Dr Catherine Nyongesa Watta, 42, is the owner of the Texas Cancer Centre, Nairobi, which offers subsidised cancer treatment. She spoke to NJOKI CHEGE.
As a medicine student at the University of Nairobi 17 years ago, Dr Catherine Nyongesa had a rough time taking care of her sister — Cimmonne Nyongesa, who was suffering from uterine cancer. But that period shaped Dr Nyongesa’s life for good, as she swore to pursue a specialisation in cancer to help save the lives of many.
After graduating from the University of Nairobi with an undergraduate Bachelors degree in Medicine in 1995, Nyongesa worked in several hospitals until 2002 when she decided to pursue her Masters degree. True to her word, Nyongesa pursued a masters in Oncology from the University Of Witwatersrand, South Africa, which she completed in 2006.
Says she: "I see a lot of cancer patients suffering. I had a firsthand experience with my sister whom I had a challenging time taking care of. I, therefore, wanted to be a cancer specialist in order to play a part in making a difference in as many cancer patients as possible."
Texas Cancer Centre
To this end, Nyongesa took a leap of faith and decided to start a cancer care centre — Texas Cancer Centre in Hurlingham, Nairobi. Her dream had finally come true.
The Texas Cancer Centre was started in June 2010 as a specialised cancer treatment firm. This was in response to a gap that she noted in the health care service provision in the region, where clients were unable to promptly access specialist cancer treatment services due to lack of knowledge about the right doctors and where to find the services with ease.
"Cancer is on the increase and I wanted to form an outfit that would bridge that gap. Cancer treatment is expensive and many patients can hardly afford it. I wanted to offer a homely environment for recovery at a cheaper price," she offers.
According to Nyongesa, there was a dire need to have a centre that could provide cancer specialised treatment in one facility.
Today, the centre also offers basic laboratory and diagnostic procedures, ultra sound, pharmacy, blood transfusion, hydration and palliative care.
Besides offering 24-hour nursing care, the centre also offers counselling services, nutritional support, physiotherapy as well as a cancer support group where cancer patients meet to discuss their issues. With a 20-bed capacity, the centre is able to see between 20 and 30 cancer patients on a busy day.
Trained volunteers including former cancer patients and health professionals conduct the clinic. Free counselling is offered and telephone help lines are available for patients and families to receive guidance and support during difficult times.
Offers she: "The patients also need non-medical support and care for their physical, emotional and cosmetic rehabilitation. We follow the Pink Cope Reach to Recovery Programme (RPP) where survivors are invaluable and the purpose of the cancer rehabilitation clinic is to contribute towards this cause."
Increase Of Cancer Cases
Nyongesa notes that cancer is on the increase, and more people are having cancer at a young age, which is worrying. While majority of the cancer causes are unknown, a good number of cancers are caused by our adoption of the Western lifestyles.
"We are all susceptible to cancer, but there is need for us to adjust from our unhealthy lifestyles, avoid exposure to sun and ensure regular screening for early detection of cancer," notes Nyongesa.
The fact that cancer treatment is extremely expensive and most patients can hardly afford the treatment is a major setback for the cancer centre. In spite of offering the services at a much subsidised cost, patients still find it hard to afford the treatment.
Lack of space is also another major setback faced by the centre. At the moment, they only offer chemotherapy, but are unable to offer raidiotherapy services due to lack of enough space to accommodate radiotherapy machines.
She says: "We have bought a radiotherapy machine but it is lying somewhere in the USA. We cannot bring it here because we have no land. We need a minimum of half an acre to install the machine since we are dealing here with very high levels of radiation and we cannot afford to be squeezed."
In Kenya, cancer centres are not recognised as hospitals, yet cancer is on the rise. This is a challenge for Nyongesa, since the NHIF board has not approved cancer centres and, therefore, patients cannot access treatment from the cancer centre with their NHIF medical insurance cards.
Says Nyongesa: "Most of our patients are NHIF members, and it is the only way they can access cancer treatment. However, it becomes a challenge for us to offer the treatment as cancer centres are not recognised by the NHIF board."
To minimise the cost of operations, the centre relies on volunteers, besides funding from the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Texas, USA, which supports the centre.
So what drives her? Nyongesa, a wife and a mother of three, admits that it is very difficult to deal with cancer patients, but her passion for the job keeps her going.
"It is very hard. Friends keep telling me that I need counselling because I deal with a lot of difficult stuff. However, my dream and passion to make a notable difference in someone else’s life is my main drive," she says.
As Nyongesa notes, cancer is and should never be a death sentence. It is a manageable disease, and one can come out of it alive and well provided they have the right care and treatment as well as positive energy.
Says she: "You can lead a normal life even with cancer. It can be controlled with medication and care. Early diagnosis helps a lot in controlling cancer."
Nyongesa hopes to steer the cancer centre into a leading one in the region, just like the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Texas.
"We hope to expand our footprint but more-so, alleviate the pain and suffering of many cancer patients who cannot afford the treatment," she says