Buying Life: Saving your child from cancer

In one of the wards at the B block of the Komfo Anokye Teaching hospital a six-year-old girl called, Esther, sits on a bed. It’s a small isolated ward at the B 5 block of the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital and has a swollen face.

Her demeanor told a story of pain and anguish. Sylvia was suffering from cancer of the kidney and it started two years ago. Dr. Vivian Paintsil confirms Sylvia had been undergoing treatment for some time.

She went through surgery and chemotherapy but the cancer has recurred.

“There were problems with monetary issues because they have to buy all their drugs. the parents couldn’t afford it so they had to wait a bit until they could get the money and came back. We started with the chemotherapy but at some point in time they ran short of money so they defaulted again then they brought her back in a very bad state. We’ve counseled the parents again and we are trying to solicit for funds them they can be able to go to the full length of the chemotherapy that will be given to them. But the prognosis won’t be as good as it would have been if they had money upfront for them,” Dr Paintsil said.

Little Esther and her parents are from Berekum, a town in the Brong-Ahafo region of Ghana. She is the first of three children. Esther and her father Kwame Asamoah barely stay in their town. They are always shuttling between their home and the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital. Kwame Asamoah was a cobbler but for the past two years he has not worked and so cannot even buy drugs for his daughter. Tears run down his cheeks as he speaks about the difficulties they are going through.

“The drugs are very expensive. It got to a point this doctor had to even buy some for us. I also go about asking for help from people. I had a plot of land but I have sold it. Now we owe people almost four thousand cedis and we can’t even pay. It’s really tough for me. A friend dashed me a flat screen television but I had to sell it. We are always going up and down. For some time now we have not been able to even buy her drugs,” Kwame said.

These drugs are needed to partly numb the pain little Esther experiences. Failure to get them worsens her plight and the already agonizing pain intensifies. In helpless times like this her father simply can’t stand close to his six year old daughter.

“They told me the other day that she is tired and is losing breath. We didn’t have money to buy the drugs prescribed by the doctor to make her feel a bit okay. When she told me that, I left the ward. Now, I have spent over eight thousand cedis on her. It is really difficult for me. Everything about this disease needs money to handle. The prices of the drugs have almost doubled now. We used to buy some 100 cedis but now it’s 142 cedis. Another injection to stop vomiting is now 25 so in total 167. When you add transportation fare it adds up to almost 200 cedis,” he said.

Most of the pain occurs when a tumor presses on bones, nerves, or body organs.

In Africa, the incidence of cancer is increasing, but it remains a low public health priority because resources are limited and there are other pressing medical problems, such as AIDS/HIV infection, malaria, and tuberculosis.

In Ghana more and more children are dying of cancer though doctors say childhood cancers are curable.

Late reporting and detection at our hospitals together with difficulties in paying for cancer treatment have been identified as the reasons why these innocent children are dying.

Seth Kwame Boateng in his latest documentary discusses in detail what childhood cancers are and stories of how some unfortunate parents watch their kids die just because they can’t afford its treatment.

Most of the language about cancer that I have heard are strong masculine military language. When someone has cancer, doctors, relatives and loved ones would try to encourage the person and say you are strong, you are brave, you can fight this.

But children may not be strong or brave to fight the pain of cancer. Living with cancer, dealing with it and dying from cancer can be a real struggle.

Cancer is forcing poor parents to rather bury some of their children.

In this feature I put the spotlight on paediatric or childhood cancers and how it is claiming the lives of innocent children just because their parents can’t afford the bills that come with seeking cure for them.

Children live the lives of dreamers but in a heartbeat all that can change. Every three minutes a parent somewhere in the world hears “your child has cancer”.

These four words change everything. Parent’s time is torn between hospital, home and work. Brothers and sisters feel left out and left behind. The child with cancer misses out on school and spending time with friends. Treatment takes over their life.

The child is exposed to harmful radiation. Harsh chemicals are injected into their bodies. They lose their hair, eye browse, limps are removed, organs are cut off.

The path to survival is a brutal dangerous road. And sometimes, cancer does have the last word.

The news of a cancer diagnosis is never welcome, but may be even more unexpected and difficult when the disease is diagnosed in a child.

People don’t really believe there are childhood cancers but they exist. Any part of the body can be affected for children for them to have the cancers,” a doctor intimates.

Childhood cancer is often ignored in developing countries because more children die from infectious or parasitic diseases than from cancer leaving cancer overlooked as a result.

Worldwide, it is estimated that childhood cancer has an incidence of more than 175,000 per year, and kills approximately 96,000 people a year.

“The truth is that most childhood cancers are curable and people don’t say that. When they hear or see cancer all they know is that it is equal to death and misery.”

“They come in a very bad state and nobody wants to go and look after them. They were like the neglected pool and there is hope for them. And they can survive if the right interventions are given to them and I chose that so that I can bring some hope to some people. That is mainly why because I have been asked over and over again, why do you choose cancer? They are just dying so why do you want to look after them? Even if they have to die, they have to die with some dignity. But we try as much as possible to save a lot of them,” that’s according to Dr. Vivian Paintsil a paediatric oncologists at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital.

She attends to children with cancer every day. Dr. Paintsil is passionate about doing everything possible to make life worth living for the many unfortunate children with cancer.

“It’s no fault of these children that they have cancer and no child should die of cancer because childhood cancers are curable but the problem is then the parents getting the money to buy the drugs, the medication for them,” he said.

Cancer deeply distresses the child with the disease and their families. And the situation is worse in poorer countries where childhood cancer is often detected too late for effective treatment. Many children are never diagnosed at all. In these countries roughly 60% of children with cancer die.

“We have the commonest one which is Burkitt's Lymphoma. Most of the time it is the jaw swelling or an abdominal swelling which happens and then the eye too can be affected which is retinoblastoma and then cancers which can affect the kidneys. Your bones can be affected which we call the Oesteosacoma and currently we are seeing lots and lots of other ones which we call Fibrosacomas which are a little benign but they can grow aggressively.”

Cancer is caused by both external factors like tobacco, chemicals, radiation, and infectious organisms and internal factors such as inherited mutations, hormones, immune conditions, and mutations that occur from metabolism. These causal factors may act together or in sequence to initiate or promote carcinogenesis

“From the health professional who thinks that cancer is the end to the priest  who also believes the same to the ordinary parent who thinks my world is shuttered ;I will dare not have another kid because if that kid should also have cancer that is the end because I went through air. To the young student who has sort of taught that cancer is this, cancer is that and cancer is deadly, we all must come to the realization that ones we identify it early then our world is not that gloomy is all bright at the end of the tunnel and we must get to that light.”