Coinciding with World Cancer Day – a day in which advocates around the world pledge to expose myths about cancer – our Corporate Relations Manager, Desiree Lyons, reflects on her experience meeting a cancer patient in Tanzania several years ago. Her story shows that cancer can affect anyone of any age and income level in any country around the world. Most importantly, her story shows that with access to effective treatment, cancer does not have to be a death sentence.
It was two and a half years ago that Lindsey Pollaczek and I met Jacinta, an eight-year-old girl from southwestern Kenya with Burkitt’s Lymphoma. Jacinta sat in a white plastic chair across from us in an austere room at the Sota Health Center in Shirati, Tanzania. She occasionally looked up from the ground and smiled at us shyly as Dr. Esther Kawira described the harrowing story of her diagnosis and the initial stages of her treatment.
Burkitt’s Lymphoma is an aggressive cancer that accounts for more than half of all childhood cancers in equatorial Africa and is rarely found anywhere else. It presents as rapidly growing tumors in the jaw bone or the abdomen and if untreated, it is usually fatal. The disease is related to the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), the first virus to be associated with human cancer, and current research has suggested that malaria may also play a role in the development of Burkitt’s Lymphoma.
When we met Jacinta, she had just completed her first round of chemotherapy at the Sota Health Center, a rural health facility supported by the SHED Foundation. Dr. Kawira explained that the swelling and disfigurement caused by the tumor in her lower jaw, which was still visible, had improved dramatically in the past six weeks and that her treatment was going as well as could be expected. Still, Jacinta seemed self-conscious about her face. Her mother said “She used to be beautiful.” Dr. Kawira said optimistically, “she will be beautiful again.”
Fortunately for Jacinta, at Sota Health Center, the chemotherapy is donated and therefore is able to be given at no charge to the patient. This is not often the case and most frequently patients must buy the drugs themselves—which at several hundred dollars for the full course is often out of the question—or the hospital or health center must purchase the drugs and find a way to cover their loss.
Burkitt’s Lymphoma has a high cure rate with adequate therapy. In developed countries 90% of children with the disease are effectively cured. For countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the disease has been low priority given the other childhood illnesses which affect more children and are cheaper to treat. With limited treatment availability and disease management capacity the mortality in Africa for this disease remains high.
Dr. Kawira recently sent us a follow-up photo of Jacinta, who is now cancer free, a year after she completed treatment. The photo illustrates what is possible when a child with Burkitt’s has the opportunity to complete a full course of treatment. This transformation, which occurs in many cases, is not only life-saving for the child but incredibly encouraging for their family, and the health care providers overseeing their care.
After meeting Jacinta and understanding the tremendous demand for pediatric oncology services in Africa, Direct Relief formed an alliance with the Burkitt’s Lymphoma Fund for Africa (BLFA) to implement a program which provides full courses of treatment for 500 children with Burkitt’s in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. With generous donations from companies like Baxter and GSK, Direct Relief has been able to provide some of the products critical to the treatment regimen, making free treatment available for patients who might otherwise go without.
Direct Relief has provided two shipments of medicines and medical supplies to the Sota Health Center in Tanzania valued at more than $400,000. In addition, Direct Relief provides ongoing material assistance for the Burkitt’s Lymphoma Programs at the Uganda Program for Cancer and Infectious Disease in Kampala and the Nyanza Provincial General Hospital in western Kenya through the OGRA Foundation.