in October specifically for dealing with people who attended the hospital for screenings and other breast cancer-related services.

She says the campaign started from 8th to 12th this month and was advertised through their social media platforms.

The doctor further reveals that they received great response from many people who showed up for different types of cancer treatment.

Those who attended were educated on how to deal with breast cancer and were sensitised on the importance of early detection.

“The discussion would go around cancer symptoms, how to do self screenings, the importance of early treatment, how to go about the treatment and we also gave room for questions and answers,” she says.

In a day they would receive roughly 300 women a day. She calls upon other women to keep on visiting hospitals for screenings and other information on cancer. While breast cancer is largely a female disease, breast cancer does affect men. Around 350 men are diagnosed with the disease each year according to WHO.