Globally, October is breast cancer awareness month, and this means a lot to me as a breast cancer survivor and also someone who has lost a sister to the disease. My sister had the disease back in 1980’s while living in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The health system was not equipped to diagnose her in time and increase her chances for survival and she succumbed to the disease. A few years later, I also had breast cancer. However, I was in the United States and the disease was detected early and this enabled me to get treatment at the right time and become cancer free.
For many years, cancer was seen as a disease of the “West” as well as many other non-communicable diseases. With communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS or malaria taking forefront in public health discussions and programs in low-income countries. However, as our health systems are improving and much more able to respond to these infectious diseases, we are also living longer and non-communicable diseases such as cancer are increasing in low-income countries. Therefore, our health systems need to be strengthened to address non-communicable diseases. This is a sentiment also echoed by President Kagame who recently stressed the importance of strengthening health systems during a panel on breast and cervical cancer at the UN General Assembly.
When we talk about health strengthening, it might seem like a lot. However, there is something all of us can do and that is to talk about breast cancer and share information to help those affected by the disease. In 2009, I founded an organization called Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa (BCIEA) with the goal to start discussing breast cancer in Rwanda and provide support to patients. Prior to founding the organization, I had met breast cancer patients diagnosed in their late stages –like my sister–because of either misinformation on the disease, an unequipped health system, or the fear of the stigma attached to breast cancer and particularly having to undergo a mastectomy.
One of the keys in improving outcomes and the survival of breast cancer patients lies in early detection especially in low-income settings where health systems lack resources. However, this cannot happen unless women and men (yes men also can get breast cancer!) are informed about breast cancer and understand what steps to take in order to increase the number of breast cancers detected early. At BCIEA, we conduct various events to raise awareness on breast cancer. We collaborate with NGOs, schools, churches, and local community leaders to hold educational sessions on breast cancer. At the end of each session, attendants are able to have a clinical breast examination with a nurse and have a referral if there are any anomalies found.
In addition, we also have a wellness house conveniently located close to Kanombe hospital where there is now a radiotherapy machine. Breast cancer patients seeking treatment at the hospital can come rest at the house and we even have a few rooms for vulnerable patients traveling from far that they can use to rest for a few days. The house is also a safe haven for breast cancer survivors who are able to come together, support one another and conduct some income generating activities like knitting breast prostheses.
Finally, another important activity we conduct annually is the Ulinzi walk in Kigali in October. We use this as an opportunity to raise awareness on breast cancer to the general public and also fundraise for our organization. I could not be prouder that the event continues to happen and that each year the number of attendants increases. At the end of the walk, those who like can have a breast clinical exam and also learn about other non-communicable diseases. I see families walking together, breast cancer survivors, women’s groups, and many other people and it warms my heart. I survived breast cancer because it was detected early and I was living in the US where I had access to quality healthcare. I want women and men in Rwanda to also survive this disease at the highest rate possible. This is why I walk and encourage many other people to do so. This year, the walk will be on Sunday October 21st in conjunction with Car Free Day. Come join us and let us continue to fight against breast cancer together.
Author : Philipa Kibugu