Cancer isn’t a national disaster; our broken healthcare system is

Friday April 06 2018

Pupils help spread cancer awareness on February 16, 2018. PHOTO | MWORIA MUCHINA


Catherine Waruguru, the Laikipia Woman Representative, has said she is seeking to have a Motion in the National Assembly compelling the national government to declare cancer a ‘national disaster’. I find this unacceptable.

When it comes to illnesses, language is of paramount importance.

Matters of health require the highest sensitivity.

Understandably, we expect doctors to have a warm, comforting and calming manner when they receive a patient.

Besides this, we also expect honesty from them, but as a gradual peeling of layers.



In the absence of this sensitivity, doctors might as well be walking into consultation rooms and immediately declaring that a patient has a life-threatening illness, and that they are going to die, and should therefore go home.

This would be in total disregard of the feelings of the vulnerable patient and their sensitive yet anxious relatives.

This is exactly what declaring cancer a ‘national disaster’ is going to do.

You are literally telling these families their case is not special.

You are among thousands of other people who have cancer.

Your case is not different from anyone else’s going seeking cancer treatment now.

However, the harsh and painful reality for cancer patients is that their cases are deeply personal and are incomparable to any other.
To describe cancer as a ‘national disaster’ is rather insensitive and sadly generalises the harrowing impact cancer is having on individuals and their families.

Not only that, this term goes even further in trivialising the stages and types of cancer each person is going through.

A pancreatic cancer patient is in a far graver condition and has far worse prospects than patients with most of the other cancers.

Is this really a national disaster? It is not.

It is a deeply personal health journey only being experienced by that patient and giving it any other name will only numb the public from the pain of the patients.

There is no denying that funds are urgently needed for cancer treatment.

Stop being hesitant and call out the lack of access to cancer treatment for what it is attributed to.

The national disaster is the Kenyan healthcare system, which does not grant all cancer patients affordable access to treatment.

Due to high healthcare costs, cancer patients are paying the highest penalties with their lives because they cannot afford to pay for the treatment.

The MPs sitting to debate this motion are highly unlikely to feel the effects of the financial hardship faced by families struggling to raise money to take care of their loved ones.


The real national disaster are the elected public representatives who are so far removed financially from wananchi that they will never know the emotional anguish these families are going through.

So no, calling cancer a national disaster will not stop it.

The reality is that even in countries where healthcare is free, cancer patients are dying; the inevitable is delayed by the treatment and palliative care.

To help cancer patients, table a motion for nationally affordable cancer treatment.

Reduce costs and seek to bring treatment centres closer to patients.


Of paramount importance is to seek a Ministry of Health public cancer campaign advocating for early screening, especially for the least survivable cancers of the liver, oesophageal, brain, pancreatic and stomach.

Four in five cases of cancer in Kenya are diagnosed when it is already too late.

An area that is also neglected but should be debated is palliative care.

We know cancer is a tough illness to contend with, making the end of life care for the patient even more crucial.


Cancer patients should not spend their last days agonising in excruciating pain.

The motion should, therefore, seek to prioritise hospices to aid patients and their families in those precious last days.

Lastly, look into the 2017 Pfizer and Cipla deal offering Kenyans cancer drugs at half the market price.

Is this currently nationally accessible? If not, how soon can all cancer patients access these treatments?

Today, we mark World Health Day and those with little to get by are being dragged into extreme poverty because of high healthcare costs.

Don’t drag cancer patients and their families suffering with limited healthcare choices into a national crusade when you made them the victims.

The healthcare system as it stands is not sustainable; fix this national disaster.

Burini works with international businesses on commercial litigation. [email protected]