Genet Ashenafi thought her life was over when doctors in her hometown of Awasa, Ethiopia, told her that she had cervical cancer. As many as 200,000 women in developing countries die from the cancer each year.
"I was afraid that I was going to die too," said Genet, a 34-year-old single mother with two sons. "I thought, "What will happen to my children?'"
But Genet is actually one of the lucky ones. She caught the disease in its early stage when radiation treatment could help her condition. And for the first time, radiation therapy was available in Ethiopia. The Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa had recently acquired a Cobalt-60 radiotherapy machine. So in August 2001, she travelled 250 kilometres to the hospital in the Ethiopian capital, desperately hoping that the machine could save her life.
Every day for 30 days straight Genet underwent radiation therapy. "It only lasted one to two minutes each time," she said, "and it was painless."
In less than a week Genet's condition started to improve visibly. "I began to think 'Hey, maybe I can beat this disease," she said.
Her chances of survival are good, says her doctor, Solomon Bogale, director of the Black Lion Radiotherapy Centre and Ethiopia's only radiation oncologist. "She's an early case; the cancer hadn't spread out of the cervix."
Radiotherapy is used to treat a variety of cancers but cervical cancer responds particularly well if it is caught in time. The therapy has existed for nearly a century in Europe and America where it is commonplace. But few hospitals in Africa have the necessary equipment to for the treatment.
That is beginning to change. In 1997, Ethiopia became the poorest country in the world to acquire a radiotherapy machine, thanks to a collaborative effort between the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the government of Ethiopia. In recent years, IAEA has helped triple the number of radiotherapy machines in Africa. There are now over 150.
Still, that isn't enough. The one machine in Ethiopia serves a population of 65 million people (the standard in Europe is one machine for every 250,000 people).
Even if there were enough machines, most people with cancer in Africa would still die, says Dr. Bogale. "One common reason is that they often arrive when their symptoms are too far advanced."
He says there is an urgent need for early screening, particularly for cervical cancer. "It's such a common form of cancer and so devastating," he said. "When women die in our society their whole family often disintegrates."
Despite the lack of screening, the recovery rate from of cervical cancer is relatively high. "Fifty per cent of the patients with it that we treat are still alive today, said Dr. Bogale.
Genet says that she paid the equivalent of $15 for the month. "I hope that many other women in my country will be able to benefit," she said. Unfortunately, in a country where the average yearly income per person is around $100, radiation therapy is far beyond the reach of many women.
FIND OUT MORE about the UNs work to fight cancer and other life-threatening diseases by going to the links next to Genet.
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