Getting diagnosed with cancer in Kenya could mean imminent death if you are not extremely wealthy or have a good medical cover. Everyday social media sites are littered with medical appeals of patients seeking funds for cancer treatment abroad.

As I am putting together this piece, the hash tag #HelpBabyElsaFightCancer is trending on social media. Elsa is 3 years old and was diagnosed with Wilm’s Tumor when she was barely two and a half years.  One of her kidneys had to be removed but that did not stop the cancer from advancing. She now needs to raise funds for treatment in India.

The people behind the hash tag are probably hoping that their crowd funding initiative will be as successful as it was for Emmanuel Otieno, popularly known as “Jadudi.” Two years ago Jadudi needed to travel to India for a surgery to remove a tumor from his brain. He needed Ksh. 1 million (about USD 10,000) for his surgery and accommodation in India. His family had spent all their savings on the 28 radiotherapy sessions he had already had in Kenya and two surgeries. A popular blogger told the story of his plight and set up the hashtag #1Milli4Jadudi. In 48 hours, Kenyans had raised six times the required amount.

Not everyone though is as lucky as Jadudi was. I met up with him about a week ago at a popular restaurant in Kisumu. It was my first time meeting him despite the  fact that we live in the same city. I wanted to see how he is fairing on but it turned out we were meeting just about four months after he had had another major surgery in India.

“I can say it’s God who has been helping me, I have seen patients struggle with treatment.” .

The national health insurance came in during the mass appeal for funds for his treatment and fully catered for the bill as people started to question why they are not involved. The funds raised for him through the Africa Cancer Center were channeled towards helping other patients who could not afford treatment.

The National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) would soon thereafter claim that patients with NHIF cover could get free treatment in Kenya but that is yet to be actualized.

“When I am feeling well I help with counselling patients. The main problem they face is their inability to finance treatment. NHIF tells you they cater for radio therapy and chemotherapy but patients are told they have to pay for two sessions out of every three that the insurance pays for,” explains Jadudi.

Even for those who can afford cancer treatment still find it a bit steep in Kenya. There are about only five hospitals offering radio therapy in Nairobi, one of which is a public hospital.

Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) which is a public teaching and referral hospital in Nairobi only has one functional radio therapy equipment which occasionally breaks down. Patients seeking treatment have to wait for months to get scheduled for radio therapy.

There are no public hospitals offering the service outside Nairobi thereby increasing pressure on the machine.

Dr. J.N. Onyango who is a retired oncologist says the main problem facing cancer treatment in Kenya is the lack of decentralization of treatment centers. He was the first Kenyan oncologist working at the Cancer Center at KNH and claims his efforts to decentralize cancer treatment faced political interference.

“We had a plan to build a cancer center right here in Kisumu  and even procured radiotherapy equipment but that plan was never actualized. Politics came in the way and no single oncologist was ever posted here to use the equipment.”

Dr. Onyango now runs Kisumu Hospice and Palative Care Centre at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referal Hospital in Kisumu. The center offers patients with subsidized chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and immunotherapy.

During a recent Statehouse Summit the Health Cabinet Secretary DR. Cleopa Mailu acknowledged that cancer treatment remains a challenge with only one treatment center in Niarobi. He talked about the government’s plan to setup satellite treatment centers across the 47 counties of Kenya.

Dr. Onyango however warns that such a move must be followed up with proper equipment and trained personnel.

“We have a cancer center here in Kisumu but it’s not functional because it lacks staff and equipment. The center is being run by nurses who keep referring patients to Nairobi or pushing forward their appointments until a volunteer doctor from Aga Khan Hospital comes over.”

“A cancer center must have radio therapy equipment and a trained oncologist who can give both radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Then you also need personnel who understand other forms of treatment such as hormonal therapy and immunotherapy which are crucial in treatment of breast cancer and prostrate cancer.”

Those who are already sick though cannot wait for these services and in most cases are left with no option but to seek treatment abroad.

Mrs. Rosa Okwaro who is also one of the founding members of Kisumu Hospice spent more than Ksh. 5 million (about USD 50,000) in one year in treatment for her daughter Karyna who had cancer too. She eventually had to send her to India when the cost of treatment became unbearable.

“One dose of chemotherapy at Nairobi Hospital costs about Ksh. 200, 000 (about USD 2,000) while the same costs about Ksh. 12,000 in India (about USD 120).”

Karyna died in 2012 after a long battle with cancer.

Like Dr. Onyango, Jadudi looks forward to a time when treatment for cancer patients will either be more affordable or at least fully covered NHIF.

“I am not fully recovered. I live with strong migraines and I use very strong painkillers. My NHIF cover is supposed to cover for the drugs at public hospitals but most of the time when I go there they are out of stock. I still spend so much money on medication and God forbid I get to need another surgery.”

It’s however not all gloom, for Jadudi who has now become a cancer champion. This October he is organizing events to create awareness about cancer in Kisumu in collaboration with Kisumu Hospice. He hopes that through sensitization he could help people get tested and treated early for cancer, influence lifestyle changes and fight stigma against cancer patients.

As I walk out Dr. Onyango’s office, one of the patients he is monitoring comes in. She had a mastectomy about two years ago but could not afford cancer treatment. She is an informal trader who sells roasted maize by the roadside. The Hospice has helped her find a donor to pay for chemotherapy and hormonal therapy which she really needs to cope with her current conditions.

Not many Kenyans however are usually lucky enough to successfully run fundraisers on social media or get donors to fund their treatment. To them, the words “you have a tumor” are as good as a death sentence.

PHOTO: Jadudi Sharing a light moment with his nephew at home. / Image Credit: Dennis Okore