Kkookolo Atta

Cancer Kills

Blog #2

Solid Tumor Ward Kampala NYT photo
Patients in the Solid Tumor Ward at the Uganda Cancer Institute. Photo from NYT (see article link  below)

A few weeks’ after my first installment ‘Cabin Crew: Prepare for landing’, here I am again, attempting to share insights of my first deep-dive into the world of healthcare and cancer in Least Developed Countries.

My first month plan was all about ‘going and seeing’; understanding how Sub Saharan Africa works, the world of Healthcare (private and public), what NGOs do; the challenges, the risks, the opportunities… I started by meeting the teams at the Cancer Institute, the oncologists, the supporting partner organisations and, of course, the patients: the people at the end of our supply chains who are the reason we come to work every day.

Some were surprised that I was so keen in wanting to meet cancer patients, there were a few raised eyebrows and ‘are you sure?’ moments. Yes, I am sure. I want to hear the voice of the patient, see the good, the bad and the ugly.  And so I did, day after day, and the messages are loud and clear.

Three big themes resonate wherever one goes: ‘I can’t afford the treatment’… ’they didn’t have the drugs’… ‘I am going to die’.  For a Supply Chain person like me, hearing that people are dying due to poor supply or no availability of drugs is not easy to stomach.  Moreover, affordability: some patients can’t even afford some of the basic medicines that will help them treat the pain, or infections, and morphine becomes the one and only painkiller.  A lady in the street (not a cancer patient) mentioned casually – and strangely nonchalantly – that she would kill herself if she found out she had cancer, as people don’t understand what they have and ‘everyone suffers and dies’. It is not uncommon for some tumors to be associated with witchcraft.

I met a stunning bright eyed, beautiful smile 17-year-old girl with a giant cell tumor on her shoulder that is as big as her head. Whilst she was telling me that she likes to sing and read novels, trying to contain the pain, the palliative team were telling her family that they could not operate and her disease is not curable.

Cancer kills over 450 thousand people in Africa every year, it is expected that by 2030 it will kill almost 1 million.  Survival rate for some cancers is below 50% in Uganda, whereas it would be above 90% in developed countries. This is a nation that is now surviving Malaria, TB, HIV… yet cancer is killing them.  You can imagine it took me a few days to digest the fact that Cancer in Africa is a death sentence.  One could argue it is a perception, but that perception is their reality, one that many of us are oblivious to.

I have seen disease from a different perspective, one that I had never experienced before to this extent.   If there is one thing that I can openly admit is that I am being challenged at many levels, from the head, through to the heart and guts, all in unison.  For all the feelings of helplessness, impotence and sheer frustration, meeting these people has ignited something that is making me even more determined to really do more, because these people need to feel better, be accurately diagnosed and effectively treated.

How can we raise awareness and make quality drugs more affordable and accessible to least developed countries?

If you are still reading, I hope you agree there is a lot more we can do.  The ‘how’ is a tough one to work out… one step at a time.

To read more, see this must read timely article from the NYT, where the picture is borrowed from:  As Cancer Tears through Africa, Drug Makers draw up a battle plan’


  1. Hi Alex. Great post, it looks really challenging. As discussed, if you need help, feel free to ping me.


    1. Thanks Robert – I may be reaching out on your Lab expertise, currently working on mapping out Pathology testing, suppliers etc – know much on ImmunoHistoChemistry? 🙂

  2. Great post, Alex, and a tough one. It brings the challenges healthcare faces in least developed countries very much to life and makes us really see the patients! Wishing you the best of luck and success with your assignment!

  3. Hola Alex. This is so sad. And also the problem is big and vast. I read the article on the NYT also. Africa is huge and poor. And we live on this side of the world, with no worries. Sometimes we think that what we do cannot change the status quo, however, the Great Pyramids were not build in one day. It takes a lot of effort during a long period of time… it is not impossible. So, I am sending you energy. Energy to succeed, to fight, to not give up, to have courage, to endure. I hope my words help you. Saludos desde Panama.

  4. Hi Alex, I can feel in your words the impact that this 6 weeks experience has had in you. I am sure you will change the life of those you meet just because you care. Let me know if you see any opportunity to help from the other side of the world…and thank you for this inspiring blog! Big Hug from Panama!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s