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The challenges of cancer diagnosis for rural women in Uganda

The challenges of cancer diagnosis for rural women in Uganda

Picture of Otim Richard

For about two decades Martha Akiteng, 56, a resident of Kalengo village in Ngora District of Teso region of Eastern Uganda, had battled a health complication that slowly drained her health and almost killed her before it was found to be cancer.

It started as a mild itch on her left breast, slowly growing into a hard swelling. In five years, the condition had become a serious nag in her life.


“My breast grew bigger and I concluded it was witchcraft. My husband took me to a witchdoctor in the neighbouring village for treatment, but nothing helpful came out of the option,” said Akiteng.

At the witchdoctor’s shrine, Akiteng was told that a cousin to her husband with whom they shared a boundary was responsible for the situation she was in. The witch demanded Shs1m and animal sacrifices to cast away the sickness.

One day, while listening to the radio, Akiteng heard an announcement informing all mothers to go for a free cancer test at the regional hospital in Soroti. 


To get to the hospital, 40 kms away, Akiteng and her husband had to sell one of their goats to raise money to hire a motorcycle for the trip.

“At the hospital, I was told by the doctor that my situation was not so serious except I had to lose the breast to avoid further infection. We had no option but to accept it and my husband consented,” Akiteng says.

A local herbalist, Rashid Otinga, says they have since come up with standard rules for treatment of such complications as cancer which, in most cases, are beyond their capacity.

“There are some complications that we advise our members to leave to medics. Diseases such as HIV/Aids and cancer are beyond our ability,” says Otinga.

In the past, many women have died in rural parts of Uganda because early cancer testing was neglected and antidotes from witchcraft doctors were sought instead. 

“Many patients are often screened while in late stages, and the outcome of treatment is mostly unsatisfactory. Some people in the villages also still believe such diseases are as a result of witchcraft and that is the reason we have lost many mothers,” says Dr. Goretti Ibilat.

According to a survey conducted in early 2016 by ACH360, a nonprofit organization promoting health for rural communities in Ngora, traditional beliefs associated with cancer in women are the reason why many do not seek early diagnosis.

The study indicated that out of 5,500 women who had been screened for cancer between 2013 and 2014, at least 300 admitted they had first seen a witchdoctor before seeking medical screening.

The study focused on  from going for cancer screening and treatment and established that at least 40 percent of those who had been clinically diagnosed with the disease first sought non-medical treatment.

A Uganda Woman Legislator, Ms. Jacqueline Amongin, initiated the first free cancer testing for women in her district (Ngora), but is concerned local communities are still ignorant about the disease and how it can be prevented from getting serious. 

She said that a 2013 cancer screening report by Uganda Women Parliamentary Association (UWOPA) indicated that more women in the rural areas of the country were testing positive for cervical cancer.

“Between 2012 and 2014 more than 5,000 mothers had undergone the cancer diagnosis with at least 20 percent of this starting treatment for the disease,” Amongin said.

Photo by FMSC Marketplace via

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