Ten-year-old David Kabanda is living testimony that cancer, especially in children, can be cured if diagnosed early.
It took five years of pain, doubt and hope. But eventually, Kabanda’s mother, Mary Nakagumu of Masaka, is thankful that she had the fortitude to see him through against very difficult odds.
The child was born largely normal; so, it was puzzling to his family when he began to suffer unexplained fainting fits. Then his belly began to bulge and the joints in his limbs became painful.
He also lost weight. Initially, doctors said Kabanda was fainting because he was losing a lot of blood but could not immediately say why.
“We used to go to Kitovu hospital in Masaka for blood transfusion almost daily since he could get transfusion today and the following day he has no blood,” Nakagamu told The Observer.
“When the doctor checked him thoroughly to find out exactly why he was losing blood daily, he told me [Kabanda] had leukemia and they referred me to Mulago national referral hospital,” she said.
This terrible reality dawned on the family in February 2012. Nakagumu didn’t come to Mulago immediately because she didn’t have the means. But in the process of looking for money, Kabanda’s condition grew worse; he collapsed and they rushed back to Kitovu hospital.
“They gave him only one unit of blood for emergency and they told me to go to Mulago hospital immediately. I borrowed money and reached Mulago hospital’s emergency ward where Kabanda was transfused with many units of blood,” she said.
“The following day, doctors referred us to ward 16, where we spent almost a month. During this time, several tests were carried out on Kabanda, since he was still fainting and in a lot of pain.
The final results confirmed that Kabanda had leukemia. He was referred to Uganda Cancer Institute to start treatment.
The treatment was free but sometimes some prescribed drugs were not available, “so we had to buy them since Kabanda couldn’t live without them,” Nakagumu said.
For a simple rural woman, the cost of some of these drugs was prohibitive. For instance, she remembers the ‘6-MP’ tablets, each cost Shs 10,000, yet Kabanda needed it daily.
Mercaptopurine is the medication abbreviated as 6-MP, which is used for treating cancer and autoimmune diseases. Web sources say that specifically it is used to treat acute lymphocytic and chronic myeloid leukemia.
Leukemia is cancer of the blood or bone marrow, where blood cells are produced. It is known to start in blood-forming tissue, usually the bone marrow, leading to the over-production of abnormal white blood cells, the part of the immune system, which defends the body against infection.
This leaves the body vulnerable to infection and very weak.
“Doctors told me to be strong and support Kabanda to start his five-year treatment at UCI,” Nakagumu remembers.
The little boy first slept on the floor “but later doctors gave me a bed…,” she says.
Over the first two years, he underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy, combined with the 6-MP tablets.
“It’s now three years since we completed the treatment and Kabanda has never got any problem. We return to hospital for some checkups, and the doctors tell us that Kabanda is okay,” a teary Nakagumu says.
She attributes the cure to the quick treatment and her strict following of doctors’ instructions. These, however, were five lonely years marked by several challenges.
“Many people and relatives, including my husband, used to tell me daily that I should remove his child from UCI because I was wasting time there since the boy was bewitched and possessed by spirits which take his blood daily,” Nakagumu said.
Nakagumu refused to remove Kabanda from the doctors’ care.
“I thank God for giving me a strong devotion because if I didn’t believe in Him, and took Kabanda to witchdoctors, he would have lost all his blood and died,” she said.
Dr Joyce Kambugu Balagadde, the paediatric oncologist at ICU, said the cause of childhood leukemia isn’t known, but it could be genetically transmitted. A great deal of research is being done in this area, she says.
“For 95 percent of children with leukemia, the cause is unknown. But children who are HIV-positive can easily get these cancers because their immunities are low,” she said.
Kabanda is one of the success stories realised through timely treatment. Balagadde spoke to an ongoing campaign to raise public awareness about the high chances of curing cancer in children. Kabanda is now in P6. The days when people used to mock his mother about his “incurable illness” are mercifully behind him.
“They are all quiet now after seeing Kabanda going to school. I thank Kabanda for accepting to take drugs and the doctors who cared about us,” she said.
Dr Jackson Orem, the executive director of the Uganda Cancer Institute, says cancer in children is unique from adult cancer.
“Eighty percent of children with cancer are cured at the UCI, currently the only dedicated treatment centre for children with cancer,” Orem said. “In Uganda, 55 per cent of children are alive at one year after being diagnosed with cancer and most of them are ultimately cured; however, this cure rate still lags behind that in developed countries.”
“These improvements in cure of children with cancer in Uganda are being achieved because of our highly specialised oncologists, paediatric surgeons, radiation oncologists, radiologists and pathologists,” Orem added.
As Uganda joined the rest of the world to mark International Childhood Cancer day last week, Orem observed: “Currently in Uganda, about 3,000 children are diagnosed with HIV every year, 7,000 children are estimated to develop cancer every year whereas 512 referrals of children were received with cancer in 2017, up from 476 in 2016…”.
Orem asked parents and guardians to get children checked.