Sharing pain, giving hope to cancer patients in Uganda

A portrait of Dr. James Kafeero
Dr. James Kafeero Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. James Kafeero is a physician with the Uganda Cancer Institute in Kampala, Uganda, and a research fellow with the UCI/Hutchinson Center Cancer Alliance, which recently opened a state-of-the-art research, training and outpatient center in Kampala.

One patient I remember well came in at 4 years [of age] with acute lymphocytic leukemia. We managed this child. He went into remission. He began going to school. He would come back for reviews. Then, at 7 years [of age], the disease recurred.

When the child was about to die, the mother called for me. I came. Because of the long journey we had made, it was very, very painful to see this child go down. And I’ll never, never forget what the mother said.

She said, “I love the Uganda Cancer Institute.” And I said, “How can you love us?” She said, “You’ve given me three years of hope. This child has had a chance to be a child. Now let me hand this child to God.”

Cancer patients are on the wards for a long time. And over time, you develop a relationship, and you see some of them go into remission. You see a cohort of children whom you’ve given back hope. Being there and feeling these people’s pain and giving them hope and sharing their stories is what fascinates me about cancer care. The problem is, when the disease recurs, you see them dying one by one by one.

How can we improve survival for these kids? Can’t we extend their lives longer? [In the U.S.,] survival rates [for childhood leukemia] are very high, almost 85 percent. But I’m not tempted [to stay in the U.S.] I believe God places you in a place for a reason. I come [to Seattle] and see what is happening and ask, “What can I take home?”

That’s why I’m passionate about research. I have to improve care. That is what drives me and my colleagues at UCI. We’ve had success in Burkitt lymphoma. But other cancers — we have a big task to accomplish. Our wards are full of advanced cases. Every day you come to the wards, you see people dying.

Though I treat patients in the wards, there is a lot of work we need to do in the community to downstage the disease we see in the wards. One of the best things that has happened back home is the community education programs, where we go into the communities to teach people that cancer is a disease you can treat, that is manageable, and there is hope for a cure. In time, we are going to see the story changing, just like it is in the U.S

The [UCI-Fred Hutch] collaboration is putting the UCI on the map. We are being given skills to treat cancer, to do research in cancer and to go out and share these experiences. The new building has come at the right time to push our vision of the Uganda Cancer Institute.

We are there to give people hope. We are there to change their stories.

See why Seattle’s Fred Hutch joined forces with the Uganda Cancer Institute to build a $10M cancer research center and outpatient clinic in Kampala, Uganda. Video by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

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