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Like many people in Kenya, Sperenza Maina went into denial when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, hiding it from her family for months and delaying important treatment.
But the most painful part of the librarian’s cancer journey has been the crippling financial burden, with each round of chemotherapy costing 35,000 Kenyan shillings ($280.11), more than a month and a half of an average salary in Kenya.
“Where can you get the money from? Sometimes even you call people, but they don’t pick your calls,” she said, bursting into tears.
As in much of Africa, most cancer cases in Kenya are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when treatment options are limited and families make huge sacrifices by selling assets or borrowing money, according to a World Bank report.
With less than 20% of Kenya’s 53 million people enrolled in the national health insurance scheme, healthcare costs push more than a million Kenyans into poverty annually, the report said.
As the country gets wealthier, cancer diagnoses are on the rise; annual incidence increased by almost 30% between 2012 and 2018, data from the health ministry shows.
The ministry blames improved life expectancy — which has risen eight years since 2020 — and the increasing adoption of risky behaviours like unhealthy diets, lack of physical exercise, alcohol abuse and smoking.
Stigma makes the problem worse. Women in Kenya often fear seeking diagnosis for some of the most common and deadly cancers in Kenya such as cervical and breast cancer, said Bridget Nyabuto, a doctor at the Nairobi Radiotherapy and Cancer Centre.
“Any topics to do with sex, the female reproductive system, are a bit taboo,” Nyabuto said. “They go thinking (that) if I go speaking to my husband, the one who’s meant to take me to hospital, I’ll be replaced.”
Having overcome her trepidation and financial woes, Maina, who was first diagnosed in 2018, has become more hopeful even though she has recently found out that the cancer has come back.
“There are those that have been there for me. Having cancer is not a death sentence, you have to live to tell the story,” she said.
($1 = 124.9500 Kenyan shillings)

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