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Cancer on the rise

by Jeffrey Moyo


Cancer is set to overtake AIDS as the main cause of death in Zimbabwe. The disease is often diagnosed late and very few oncologists have to tend to ever more patients.

Weeping uncontrollably,  47-year-old Lyzer Makute is walking slowly to the graveyard where they are set to bury her husband, amidst many mourners. Her children are by her side and crying too. Lyzer’s husband Jason died of liver cancer.

Like Lyzer’s husband, many have lost their lives as a result of this disease, which in this Southern African nation, was long considered to be an illness of the rich and affluent.

Cancer cases are on the rise in Zimbabwe. It is a silent killer that citizens are ill-prepared for, experts say. In past decades, the country focused on fighting HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. The most prominent cancer victim this year was Zimbabwe’s opposition leader and former prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai. He died after battling with colon cancer for five years.

People are not aware that cancer has become so wide-spread. An average of 5,000 new cases are recorded annually, according to the National Cancer Registry, but more than 80 % are only diagnosed at a very late stage. “Some people die because of cancer before they even get to know what hit them in the first place,” says Timire Chirinda, an oncologist in private practice in the Zimbabwean capital Harare.

The number of cancer specialists is quite limited, so the chances of detecting the disease early on are slim. According to Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Care, the country has only four oncologists, but more than 7,000 cancer patients.

“The scarcity of cancer doctors derails treatment and care for cancer patients,” explains Prosper Chonzi, director of Health Services in Harare.

Moreover, cancer has proved to be more expensive to treat than AIDS, says Fred Nyamayaro, a cancer specialist: “In Zimbabwe, cancer treatment services are very expensive, making it difficult for many patients here to get treatment.” According to him,  patients have to pay about $ 40 to be examined for cancer, while diagnosing diseases such as AIDS is free of charge. Only the lucky ones get to find out their cancer status and may survive with the help of chemotherapy. Most patients cannot even afford the diagnosis, let alone the treatment.


Jeffrey Moyo is a journalist and lives in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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