Butaro Cancer Treatment Centre is an outstanding facility built on top of a hill in remote Burera district in Northern Rwanda.
This Center of Excellence has become home to thousands of Africans battling deadly cancer disease.
It takes more than 2 hours-drive (90km) from the capital Kigali to the center, located few miles from Lake Burera – another touristic destination in the district.
At the entrance of Butaro hospital, you meet many people entering and leaving the facility.
At the entrance, there are two sections; The right section is used by patients seeking emergency services. The left section leads to the general services section.
Ascending towards the left pathway, hundreds of people sit quietly waiting at the reception before proceeding with medical consultations.
Amidst the patients, Dr. Egide Nkwanumusingo, clinical director of the hospital can be distinguished from a medical dress he wears.
He is among the only two doctors who started at the Cancer treatment centre in 2011. Today, the centre has saved hundreds of young children and adults from the deadly cancer.
Next to the consultations section of the hospital, there is a big room, partitioned into two sections.
The first section is a general laboratory with a number of machines. Next to it is a special unit; the pathology laboratory.
The laboratory, with more than 4 ‘costly’ machines, provides tertiary and reference testing of cancer.
Dr. Deo Ruhangaza is the lab chief. He leads KT Press around the ultra-modern cancer lab. The laboratory has since 2012 saved many cancer patients from Rwanda and from across the continent.
This laboratory is the center of cancer treatment services including; screening, chemotherapy, diagnosis, surgery, patient follow-up, and palliative care, among others.
Opened in January 2011 by President Paul Kagame, the $5.8 million Butaro hospital has received more than 6000 cancer patients, according to Dr.Nkwanumusingo.
The hospital was built in partnership with US-based Havard Medical School and Partners in Health (PIH).
Inside the Cancer lab
Back in the cancer lab, Dr. Ruhangaza told KT Press that the lab conducts cancer tests to more than 1000 patients every year.
“We conducted cancer tests for 1610 patients last year. 570 were diagnosed with cancer mostly breast cancer, cervical cancer and leukemia that affects children,” Dr. Ruhangaza told KT Press.
The laboratory started with only two cancer processor machines. Later, the centre acquired more modern processor machines.
“Currently, we have more than 11 processor machines that help us conduct tests,” Dr. Ruhangaza said.
It is an expensive venture to procure cancer processor machines. According to Dr. Nkwanumusingo, the two most expensive processor machines cost the hospital more than $1 million (Rwf840 million) in total.
According to Dr. Ruhangaza, every hospital can detect signs of cancers, but these expensive machines help in processing tests and detecting exactly the type of cancer a patient may have.
“Most patients we received here come from different hospitals where doctors detect signs of cancer and transfer them here for extra tests and treatment,” he said.
Cancer examinations are tested differently from other diseases. For instance, apart from Leukemia that is tested through blood samples, lab technicians have to take part of the body in which a cancer symptom is located and process the tests.
Patients and Treatment
Butaro Hospital Cancer Centre has 3 main sections; Children’s ward, women ward and men’s ward.
Inside the children’s ward, many kids lay on beds in silence – a strange behaviour to children.
They are in severe pain. But some keep a smile on their faces – thanks to special attention given to them by Dr. Alex Manirakiza, a pediatrician oncologist and Dr. Grace E Dugan, Oncology Clinical Officer.
Both treat these children and monitor their recovery process on a daily basis. Inside the ward, Dr. Dugan walks through as she talks to different bed-ridden children – a gesture that keeps them with hope for recovery.
Indeed, most of them recover from the world’s threatening no-communicable disease.
According to Dr. Manirakiza, “More than 85% of the children received at the hospital with cancer get treated and return home. The problem is with adults who take long to report to hospital after experiencing symptoms of cancer.”
The main types of cancer among children received at Butaro hospital are Leukemia and kidney cancer.
For Dr. Dugan, “We are getting better outcomes. More patients have been cured of cancer since the program started.”
Meanwhile, at a women’s ward, Dr. Christine Kigonya and Dr. Kurt D.G. Figueroa – both Oncology Clinical Officers mainly deal with cervical cancer, Breast cancer and colorectal cancer and Stomach cancer are the daily issues they deal with.
However, most patients come when the level of their disease is beyond cure – with chemotherapy and daily care the only option remaining.
“Most patients report late when their cancer is beyond what we can cure. We give them chemotherapy to slow down the pain,” Dr. Kigonya told KT Press.
Vestine Nyiragahinda, who was admitted at the centre with breast cancer, received four injections and to her luck, she cured in November last year after her left breast was successfully removed.
“By the time I arrived at the hospital, the pain was too much, but I am thankful to Butaro hospital that has restored hope for yet another life. The only issue is still face is paining scars,” said the mother of 4.
An Offer of free Cancer treatment
Rwanda saves cancer patients money by giving all services available at Butaro hospital free of charge. One would need to go abroad just for Radiotherapy – the only service that detects and treats cancer at a late stage.
Once admitted at Butaro hospital with cancer, the only costs incurred are food, transport and other services outside medical – the rest is a government subsidy.
However, for Rwandans under the 1st and 2nd category of Ubudehe, “The whole treatment package and other services are freely provided to them,” Dr. Nkwanumusingo told KT Press.
This decision was made to help cancer patients because medicine to cure cancer is extremely expensive.
“The cancer medicine a patient takes for one month are worth more than Rwf1 million yet a cancer patient is treated for 2 years and 8 months. Many patients find it hard to raise this,” Nkwanumusingo told KT Press.
Benefiting from free medication is not for Rwandans only, but also patients traveling all the way from Somalia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and DRC.
Meanwhile, available records show that out of the 3000 cancer patients received at Butaro hospital before 2015, about 30% (900) were transferred to foreign countries for radiotherapy, mainly India where the cost is estimated between $8,000 and $12,000.
A radiotherapy unit that would treat 500 to 800 patients a year costs about $5 million (Rwf4.2 billion).
In 2015, Rwanda started courting potential investors to set up a cancer treatment facility, and help the country cut down the number of Rwandans traveling for the service abroad.
The facility, worth $12 million including a radiotherapy section, is expected to provide cancer diagnosis but the Health Ministry said no investor has showed interest.