Lab a game changer in cancer treatment

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When she noticed a swelling in her breast in 2014, she had to travel for more than 1,000km to and from Kiambu for diagnosis and treatment.

Halima*, who wanted her identity protected because she had to undergo a mastectomy due to cancer, could not access treatment in Marsabit.

Now, six years after the procedure, the cancer has returned. This time around it is more aggressive and has spread to other parts of the body.

Her daughter said inaccessibility to diagnosis equipment and treatment facilities in Marsabit caused them untold suffering.

“Many patients cannot afford to travel for review, tests and treatment. Cancer screening should be normalised across the country and treatment facilities brought closer. There is also a need for a lot of awareness on cancer,” she said.

This is the tale of many cancer patients who have to travel to Nairobi for simple diagnostic procedures, often running out of money hampering timely intervention.

Rare pathologists

Meru Hospice coordinator Gladys Mucee said the majority of more than 500 patients under their palliative programme were diagnosed late, draining their resources in treatment.

But to resolve this, Dr Joshua Kibera, an anatomical pathologist with a passion for cancer diagnostics, saw a need to establish a cancer diagnostics laboratory and a digital referral system – The Pathology Network – that gives far-flung hospitals access to rare pathologists for diagnosis.

Dr Kibera’s Aroha Cancer laboratory in Meru has the capacity to handle about 40,000 samples annually.

The Pathology Network is an artificial intelligence-powered digital platform linking small laboratories to specialised facilities for seamless test referrals, ensuring timely diagnosis.

Smaller laboratories refer specimen to specialised ones through The Pathology Network platform for processing and slide digitisation. A pathologist diagnoses and gives a report online.

Dr Kibera notes that the solution is critical since there are about 120 pathologists in Kenya, while several countries in Africa have none.

The Pathology Network CEO also sensitizes health workers on the need to conduct simple diagnostic procedures for early cancer detection.

Simple tests

“One of the major obstacles to the war on cancer in Kenya is late diagnosis caused by inaccessibility to services and pathologists. Cancer cannot be diagnosed without a pathologist,” he says. “Many health workers, especially in remote Kenya, shy away from conducting simple tests that can lead to early detection. This has led to high cost of treatment as patients travel long distances in search of solutions.”

The Pathology Network gives hospitals in Marsabit, Samburu, Isiolo, Garissa, Meru and Tharaka Nithi access to 18 pathologists.

“Due to a shortage of pathologists, many hospitals prefer referring patients to facilities in Nairobi even for minor procedures that can be done by clinicians. This can be addressed by empowering health workers to conduct tests and send the specimen to pathologists across the country. The Pathology Network has addressed the logistics that ensures this is possible,” he said.

“In the near future, our vision is to see Kenya become breast and cervix cancer free. These cancers can be prevented and eradicated,” he said.

According to the National Cancer Strategy 2017-2022, up to 80 per cent of patients in Kenya are diagnosed late when the disease is incurable.

A report of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (Globocan) states that Kenya recorded more than 42,000 new cancer patients in 2020 and over 27,000 cancer related deaths during the same period.

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