Cancer in Africa: One Child’s Struggle

Luke was 10 years old when I met him, I was working in the paediatric oncology unit, where children with cancers are treated. He had been referred to us because he had been diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the blood. He was very sick and I could tell that he had gone through a lot in his short life, what I could not tell at that time was that I was also going to learn a lot from what remained of his short life. When he came to hospital the cancer was at an advanced stage, his father (the only relative he had) could not afford to bring him to hospital earlier, he could barely afford to provide 3 meals a day. His mother had left them a few years earlier.
When he walked into my consultation room he was barely able to stand and he was as pale as a ghost. Despite his state of health, he had a sense of humour that made him adorable. It was probably a mechanism to cope with his harsh reality, but while fate (or God) had dealt him a horrible hand, he played that hand the best way he could. It was easy to forget that he was just a child. When I told him we were going to admit him into hospital, he only had 2 questions. He wanted to know if he was going to get his own room, and when he would be able to go home.

Within a few days he had received  chemotherapy cycles and he was running around the children’s ward. In the month that followed he became the best thing that happened to our ward. Everyone loved him, he made the other children laugh and forget their pain. He read fairy tales to the younger children, he even taught some of them how to ride a bicycle up and down the corridors (which annoyed the matron). He even made us enjoy our work, which under normal circumstances would be depressing. 

I also got to see a different side to Luke. Every morning I went to his bedside to chat with him before starting work, initially because his father rarely came to see him but this later became an excuse to enjoy his company. He was a sad child, he missed his mother  and was also worried that his father had left him in the hospital and was not coming back for him. Every night he cried himself to sleep. He missed going to school and he missed his friends from school. Basically he was just a normal child who had been forced to deal with circumstances that an adult would struggle with. 

When I asked him why he seemed so jovial at other times he said, ” I want to be like you doctor, I want to stop children from feeling pain.” When Luke was not focusing on his own genuine misfortunes, he did stop children from feeling pain and he did it better than any medicine we could prescribe. The sad part was that he felt more pain than any of the children who had their mothers by their bedsides. 

We got a child psychologist to help him. We also asked the hospital teacher to work with him. It was not ideal but he appreciated it. He also appreciated the room that we gave him, his own room. Not because he had asked for it but because he needed to be isolated to prevent infections as his health started to deteriorate, but as far as he was concerned, I granted his wish. Unfortunately this is not a part of the world where a child survives acute myeloid leukemia, and his second wish to go home never came true. The poor child became progressively worse over a couple of weeks before he passed on during the night, his father was with him.

When I walked in to work the following day I remember standing by his empty bedside realising that I was going to miss him. I knew that I had witnessed something special and maybe that was the whole point of that encounter. My perspective to life has never been the same since my encounter with Luke, a 10 year old boy found a way to leave his mark, with leukemia.

Cancers are the second leading cause of death worldwide and were responsible for 8.8 million deaths in 2015. At least 70% of these deaths were in low and middle income countries according to the world health organization. *** According to the Zimbabwe national cancer registry statistics, Leukemia is the most common childhood cancer accounting for 20% of the burden and is increasing. 

It has been noted that in Africa cancer patients, especially children, present to health facilities very late, with advanced disease just like Luke did. As Africans we don’t usually associate cancer with our societies but more with western societies. As our lifestyles and diets have changed over the years, a parallel increase in cancers have also been observed to such an extent that it has become a bigger problem in low income countries than it is in high income countries. As if that is not a big enough problem, we are also battling with poverty, unemployment and poor health infrastructures. 

Cancer is a ticking time bomb, a MOAB, we can only ignore it at our own peril. We need to spread the awareness, it can happen to anyone.

The end

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