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High cost of cancer treatment burdens patients

 Dr Anselmy Opiyo, head of cancer unit at Kenyatta National Hospital explains the features of a linear accelerator at the radiotherapy unit. Photo/SALATON NJAU
Dr Anselmy Opiyo, head of cancer unit at Kenyatta National Hospital explains the features of a linear accelerator at the radiotherapy unit. Photo/SALATON NJAU 

Doris Mayoli, a breast cancer survivor, never dreamt of raising funds for Kenyans suffering from cancer.

When she launched her Twakutukuza concert, her idea was to use music to offer solace and give hope to cancer patients. But this changed when she came face-to-face with the high number of patients struggling to access treatment due to lack of money.

She started raising funds through her music concerts. During one of her performances in 2009, she asked the audience to raise money for two cancer patients. This was just a beginning.

Twakutukuza music concert has now become an annual event attracting hundreds of people willing to lend a hand in the fight against cancer. To date, Ms Mayoli counts over 100 patients that have benefited from her fundraising drive.

Musical concerts are some of the innovative ways cancer institutions, survivors and associations in Kenya are using to help raise funds for many patients who cannot afford treatment.

Patients pay Sh500 to Sh1,000 per session for radiotherapy in Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH). Chemotherapy costs Sh6,000 to Sh600,000 depending on the drug used.
In private hospitals like Cancer Care Kenya, it costs about Sh50,000 a week for radiotherapy. For chemotherapy, the cost depends on the drug used with most ranging from Sh12,000 to Sh200,000 per treatment.

Most patients undergo many sessions of both radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Most patients are unable to afford the high cost of treatment as some use up all their money in misdiagnosis, said Dr Anselmy Opiyo, an oncologist and head of cancer unit at KNH.

As patients grapple with lack of funds, there are well-wishers willing to support as some companies pay lip service to funding drive. A high school student, whose gesture Ms Mayoli says leaves her speechless, is among the people who are supporting the cancer fundraising initiative.

The student pledged a monthly contribution of Sh150 a month. “It may be little, but if someone else adds the Sh150, it enough to provide treatment at a public facility,” she says. 

Kenya Cancer Association (KenCasa), a non-profit organisation is also using innovative ways to meet the funding gap. KenCasa fundraises through sale of branded merchandise, waiver negotiations, donations and hair shaving initiatives.

“KenCasa solicits support for patients by partnering or negotiating with providers for some kind of waiver or discounted rates,” said David Makumi, the organisation’s vice chairperson.

The association organised a hair shaving auction in October last year and raised Sh150,000 which was used for buying prosthesis and special post-breast removal bras for breast cancer survivors. Forty seven women benefited.

Mr Makumi says the association receives 25 requests daily for assistance. “Unfortunately, the association is cash-strapped and is unable to cope with such huge numbers. The need for money is too huge,” he says.

Twatrust, an organisation funded by Ms Mayoli in partnership with corporates, also raises money for cancer patients. But like many more she say the money raised is still not enough. 

As cancer strikes hard in Africa, public hospitals are bearing the brunt of the rising numbers. KNH which receives 2,000 patients daily according to Dr Opiyo is among the public hospitals that is struggling under the weight of cancer burden.

The hospital’s main hurdle is lack of money to buy more machines. An outdated cobalt machine is what 150 patients a day rely on for their radiotherapy sessions with hundreds more in the waiting list.

Some patients will have to wait up to May for radiotherapy.

KNH’s funding burden best put the problem in perspective. According to Dr Opiyo, it costs Sh500 million to Sh1 billion to set up a complete cancer unit with machines and beds.

In the bid to implement part of the cancer strategic plan, the Health ministry disbursed Sh300 million for personnel and equipment. This has helped, but more money is needed.

Part of the money given has gone towards training eight doctors, six radiologists, five medical physicists, six radiographers, certified quality personnel and acquiring a linear accelerator machine. It costs the ministry Sh4 million to train one doctor from abroad.

“I must say that the ministry has been very supportive. What is being done may look little but it’s a lot considering in other countries, governments hardly finance these initiatives,” said Dr Opiyo.

Dr Opiyo and KenCasa are challenging corporates to take up public private partnerships (PPP) in order to fast-track construction and furnishing of five proposed cancer centres at KNH, Nyeri, Kisumu, Mombasa and Moi Referral Hospital.

“Corporates have not been supportive. They pay a lot of lip service, but do nothing to help,” said Dr Opiyo.

He believes that their support will go a mile in easing the cancer treatment burden.

Additional reporting by Wangui Maina.

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