How Two Rwandan Women Defeated Cancer

In this 1987 photo, (l) Odette Karanguza, and (r) Alice Kabagire Cyusa. They have been friends and have all battled and defeated cancer

Odette Karanguza and Alice Kabagire Cyusa have been childhood friends, studied in the same school but also suffered and defeated a similar deadly disease – Cancer.

In 1987, both Karanguza and Cyusa studied at Lycee Notre Dame De Citeaux in Kigali. They were optimistic about a bright future and got employed as bankers including Banque Africaine Continentale du Rwanda (BACAR)  and Central Bank of Rwanda respectively.

However, in 2009, Karanguza was working and suddenly began feeling a strange pain.

“My breast used to itch and thought it was because of breast milk because I was breastfeeding at the time a child who is now has eleven,” she told KT Press and that this prompted her to seek help from a gynecologist. “He told me that it could have been caused by breast milk,” Karanguza narrates.

Karanguza would later be sent by her employer to Tunisia for training in April 2010. While in Tunis, she consulted with doctors and was scheduled for checkup during which she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  

This discovery compelled her to stay in Tunis for extra months to undergo treatment as advised by a doctor. For €2000 she underwent a successful surgery on 3rd May 2010.

“Alice heard that I was also suffering from cancer she got traumatized. Similarly, I was traumatised when she was diagnosed with the same breast cancer,” Karanguza narrates.

In June 2010 she returned home and continued with a chemotherapy treatment at King Faysal hospital under the care of Cuban doctor Chemotherapist- Dr. Lazaro.

From October to November the same year (2010) she returned to Tunisia at El Naser Hospital for radiotherapy because she needed another surgery which couldn’t be availed in Rwanda.

Today Odette has spent her personal money and been supported by her employers at Rwanda Central Bank to see her fully cured and checked annually from 2011 to 2013 but she has regrets for others.

 “It’s so sad that some cancer patients know of it when it is too late, because when cancer takes on the meta-bases, it’s irreversible. I guess I was just lucky to have gone for the Tunis training,” she said.

Despite shortage of cancer treatment facilities in Africa, Karanguza and her colleagues advocate for early cancer awareness and checkups.

Starting next year, the radiotherapy centre under construction at Rwanda Military Hospital will provide patients with a link to comprehensive cancer care.

The facility, in addition to Shyira and Butaro cancer centers will save several Rwandans and government from spending over $500million seeking treatment outside the country especially India, China and Kenya.

It costs patients between $8,000 and $12,000 to seek treatment abroad.

Alice Kabagire Cyusa undergoing treatment at a hospital in USA, March 2017

However, Rwanda lacks oncologists which has seen other financially able patients seek treatment in other countries.

For Alice, a leukaemia survivor, this luck is too much to afford to common citizens who cannot afford to travel outside Rwanda.

“If I didn’t have the chance to seek medical care abroad, I would be dead by now. That is why I am in the lead to fight cancer and create awareness especially in deprived communities,” Kabagire told KT Press.

Dr. Cyprien Shyirambere, an Associate Director for the Oncology Program at Butaro hospital says Before the Butaro ambulatory cancer center opened in 2012, there was not much in the country and chemotherapy was not available in public facilities but todate over 6000 patients with an average of 1,200 per year have been handled in five years.

Shyirambere says patients arrive in late stages of cancer, and this impacts their prognosis which is coupled with limitations in the capacity of staff, in terms of training.

“We also lack resources. This is basically a district hospital, so we don’t have all the facilities around us. We don’t have any radiotherapy machine in the country, so we refer our patients to Nairobi, Kenya, and it’s very expensive,” he says.

This November, Rwanda hosted the 11th International Conference on Cancer in Africa (AORTIC) themed ‘Cancer in Africa: Making Strides, Creating Solutions.

Through research and data collection on treatment stages, care, and progress of recovery for each patient, Roche- a global pioneer in pharmaceuticals launched the first-ever breast cancer patient journey study in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) in Kigali Alongside the 11th International Conference on Cancer in Africa (AORTIC) conference held in Kigali this November.

Rwanda’s First Lady Jeannette Kagame officiated the event and cautioned Africa on building strong structures that favour capacity building for scientists and called for a joint battle against cancer.

Women like Odette and many more African women through this study, will never to go through the same experience, in which their treatment progress will be monitored closely.

The study aims at describing the typical breast cancer patient journey and assess resource use, cost, and other hurdles influencing patient care in public and private hospitals in Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana among the first countries, of which Rwandans will benefit from Kenyan neighbours.

The data will provide insight into the challenges of addressing the full spectrum of breast cancer patient care in SSA, and help identify what solutions are needed at multiple points in the patient journey.

“We believe that patients in sub-Saharan Africa deserve the same treatment as everyone else,” said Markus Gemuend, Head of Roche Sub-Saharan Africa.

The study will also assess direct cost to patients, including how many pay for cancer care out of pocket and how many are unable to complete treatment for cost reasons.




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