HOCAF FOR COLLECTIVE EFFORT TO BEAT CANCER IN MALAWI
According to the National Cervical Cancer Strategy (2016-2020), the high mortality rates of cancer in Sub-Saharan Africa has been greatly attributed to the lack of public awareness of the disease among the general public, health care providers and policy-makers which often leads to late diagnosis of cancer. There is a strong need for advocacy and to raise awareness of how cancer can be curable if detected in its earlier stages.
Great strides are being made towards tackling the rise of cancer patients in Malawi. The country now has specialist oncologists aiding in the first level of treating cancer patients locally. The two most common types of cancer amongst women in Malawi are cervical and breast cancer. The Malawian Government recently introduced an HPV vaccine to female adolescents between the ages of 9 and 14 to prevent the occurrence of cervical cancer in their lifetime. Yet, there is still so much more to be done in the fight against the different types of cancer. What would you do after surviving cancer, twice?
Meet Blandina Khondowe, a two-time breast cancer survivor with a passion for changing the way Malawians and the world are addressing the increase in cancer cases. After noticing the lack of effort in taking a preventive approach in the management of the disease, she founded Think Pink Malawi, an organization which engages in activities that focus on educating people about breast cancer every October, and Hope For Cancer Foundation which caters to all types of cancer including those which are often neglected.
Hope For Cancer Foundation (HOCAF) is a newly registered Malawian Non-Governmental Organization (NG0) . It was registered in October 2015 but launched in January 2018. Its main objective is to reduce the number of cancer cases in Malawi by taking a preventive approach. HOCAF’s bigger dream is to establish a wellness center that will educate Malawians on issues of cancer: dietician consultations, medical information, diagnostics and physical activities. Its mission is to create a cancer-free generation in Malawi and beyond and to be one of the leading preventive cancer organizations in the world.
Nine years ago, Blandina first had a breast cyst which was treated successfully. Afterwards, in 2011 whilst pregnant, she felt another lump in her breast. After seeing two doctors about it, they concluded it was likely a reoccurrence of a cyst due to her history. They advised her to begin treatment after delivery and a couple of months of breastfeeding. Nonetheless, the pain in her breast became persistent even after giving birth in August 2012, prompting her to seek further medical attention where she was told it was normal and that painkillers would ease the pain. It was 18 months after discovering the lump that Blandina was diagnosed with breast cancer, on the 7th of October 2013, just days before her 33rd birthday, she recalls. Fortunately, she finished her treatment successfully in April 2014, which inspired her to establish Think Pink Malawi with the main objective of educating Malawians on the importance of early detection of breast cancer to reduce its mortality rate.
The second diagnosis came in April 2017, 5 months after giving birth to her second child. She remembers feeling anguish and sadness; the diagnosis would disrupt breastfeeding her 5-month-old baby, it also had financial implications on her family and not forgetting the grueling side effects of chemotherapy; skin discoloration, bald head, wearing wigs and all sorts of nausea and water retention issues. She would have to put her family through it all again. But with the help of her husband, family and friends, she found the will to beat cancer a second time. Her personal experience and faith in God have become one of the major driving forces behind the vision, mission objectives and activities carried out by Think Pink Malawi and HOCAF.
It is not every day you witness the journey of a fighter and a passionate individual whose experience has led to the creation of two organizations that are practically tackling cancer with limited resources on the ground. Despite funding challenges, HOCAF has used some of its events to fundraise its projects. Blandina and her team at HOCAF have partnered with several organizations, such as the UNFPA, Ministry of Health, Rotary and Rotaract Clubs, just to mention a few, in supporting their initiatives.
They have carried out awareness campaigns in Mangochi, Dedza, Mchinji, Dzaleka refugee and Lilongwe, with free breast examinations and screening for cervical cancer conducted by The Lighthouse Trust in Malawi Red Cross tents at all their events. They have held 3 Step Up For Cancer fitness sessions to date, led by the Malawi Defense Force, as part of their efforts of reducing cancer deaths through improving emotional and physical wellbeing of patients.
Think Pink Malawi is in its 6th year with a record of having facilitated screening and diagnosis for over 5000 women since it started, in both rural and urban areas. The goal of setting up a National Cancer Center as a cancer referral hospital is one which is in sight. When complete, the cancer center would make available additional services which are currently not accessible locally. The two organizations function to increase cancer support services to the marginalized and to improve diagnostic services for cancer in all district hospitals.
Blandina encourages every person to make it a part of their life decision to have regular check ups and screening, as early detection helps to control and manage cancer with high possibilities of complete recovery. Success to Blandina means more people going for tests and reducing the mortality rates of the disease. She notes that whilst it might not be the end of world to be diagnosed with cancer, it is still important to lead a healthy lifestyle inclusive of proper nutrition management and a fitness regime.