Iris Pendegrast, Managing Director, Global Relay For Life
In early March, I visited Kenya with several staff members from the American Cancer Society Global Health department and a Society volunteer to determine how the American Cancer Society can best support cancer treatment and prevention efforts in this country. As part of this trip, we trained volunteers for the country’s first Relay For Life, which will be hosted by KENCASA (Kenya Cancer Association) in June 2014.
The cancer situation in Kenya is pretty bleak for patients without financial means. In a country of 40 million, 60% make less than $2 per day. Cancer is the third leading cause of death in Kenya –after infectious diseases and cardiovascular disease. The leading cancers in Kenya are cervical and breast cancer for women and prostate and esophagus for men. Over 80% of cancer cases in Kenya present late and 80% come from the rural areas. Currently, the Kenyatta National Hospital, the only public hospital that treats cancer patients, has an extreme backlog and isn’t scheduling appointments for newly diagnosed patients who need radiation until February 2015.
We met with several organizations and key stakeholders during our visit who explained that late presentation and management of cancer is due to multiple factors:
- Lack of awareness
- Inadequate diagnostic facilities
- Lack of treatment facilities
- High cost of treatment – the public hospital charges for treatment
- High poverty index
We heard throughout the trip about the lack of a facility for patients to stay if they were lucky enough to actually get an appointment for treatment in Nairobi. We had the chance to meet with the executive leadership of the private hospital, Aga Khan University Hospital, and they gave us a tour. It is indeed a fine hospital, in stark contrast to the public hospital where they have one used radiation machine and patients may have to wait a year or more for radiation.
It is at this crossroads between the cancer science, treatment, and fundraising where our Global Relay For Life fits. The mission for Relay For Life through KENCASA is to fund the treatment of at least 30 patients in each of the 54 counties across the country. These are people that currently have no resources, no transportation to Nairobi hospitals, and nowhere to stay when they get to the city. It is the sincere hope of the American Cancer Society Global Health Department that in partnership with Global Relay For Life, KENCASA will begin to generate the funds required to provide the basic resources needed in this growing country.
While there, we hosted a reception to officially kick off Relay For Life in Kenya, and we had over a 100 VIPs attend. Among them was the Chairman of KCB bank, who not only publicly stated the bank's support of Relay by committing multiple teams, but they also made a commitment of 250,000 Kenyan shillings (about $3,000).
The highlight for the Relay team was the Relay For Life training. Laura McCormick, ACS Global Relay For Life volunteer from the New England Division, did an outstanding job showcasing the importance of the volunteer role in Relay, and the Kenyan volunteers connected with her as a role model instantly. Ann McMikel, Vice President of Global Partnerships and Planning, and Jacqui Drope, Managing Director of Global Cancer Prevention, shared our collective global planning and how to leverage the goals and partners of both organizations in the global fight against cancer. We had the opportunity to meet with the Kenyan Relay leadership committee and helped prepare them for the all-day training. The training was originally was planned for 35 people, but in fact 180 people attended! Many had traveled over 300 km to get there and they were one of the most engaged groups in my history with our Global Relay For Life program.
It is evident that Relay For Life is going to make an incredible difference in Kenya, and it is definitely going to give a voice to the people in most need. I believe that the volunteers that attended our training will make the difference and they will do it quickly. They were very verbal about the plight of cancer patients and one after one pledged their commitment to make Relay For Life a success in their country. Relay will bring much needed education to debunk the myths surrounding cancer in the rural counties, it will provide critical prevention information, and it will bring much needed funds to help 1,470 Kenyans get the treatment they need. Above all, Relay will mobilize these communities, which will in turn force policy change at the highest level - the only way the cancer landscape will change over the long-term.
Luminaria Ceremony training with Relay For Life of Kenya volunteers.