Cancer treatment costs worry Khumalo

Former Bulawayo East legislator, Thabitha Khumalo has flagged the huge cost of cancer treatment in Zimbabwe, saying vulnerable people struggled to meet the costs.

Khumalo, who suffers from breast cancer, said the cancer treatment costs were draining as it was very expensive to access the life-saving treatment.

The former legislator was diagnosed with cancer in April 2020.

“I haven’t received assistance,” she told journalists on the sidelines of a political rally recently, noting she had been self-sponsoring.

Ever since her diagnosis, Khumalo said she has spent “between US$6000 to US$7000” yet requires an additional US$10 000 for surgery.

“I don’t have it and what I’m going to do is just do the best that I can under the circumstances then the rest I will leave it to God,” she said.

In an interview, some patients at Mpilo Central Hospital who were undergoing chemotherapy said they spent US$150 for drugs that were used for one session. 

An oncology nurse at Mpilo’s Radiotherapy Unity, Blessed Goredema, confirmed medication and cancer treatment was ‘always’ expensive, as patients underwent several tests, regiments and clinical cycles.

“In oncology, we always say ‘no meat, no diagnosis’ as we don’t just assume it’s cancer until we are positive. After a patient has gone through histology, (a microscopic test structure of tissues) we do other investigations – chest Xray, ultrasound scan, blood tests, liver function tests, sometimes a CT scan and various tests for metastasis (the spread of cancer cells from the place where they first formed to another part of the body),” he explained.

These tests are necessary for diagnosing which stage the patient’s cancer is in so that it can be dealt with accordingly, said Goredema.

“Patients have to buy most of these drugs themselves. Sometimes if the radiotherapy machine is working, they can do radiotherapy for free, if they have a social welfare letter and be treated for free. But for chemotherapy, patients have to buy these drugs. For the first round, there are about four cycles before moving on to another regimen, which may be four cycles again,” he said.

“Patients will be coming in after every 21 days for the first cycle, then go through another cycle after 21 days. If you have a letter for social welfare, have medical aid you don’t pay but we try to assist most of our patients. We also recommend patients to go to social welfare. When patients have a letter from social welfare, they don’t use it to buy mediation but use it for investigation tests done in government hospital, the chest X-ray, ultrasound scan, administrative costs and hospital admission.”

However, at the moment, the radiotherapy machines at Mpilo are down and patients have to travel to Harare.

Goredema said the radiotherapy machines were “very delicate” so the malfunction was due to software technicalities.

Previously, the hospital had cited issues of battery power but that challenge has been solved.

“This is another cost, as patients have to look for accommodation for maybe six weeks in Harare, and they will be travelling every day up and down. Perhaps this software challenge may be solved before mid-year or year-end,” Goredema said.

Mpilo is currently offering chemotherapy sessions although the oncologist noted the setting was not conducive, as there were few beds and drugs were administered while patients were sitting.

“We need beds like Parirenyatwa Hospital (in Harare),” he highlighted.

Depending on the severity of that cancer, the oncologist said surgery could be done to remove the cancerous lump.

“For instance, we can do a mastectomy, removing the breast. Cancerous cells can move from one point to other, through the lymphatic system so we have to do mastectomy and remove lymph nodes because they are connected to the lungs and can spread to rest of the body,” he said and underlined there were three modes of cancer treatment – surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

“These work hand in hand. We do chemotherapy to shrink the tumour, after shrinking, we can do surgery then radiotherapy. Chemotherapy is a systematic way of treatment that goes all through the body destroying cancerous cells. Radiotherapy is a localised way of treatment, treating that affected area only.”

Goredema noted radiotherapy is done after surgery in case microscopic cells were left behind and would be trying to target those localised cells.

However, the oncologist lamented not all patients who came in with breast cancer were treated.

“If there’s metastasis, we advise the patient to go home as there’s nothing we can do, though we can do palliative chemotherapy, to reduce signs and symptoms as we try to improve the quality of life of that patient, not necessarily say we are treating. We can also do palliative radiotherapy,” he said.

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