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Kenyan Breast Cancer Survivor Fights Stigma, Shame

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Kenyan women in their home country or in the United States face an added burden of stigma when they are diagnosed with breast cancer. A new organization looks to ease the fear and shame. Also, Zambian women gain right to own land.

Subhead: 
Kenyan women in their home country or in the United States face an added burden of stigma when they are diagnosed with breast cancer. A new organization looks to ease the fear and shame. Also, Zambian women gain right to own land.
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Julia Akinyi Mulaha

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--This year, the Kenya Breast Health Programmme received corporate assistance for the first time.

Bio Foods Products Limited, a Nairobi-based dairy firm, made 7,000 pink breast cancer awareness ribbons and ran media campaigns urging Kenyans to "Think Pink." They also put up clinics that provided on-the-spot free checkups and workshops where cancer specialists and survivors met with members of public for information exchanges during October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The campaign is result of one Kenyan woman, diagnosed with breast cancer while she was a student in the United States, who went on to found the Kenya Breast Health Programmme.

Julia Akinyi Mulaha learned that she had a cancerous tumor on her breast in August 1996. She was devastated and shocked. In her home country of Kenya, cancer--especially breast cancer--is rare and heavily stigmatized.

She says that the revelation threw her off balance. She became numb, felt shattered, disorganized, disoriented and paralyzed in the following months.

"I would simply have joined the hundreds of others who have died due to the many myths and general lack of information that make breast cancer synonymous with death in our country," says Mulaha.

She is not exaggerating. In Kenya at the time, the diagnosis was often a death sentence. In Eastern Africa, there are 13,615 new breast cancer cases and 6,119 deaths annually, according to Kenyan health officials. In Southern African countries, about 5,537 new breast cancer cases get reported annually with 2,504 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

At the time of her diagnosis, Mulaha was in Washington, D.C., pursuing a graduate degree in development management at American University and thus had access to the type of medical care that would have been difficult to obtain in Kenya. Mulaha lost a breast and endured painful chemotherapy and radiation therapy, yet endured with support from her Anglican church's All Saints Cathedral, university colleagues and close Kenyan friends. And she was able to do something unheard of in her home country--join a breast cancer awareness group.

From there, she went on to found the Kenya Breast Health Programmme, which now educates Kenyans in the United States and Africa about the disease and treatments available. It also inspires women to take care of their breasts and their general health. The program was launched in the United States in September 1999. Mulaha traveled back home the following year to help start a network of survivors able to provide information and strength to the affected individuals and their families.

The Kenya Breast Health Programmme is supported in part by the Kenya Young Women's Christian Association, an affiliate of the Geneva-based World Young Women's Christian Association. The program also hosts regional conferences and trains women who are leaders in their communities--social workers, teachers, religious workers and health advocates--to teach others to perform self-examinations of their breasts and encourage them to receive regular mammograms.

The Kenya Breast Health Programmme also has run awareness campaigns that encouraged women to get voluntary checkups and organized educational awareness projects, health workshops and clinics.

Mulaha hopes the Kenya Breast Health Programmme will "help million others in Kenya beat death," she says.


Myths Surrounding Breast Cancer Add Shame to Painful Disease

In some parts of Kenya, breast cancer is said to develop when one's husband fails to complete dowry payment to his in-laws. Others believe it is God's curse and the victim risks being labeled a witch.

Living with one breast in most communities in Kenya is hard, says Mulaha. Survivors say that they are met with strange stares.

"People stop looking at you as a woman, instead they look at your one breast and withdraw from you," says Mulaha.

Many victims have been abandoned by close relatives, including husbands. The women's nausea, depression, anger, loss of hair and changes in skin color--common symptoms in breast cancer patients--tend to be too much for most husbands.

Mulaha's family, all of whom live in Kenya, had typically extreme reactions. Her sisters and parents behaved as if she were already dead. Her son Richard found the whole experience frightening. Many family members and friends in Kenya did not expect Mulaha to pull through.

Indeed, many women in Kenya with breast cancer do not pull through. The costs associated with treating the disease make it difficult to diagnose in the early stages or to treat aggressively.

In Kenya for example, a mammogram costs KSH 3700 ($47) at the Nairobi hospital and cancer treatments are an estimated $4,000 per treatment, not including the cost of medicines, according to a study conducted by the University of Berkley in 2000.

"This in a country where 65 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. The cost is just too high in terms of time, money and lost relationships," says Mulaha.

There are hardly any statistics available on the number of women suffering from breast cancer in Kenya, but Mulaha's Kenya Breast Health Programmme, the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the Kenyatta National Hospital are now working on baseline surveys.

In the United States, the incidence rate of breast cancer (number of new breast cancers per 100,000 women) increased by approximately 4 percent during the 1980s but leveled off to 100.6 cases per 100,000 women in the 1990s; approximately 40,000 women and 400 men die annually as a result of breast cancer.

According to records at the Kenyatta National Hospital some 180 new cases of breast cancer were recorded in the year 2000. Dr. Eliud Njuguna, chair of the Kenya Cancer Association, estimates that 25 out of 100,000 women in Kenya suffer from breast cancer.

"The state of breast cancer in Kenya is simply pathetic," says Njuguna, adding that there are no hospitals for regular checkups. Patients all over the country get referred to the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi when the situation may be too late, "compounding treatments and costs," adds Njuguna.

Henry Neondo is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya who specializes in science and health stories.

For more information:

Imaginis--General Information on Breast Cancer:
http://www.imaginis.com/breasthealth/

World YWCA--
"Breast Cancer--Kenya Breast Health Programmme":
http://www.worldywca.org/common_concern/june2001/kenya.html




Zambian Women Win Right to Own Land

Lusaka, Zambia (WOMENSENEWS)--The Zambian government has taken another step towards gender equality by allowing women to have access to land just like their male counterparts.

"In many parts of Zambia land has been and continues to be the most significant form of property. Farming is still the most important source of livelihood hence ownership of land remains the most important source of security against poverty," says a new female landowner, Chewe Kamungu.

Until January, married women were not allowed to own land unless they obtained consent from their husbands. However, Lands Minister Judith Kapijimpanga initiated reforms that would see to it that women have access to land and bank loans without involving their spouses.

"As a woman you no longer need permission from your husband to own land. We are trying to move away from cultural norms that deter women from acquiring land," explained Kapijimpanga.

Cecilia Makota, chair for Zambia Women in Agriculture, said women need to have a right to land because they contribute to 60 percent of crop yield in the country.

"Ownership of land is essential for women farmers and the fact that they lack this right is a devastating problem for women here in Zambia," said Makota.

-- Carlyn Hambuba.