Rwanda to Open First Comprehensive Cancer Center in Rural East Africa

Posted on Jul 2, 2012

In mid-July, Rwanda’s Ministry of Health, Partners In Health, the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation, and Harvard’s Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center, will officially open the first comprehensive cancer referral facility in rural East Africa.

The Butaro Cancer Center of Excellence will offer a spectrum of oncology diagnostic and treatment services, including chemotherapy, surgery, a pathology laboratory, counseling, and palliative care.

Cancer care in Butaro

Delivering chemotherapy to a cancer patient in Butaro

Finding Hope for Cancer Patients

Located in Burera District in northern Rwanda, Butaro Hospital has brought medical innovation and technology to a remote rural district that until four years ago did not have a functioning hospital to serve a population of over 320,000 people.

The World Health Organization estimates that 70 percent of cancer deaths occur in developing countries, often due to lack of access to medications, equipment, and trained health professionals that are routinely available in wealthy countries.

Many cancers that are common and usually fatal in sub-Saharan Africa can be effectively treated and cured with chemotherapy and radiation. In Rwanda, for example, there are currently no trained Rwandan oncologists, and cancer diagnoses are all too often viewed as a death sentence.

PIH has been collaborating with Rwanda's Ministry of Health since 2007 to provide care for cancer patients, including offering chemotherapy on a limited basis.

One of our first patients was Francine Tuyishime, a 10-year-old from an impoverished village. She was sick with rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the muscle, which left her with a large and painful tumor on her cheek.

After traveling across Rwanda in an attempt to find a cure, Francine’s father brought her to Rwinkwavu, a PIH-supported hospital in eastern Rwanda, where her wound was dressed and she was treated with chemotherapy.

“I was very sick and everyone thought I was going to die,” said Francine. However, when she began chemotherapy, her tumor quickly shrank until all that remained was a small scar.

Now healthy, Francine has returned to school and hopes to become a doctor. “I wish others in this part of the world could be cured of cancer, just like me,” she says. Click here to watch Francine tell her story.

Joining Forces to Stop Preventable Deaths

The Butaro Cancer Center of Excellence will offer world-class care to patients like Francine with generous support from the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation (JGCF), which has pledged $1.5 million towards pediatric cancer care at Butaro over three years. Founded by NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, the JGCF is a charity committed to battling pediatric cancer. This is its first international donation.

“A child suffering from cancer is a child suffering from cancer,” says Gordon. “The location of the child does not matter. They are all innocent children and they deserve the right to live, be healthy and enjoy life.”

The Cancer Center will also benefit from a unique partnership with the Boston-based Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. Expert oncologists from these sites have already started training and mentoring Rwandan staff to administer chemotherapy and care for patients, providing a sustainable and comprehensive system of education for the next generation of Rwandan health care leaders.

The opening of the Cancer Center of Excellence sets a new standard of care for a disease once considered certainly fatal. This message of hope leads PIH co-founder Paul Farmer to recall a similar battle.

“Just a few years ago we had no financing mechanism to diagnose and treat AIDS in Africa,” says Farmer. “People said it was too expensive and too complicated. But today nearly 7 million people in developing countries are receiving treatment for HIV. We can do the same with cancer.”

Read a Huffington Post article about Jeff Gordon’s visit to Butaro.

Learn more about PIH’s work in Rwanda.


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