The New Times (Kigali)

Rwanda: Cancer Centre, a Major Milestone for Country's Health Sector

Phillipa Kibugu, a breast cancer survivor is one of the Rwandan women who are very vocal when it comes to cancer issues within Rwanda. She is very passionate about helping people affected with cancer in Rwanda.

She came to Rwanda in 2008, a time when very little was known or said about cancer. Kibugu was mainly concerned about breast cancer since she was a survivor of this disease.

That's when she started the Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa with a mission to ensure that no patient faces breast cancer fearfully and helplessly alone.

She said that her focus was awareness and education about the disease, risk factors, the importance of early detection as the best protection and how to practice Breast Self Examination.

"We started with 27 breast cancer patients/survivors who became the ambassadors to share the newly acquired information among their communities. In 2011 only 2 out of those 27 were alive but by 2011 over 3,000 Rwandan women knew how to do Breast Self Examination," she said.

However, with the ultra-modern national cancer center of Excellence in Butaro that was recently officially opened by Former US President, Bill Clinton, she says there's hope for cancer patients to receive care and treatment within their own country.

She said that with the opening of the Cancer center, breast cancer and other types of cancers don't have to be a death sentence in Rwanda, therefore, hoping that there will be less cancer related deaths.

Kibugu said that the launching of Butaro Cancer Center is a major landmark in the fight against the most frightening and distressing disease in Rwanda.

Kibugu has embarked on a short-term revolving medical mission campaign whereby oncologists would donate their time, come to Rwanda treat and train cancer patients. So far she has three Oncologists ready to come to Rwanda and hopes to continue with advocacy and have more Oncologists come in.

The advent of Butaro Cancer Center makes this more feasible since the center is fully equipped.

With the Butaro cancer center, cancer referral cases are going to reduce since most of them would be handled here.

The facility was funded by the Clinton Foundation, Partners in Health, the Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation, the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center, as well as the Government of Rwanda.

The centre has a Cancer ward with 24 beds, three isolation rooms, and a Chemotherapy room. It is operated by an extremely professional team of nurses, a doctor and two specialists.

Previous figures indicated that in the period 2007-2011, 3294 cancers were registered, 53.8% in women.

Stomach cancer (9.6%), lymphoma (9.1%), breast cancer (8.9%), skin cancers (7.1%) and cervical cancer (6.3%) were the five most common cancers.

Most cancers were histopathologically diagnosed (52.5%), but clinical investigation (36.3%) also accounted for a high percentage of registrations, with clinical-only diagnoses occurring in 5.8%.

The Minister of Health, Agnes Binagwaho, said that the Cancer Centre of Excellence has come at a time when it's most needed.

"The Cancer center feeds well into this vision and adds value to the interventions government has designed in combating Non-Communicable Diseases. A lot of effort is being put into the diagnosis and treatment of non-communicable diseases besides the significant stride in combating major infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria," she said. 700 patients (315 men and 385 women) were registered in the Southern Province alone.

Challenge of lack of Oncologists

In the past, Rwanda wasn't equipped enough to treat cancer patients and for that reason, many of the patients were referred to other countries outside Rwanda for treatment.

However, there is still a challenge of lack of Oncologists, who are cancer specialists that treat the disease in its advanced stages.

The challenge of lack of Oncologists will not also last for long as government has plans to put this to a halt, by building capacity of some Rwandan medics to the level of Oncologists.

Doctor Jean De Dieu Ngirabega, the Director of Clinical Services in Ministry of Health says that there is a five year plan in which strategies have been made to educate some Rwandan doctors as cancer Specialists in the radiotherapy department.

We have about three Rwandan Doctors who are abroad, training to be Oncologists. In our 5-year plan, we shall also bring in a radiotherapy machine that is used to offer this kind of treatment. Most cancer patients travel because we don't have this machine yet and the Oncologists but within 5 years, all this will be sorted," he said.

Dr.Ngirabega says that another team of Rwandans will be sent abroad to study radiotherapy while others will train as biomedical Engineers and Physicists.

Dr Neo Tapella, Partners in Health's (PIH) Coordinator of the Non-communicable Diseases Programme, also says that there's a team of ten senior oncologists from the Dana-Farber Cancer Center who will be training Rwandan doctors.

Childhood cancers like acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which has an 80 percent cure rate in the United States, are a death sentence for children in Rwanda according to a statement from the Rwanda Health Communication Centre.

The Butaro Cancer Center of Excellence will provide a full spectrum of cancer care including screening, diagnosis, chemotherapy, surgery, patient follow-up, and palliative care.

It will also serve as the first facility to implement standardized cancer training and protocols that align with Rwanda's new national guidelines.

With the Butaro cancer center, palliative care and treatment for cancer patients in Rwanda won't be a setback anymore.

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