Kenya: Bedridden with rare cancer, girl’s plight exposes shocking state of healthcare

Belinda Atieno, who is suffering from a rare form of cancer, is assisted to stand.
Belinda Atieno, who is suffering from a rare form of cancer, is assisted to stand.

If only the malignant tumour had been diagnosed in its early stages, poor Belinda Otieno would be in school today preparing for her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam in the next few weeks.

The 18-year-old girl was full of dreams, her poor parents banked on her as the holder of the key to economic stability and the Good Samaritan who was paying her fees was confident she was going places. But while her colleagues are busy revising for the exams due in November, she dropped out of school a year ago and has since been bedridden at home, struggling with piercing pain from a huge growth on her buttocks.

Diagnosed with a rare anal cancer that has caused a growth on her hips and bowel area, life has become a living hell for Belinda, who was in Form Three at Kamagambo Secondary School in Kadero Kwoyo village, Awendo sub-county. What started as a small swelling that Belinda said she ignored as normal body change any teenager goes through, has turned out to be a nightmare for her and her poor family now grappling with shattered dreams. For a year now, she has had to lie on her tummy since her sides have developed sores that have to be dressed routinely. Neither can she lie on her back because of the painful swelling. Her mother Hellen Adhiambo Otieno said she noticed her daughter was developing “funny hips” but she became alarmed last October when Belinda scratched the swelling and it burst.

“I was in class and felt my bowel movement area itching, I scratched it and what followed was an overflow of blood. It has gotten worse ever since,” Belinda explained. The mother took her daughter to hospitals in Awendo and Rongo sub-counties but she says doctors there could not give a proper diagnosis of what was ailing her daughter. Instead they referred her to Kisumu Referral Hospital, where she underwent a surgery that was not successful. She was discharged after three months and told to return for another surgery in February, this year.

But due to lack of funds, she has been at home ever since. A well-wisher who was paying her school fees, Nathaniel Oloo, said he got concerned when he could no longer receive report forms from her. Lack of proper and timely diagnosis has fuelled superstition with many patients and their families resorting to mythical and dubious means of trying to solve their ailments, especially in a region where some people still believe in witchcraft and sorcery.

Ms Adhiambo feels her daughter was bewitched because she was bright and bore the hopes of turning the fortunes of her struggling parents.

Belinda is the first born. She has five siblings. Her father, a mason, is reported to be admitted to the Homa Hospital after a wall fell on him when he was constructing a house in Rongo town. Caroline Ogutu, a nurse based in Awendo sub-county hospital and her colleague, volunteered to be dressing  Belinda’s wounds at home. This saves her poor family the cost of hiring transport to take her to hospitals as she can’t walk.

It also helps ease the pain for the girl. “She is always in pain and her family could not afford the treatment. Her swollen wounds are supposed to be dressed daily. So we had to come in and offer voluntary service to help her heal but the situation is turning chronic and hard to treat,” she explained. She said that the disease could have been treated well if the family had discovered early and proper diagnosis done. Migori County is among regions that received cancer equipment and dialysis machines that are, however, lying idle at the county’s main hospital for lack of specialised medical practitioners to help the patients. Patients requiring the services have to travel to public hospitals in Homa Bay or Kisii counties.

Migori County referral hospital administrator Castry Otuoma said they only offer screening and chemotherapy. He explained the county government is training three specialists who will provide dialysis services in the referral hospital. There is need for a cancer centre in the region and the plight of cancer patients in the county’s eight sub-counties is worrying. Belinda is among many patients who are suffering at home, let down by a broken public health care system as our team found out in various parts of the country.

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