Fighting cancer gets First Lady's attention

Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Gabi Khumalo
First Lady Thobeka Zuma. Source: GCIS

Pretoria - There are many causes that First Lady Thobeka Madiba-Zuma is passionate about. But, fighting breast cancer is one that might be closest to her heart.

Her message to women is clear: Early detection of breast and cervical cancer can save your life.

Madam Zuma, who is the founder of the Thobeka Madiba - Zuma Foundation, a patron of the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), pink drive and a whole host of NGOs that have done very well in ensuring that the early screening of cancer is scaled up, is passionate about this cause.

"The subject of female cancer is not only close to my heart but in my heart. I've witnessed women die pre-maturely [for illnesses] that could have been prevented if we were strong on prevention and screening.

"When it comes to cancer [especially breast and cervical cancer], we know what needs to be done...early detection," said Madam Zuma during an interview with SAnews.

Speaking at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House in Pretoria, dressed in a bright pink dress and cardigan, she said it was a shame to see woman dying prematurely from a disease that could be diagnosed early and treated.

According to CANSA, cancer is one of the most serious diseases facing women - with 1 in 29 women being diagnosed with breast cancer and 1 in 36 with cervical cancer - the leading cancer among black women in South Africa.

Madiba-Zuma believes that the time has come for the country to take a holistic approach when dealing with the disease.

"The struggle against cancer is not one that can be sorted by a singular sector but one that needs all relevant stakeholders to be working closer with government."

When women visit primary health care (PHC) centres with hypertension, diabetes and cardio-vascular complaints, the centres should not miss an opportunity to screen them for cervical and breast cancer.

"The economic impact of managing the disease as a country, as opposed to investing in prevention is big. The economic impact of cancer in our country is more than that of managing HIV and Aids, but because we've been behind in terms of responding to all these competing health priorities, we find ourselves being more reactive all the time as opposed to pro-active when dealing with the diseases.

"But now that we've managed to contain the infectious diseases being HIV and Aids, we believe as a country that we've got it under control and we seeing also the yielding results on reducing a maternal mortality and child mortality rate and also the increasing life expectancy, and now we have time to focus on other diseases that crop up as secondary chronic illnesses to the people that are living with HIV."

As a country, she adds, "I see ourselves investing in and having comprehensive central prevention measures to ensure that we have a generation of young girls that will be safe from getting cervical cancer".

She points to the lack of education and information being a big problem, especially in rural areas, where people don't even know that there is cervical cancer or breast cancer and equate it to witchcraft.

"They don't know and you can't blame them. We need to ensure that we educate our people but not only that, but for government to meet us half way on the work that we are doing by ensuring that they create enough access for our women to be able to ask for these services, when they go to a healthcare setting. It's their right and health is a basic human right. We can't deprive our people of their basic right that they voted for.

"It's important that our healthcare settings, in the rural areas and deep rural parts of our country, are conducive and create an environment for women to talk about their bodies. In some areas now women don't have the platform to share information about their own bodies on how to take charge of their health," Madiba-Zuma said.

She said that on top of dealing with a late diagnosis due to lack of access to health care, when a woman is suspected of having cancer and needs to be referred to the hospitals in the cities that have oncology units, it takes long for referrals to happen.

"[Even] when she is referred, it still takes too long for a woman to be put on treatment because they present very late. We can't really have the window period being six months before a woman can be treated if found to have cancer."

She commended Health Minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, for making a concerted effort to reengineer the PHC system, which will ensure that referrals happen more quickly.

"At the district level, with his reengineering, we will have specialists, gynaecologists that are going to be able to refer patients to the hospitals in the cities, but it's important to ensure that our health care workers are being retrained on how to take quality smears for instance. It is important that money is not wasted on [pap] smears that are not of quality, where a woman has to be called again to have another pap smear."

About the Thobeka Madiba - Zuma Foundation, she says it was not established to reinvent the wheel but look at existing gaps in the PHC system and what has been done by NGOs at a grass-roots level to ensure that those gaps are bridged.

"It looks at capacitating those NGOs because they are already at grass-roots level working with the communities and they know exactly what needs to be done as well," she said, adding that so much has been done as a country and great work has been achieved but that there was still a large gap.

The role of the foundation is also to fund the NGOs that are already doing the work and also be strong on advocacy. Madiba-Zuma feels that her unique position of First Lady can be used to influence policy, mobilise political will and funding towards fighting cancer.

"Funding has been channelled to HIV and Aids and now it's time to see funding being channelled towards [non-communicable diseases]. I see myself playing a meaningful role in that way," she said with confidence.

Asked how she strikes a balance between being an activist and mother, she says: "It's a balancing act. From when the day starts, you plan accordingly and know that when family time comes, you will not compromise. You spend your time with your kids as if you have nothing else to do, but when they go to school, you juggle things around. You manage, but you must be on top of the game all the time and don't get yourself swallowed in what needs to be done," she says.

The First Lady also admits that she is a perfectionist. "I want to see everything to the end and anything to do with me has to be done properly, I cannot settle for less," she says confidently. - 

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