THREE years after walking out of a radiotherapy ward, Marlene Gadzirayi (35) has been found with no new cancer cells mutating in her body.
The journey to this partial recovery has not been an easy one, it took time, and depleted her pockets and those of her loved ones.
She recounts her battle against colorectal cancer, a combination of two cancers in the colon and the rectum.
She is lucky to be alive.
In October 2019, Gadzirayi (pictured) was diagnosed with stage three B(IIIB) colorectal cancer after a seven-year span experiencing cancer-like symptoms and treating them using tips she found on the internet.
“I was actually sick for years. I started having constipation around 2012-2013. Then it was just on and off, on and off until I sort of self-diagnosed. And the other times, I would have a bloated stomach, I would have stomach pains and when I would go to the bathroom, there was blood in stool. So, this was happening like on and off, like it wasn’t prolonged, so I would just ignore it. Then I would google my symptoms, I think that is the first mistake I made. So I would google my symptoms, instead of going to the doctor. I would just go to the internet and google, “blood in stool” then would get hemorites and I would get “they will resolve on their own,” she said.
After diagnosis, Gadzirayi went to Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals, a public facility in Harare, where she was supposed to undergo radiation therapy on one of the three radiotherapy machines there. She was however put on an indefinite waiting list, desperately hoping to access a machine that is not always working.
She was running out of time.
“It was difficult for me to go on the public hospital waiting list for treatment because my cancer was quite aggressive and advanced so I opted for the private route. The waiting list period was not specific, but I was told that I would have to wait for months for me to access the radiotherapy machine because sometimes it works and sometimes it didn’t work,” she says.
In stage IIIB, the cancer would have spread through the muscle layer of the colon and/or rectum wall to the outermost layer of the colon and/or rectum wall or has spread through the serosa to the tissue that lines the organs in the abdomen.
The extent of the cancer was dire and Gadzirayi had to move to private healthcare for radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery, which was not very easy on the pocket.
“I was treated at a private facility because of the stage at which the cancer was and also because it was difficult for me to go on the public hospital waiting list because my cancer was quite aggressive so I opted for the private route because of that,” she said.
“It cost me thousands. Unfortunately I was too sick to know the cost as well because my medical bills were being taken care of by family and friends who were also donating and there were also some people who were just paying direct to service providers. Sometimes people would just pay part of my doctor’s fees, sometimes people would just pay direct to the hospital.
“Basically, I went through surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy so most patients would have radio therapy first and then they would go for chemotherapy or the other way round, but, because of the stage at which my cancer was, my doctor decided that I would have both radiotherapy and chemotherapy at the same time so I would have my chemotherapy tablets and injections and go for radiotherapy simultaneously.”
Forty radial therapy sessions later, Gadzirayi was able to walk and start recovering, but the cancer and the treatment had ravaged her body that she still lives with the scars from the painful ordeal.
At 35, Gadzirayi experiences episodes of hot flashes even when temperatures are low.
She is already going through early menopause because of her interaction with cancer treatments.
Research shows cancer patients are likely to experience the early onset of menopause because surgery, radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy can cause ovaries to fail, triggering early menopause, and, Gadzirayi went through all three treatment regimens.
“Hot flashes are a side effect from the treatment which has seen me going through early menopause, it is because it’s a hormonal imbalance as well. So, it’s a side treatment of treatment which is embarrassing, it is annoying, it’s frustrating because I am supposed to be at an age where I am supposed to be having kids and giving birth but then now, I am now going through menopause and it is quite a difficult stage for me. I do not really have age mates who are going through menopause,” she said.
In 2020, the World Health Organisation’s research on cancer revealed that Zimbabwe was losing half of its cancer patients, and among many reasons is that, there is late detection of the disease. Another reason is that the country’s public healthcare system is not equipped to deal with cancer at its various stages and in its different formats.
Hormone replacement in cancer patients may be indicated for a variety of reasons mainly to inhibit their continued secretion or control them as some tumours’ growth rate is influenced by the availability of such hormones.
The public relations officer at Parirenyatwa Hospital, Linos Dhire, confirmed that the three radiotherapy machines at Parirenyatwa Hospital have not been working since 17 January 2022.
That means cancer patients have been prejudiced of treatment for five months. The brutal reality is that patients have been left to die.
Gadzirai would not have managed to complete the 40 radiotherapy sessions that she went through had she solely relied on the radiotherapy machine at Parirenyatwa.
There is a likelihood that she could have died while on the waiting list.
“Radiotherapy is never once off, I had 40 sessions on the machine. It’s not everybody who needs 40 sessions, some people may need 15, some people may need 20 or 25 depending with the stage, depending with the person’s age, depending with the person’s tolerance of medication as well,” she said.
The machines at Parirenyatwa have been dysfunctional for the greater part of 2022 and that means patients with limited resources have been forced to resort to private healthcare where a single radiation session ranges from US$500 to US$1 000 depending on the extent of cancer.
Cancer requires a lot of medication, which may not be easily found in public hospitals, leaving patients with two options: to either part with thousands of dollars accessing the services of private institutions or die while waiting in vain for services to improve at public healthcare institutions.
Most Zimbabweans do not have the resources and have not lived to tell their story like Gadzirayi.