Saturday, April 26, 2014

Facing breast cancer in the UK and in Africa

All of my past blogs have focused on many different topics surrounding poverty and the varied problems in our world, but this time I write about me personally. When I read about American actress, Angelina Jolie going public about her mastectomy in 2013 I never imagined I would go through a similar experience.

David and Pam wait for Pam to be taken to theatre
I was diagnosed with DCIS, early breast cancer, on August 8 2013, and had a mastectomy less than three months later, on October 21 2013. Since then I have been recovering slowly but steadily. In fact, just a month later, on November 18 2013, I was standing in front of third year engineering students at Oxford University, delivering a guest lecture on humanitarian logistics operations and innovation (you can read the blog on this below). Little did they know how conscious I was of my asymmetrical chest. But the thought of whether there are any women out there whose chests are totally symmetrical kept me comforted. I was only able to give the lecture, and see clearly that day because of the effective and efficient care I received from my oncologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital here in Oxford. Along with the wonderful support from my husband, daughters, church members, relatives and friends from all over the globe who supported me each step of the way. They kept me positive, strong and brave enough to face it all.

I consider myself very fortunate to live and work in Britain where cancer detection and treatment is so advanced. Right from the day I was diagnosed, the care had been professional and carefully handled. From the mammogram tests to biopsies to surgery and after care. And you know what?  There was no charge.

When I first heard my diagnosis, I was so sad and shocked my brain felt like a frozen ice cube, but not angry to ask “why me?” – because why should it be anyone? Of course, I worried about dying and leaving behind my children and my husband, who I want to grow old with. I also worried about not being there for my mother and family in Kenya.

I would not have made the journey without a positive attitude, and those who supported me. They sent emails, cards, flowers, texts and rung to hear my voice, and those who live in England visited me in hospital and at home after being discharged. But above all it was the quality of the health care that I was able to receive. My oncologist, nurse and GP still follow up to check that I am recovering well, and, yes, I am, and fortunately my cancer had not spread to other organs.
Pam recovering in hospital

In fact, in February 2014 I was able to make my first trip abroad since my surgery, to Copenhagen for work, and last week I travelled to Paris to attend the humanitarian logistics general assembly and summit (oh, I should blog about the Paris trip next!). It was wonderful to reconnect with senior logisticians, heads of humanitarian logistics operations (from various aid organizations) and Humanitarian Logistics Association Board members, and catch up with how they have managed with being so busy over 2013, responding to major disasters of the year; the Syrian Crisis  and the Philippines hurricane  just to mention a few. It was good to learn of the humanitarian challenges ahead and the things that keep logisticians awake.

But why blog about this? It’s because my experience reminded me of the situation of the many poor people in this world who struggle to access even the most basic healthcare. Particularly those in developing countries who, when diagnosed with something like cancer, would face a certain death sentence. During my illness, I read some sad stories of poor women in Africa who could not find help when they were diagnosed with breast cancer, as their relatives would not even let them talk about it. In fact, some were told to consider visiting traditional healers; in the meantime the tumours would grow and burst. A horrific experience that no one should have to go through. During that time, I also read that a key breast cancer drug, herceptin, cost USD 1,600 per patient per month. And I wondered how on earth people who can barely put food on the table afford this? My own experience, and these people’s experience, put into perspective the importance of my research in public health supply chains. 

My cancer being caught early, the appropriate quality treatment beginning without delay, and at no cost to my family, are the reasons why my hopes were rekindled. I would like poor people in low- and middle-income countries to one day also be able to have the kind of care I received. This is why I’m calling upon national government policy makers to do more for their people, and improve healthcare financing. Starting with setting up cancer screening equipment at district levels, train all of their nurses to know how to use the equipment, and lastly to make testing completely free of charge.

And to any one reading this blog, especially women, please take the first step to go for breast cancer screening, as an early diagnosis can help save your life. This was my experience when I felt a tumour on my left breast and decided to visit my GP. The rest is history. If I had not moved as fast, I may have been writing a different story or none at all.

No comments:

Post a Comment