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Rescued from the jaws of breast cancer

Nancy Nyirenda is a breast cancer survivor. She has endured the pain of losing her mother and four siblings due to cancer [Photo: Chisomo Break].

‘Acceptance is key’

In a classroom at Nankumba Catholic Primary School in Blantyre, there is a sense of anticipation as Standard Eight students prepare for their English lesson from their teacher, Jean Chimaliro.

Just five years ago, her battle with breast cancer had left her unable to teach.

“I was heartbroken,” Chimaliro says, reflecting on the weight of the memories.

Recalling her journey through the walls of Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital where she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Chimaliro admits that she not only worried for herself but her family too.

“When someone is diagnosed with this disease you just think like it is a death penalty,” she adds, “But thanks to the doctors because today it is a different story.”

Chimaliro is not the only one who has survived breast cancer.

In the sweltering heat of the Shire Valley, 53-year-old Clinician Maureen Mtanthiko who works at Alumenda Clinic in Chikwawa District, echoes Chimaliro’s experience.

In August of 2017, she had what she describes as a ‘no-one-knows troubled situation’.

Maureen Mtanthiko sees herself as a living example of resilience in overcoming her breast cancer condition [Photo: Chisomo Break].
Mtanthiko was told by doctors that the lump that had developed on her breast was cancerous. That gut-wrenching news was only met with denial. “I told the doctors that the results were not mine as I thought they had swapped them with someone else’s,” she recalls. “However, through the assurance from the doctors and support from my family, I accepted the results. They operated me and here I am today, I am fine.”

Mtanthiko sees herself as a living example of resilience in overcoming her condition. She believes optimism is important for those battling with the disease. “Acceptance is key,” she advises.

Breast cancer is a pressing concern in the country. The World Health Organisation notes that it is the third most common cancer in Malawian women. Out of 10 patients that present with signs and symptoms, four are diagnosed with the disease monthly. Moreover,  The University of Medicine and Health Sciences reports that only 9.5% of patients survive beyond 18 months in Malawi.

What is Breast Cancer? 

It is a type of cancer that starts in the breast. It starts when cells begin to grow out of control. Breast cancer occurs almost entirely in women but men can get breast cancer too. Its cause is still unknown but lifestyle-related risk factors such as the food that people eat and how much they exercise can increase the chance of developing the disease.

Dr Richard Nyasosera is the Head of the Oncology Department at Kamuzu Central Hospital’s National Cancer Centre.  He attests that scores flock to the facility every Thursday in need of medical attention.  “Patients get treatments like chemotherapy and we administer it to 50 patients per day as outpatients,” he says.

The situation is similar at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, as highlighted by Dr Chisala Palesa Chabunya, a general surgeon at the hospital.  “We are picking up more cases now than we were before, and we are seeing quite several cases all over the country,” she says.

Dr Chabunya believes that the disease is curable if patients go to the hospital early for detection.  “Patients who present significantly late propose a challenge because when cancer spreads it does not give us many options,” she points out.

Dr Chisala Palesa Chabunya believes that the breast cancer  is curable if patients go to the hospital early for detection [Photo: Chisomo Break].
In Nkhata-Bay, a retired nurse Nancy Nyirenda is another breast cancer survivor. She points out that she has endured the pain of losing her mother and four siblings to cancer before she was diagnosed with the same.  Though her journey was devoid of challenges, she however won the battle.

“The surgeon gave me two options, either they remove the lump through a process called lumpectomy or remove the breast. My husband and I opted for the removal of the breast and the operation was successful,” says Nyirenda. “After some time, I went to Lilongwe Cancer Centre to be seen by an oncologist and I was told that I was breast cancer-free.”

With specialised cancer treatment limited to just two public health facilities — the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre and the Kamuzu Central Hospital’s National Cancer Centre in Lilongwe — access to effective care remains a concern.

The Breast Cancer Foundation, a local non-profit, reports that there is limited information about breast cancer.

It is for this reason that the organisation conducts free outreach programmes to sensitise the communities about the disease.

“Evidence is available that this disease is curable, however, the challenge is that more people are not aware of the disease so we conduct free outreach clinics across the country to make more people aware and we also offer free screening services,” says Tabitha Warwick, the founder of Breast Cancer Foundation.

While some patients may access effective treatment like Radiotherapy abroad — which Malawi does not offer at the moment, the costs are above the reach of many. However, Dr Nyasosera of KCH says local oncologists continue to do their level best to provide much-needed support to all those detected with cancer irrespective of the various challenges they encounter in the line of duty.

In the meantime, Dr Nyasosera and his team elevate their hope on the radiation therapy bunkers under construction at the National Cancer Centre.

“We will no longer refer our patients to India or any other country for specialised treatment,” he says. “We will be treating them right here and the government will save resources that I believe will be channeled to equally important development.”

For Nyirenda back in Nkhata Bay, she is urging government and other stakeholders to increase breast cancer awareness, especially in the country’s remote areas. “Even in Churches, and places where we have meetings, we call them ungano in Tumbuka, somebody should be available to teach women and men about the disease,” she says. She believes many people die because of lack of knowledge yet they can be helped.

“For remote areas like Nkhata Bay it becomes very difficult to learn about the disease,” adds Nyirenda.

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