More than a year ago, Carol Atuhirwe became a poster-child for cancer in Uganda after she was diagnosed with both throat and lung cancer.
Mr Muhereza Kyamutetera, a public relations strategist, who had never known Atuhirwe says he broke down when he viewed a video of her struggles to keep alive.
Rather than surrender, Mr Kyemutetera wiped his tears and led a fund-raising drive for treatment of Atuhirwe, who passed on in India last Thursday.
Below is his tribute ahead of a funeral service for the 31-year-old, at All Saints Cathedral Nakasero today.
Carol Atuhirwe’s pluck to fight advanced cancer shocked me and I do believe it is what inspired the entire country to rise above everything else and put together a #SaveCarol effort that raised Shs370m, more than Shs100m above target.
Sadly, much as this afforded her an extra year on earth, she lost the fight.
Her trademark smiles waned and her candle burned out on June 1, at about 2pm. By the time she died, she had been admitted at Narayana Hospital in Bangalore India for over a year.
She spent the last five years of her life battling cancer that ate the greater part of her tender youth and would extinguish the flames of all her dreams. Even as we mourn her passing on, there is a silver lining in Atuhirwe’s dark story.
By the time I got involved with her, I had never met her. I only got touched by a video about her that was posted in a social media group I belong to and for the first time in a long time I cried.
Thank God, I was alone; otherwise, it would have looked awkward for me to cry in public for someone I didn’t know.
When I finally made the resolve to meet her, I was gripped by both her sad situation but, more importantly, I was challenged and encouraged in equal measure by her smile and a genuine conviction that she would overcome her predicament.
That is when I decided to put my marketing skills to work and, thank God, Uganda responded overwhelmingly.
While Atuhirwe’s death can be directly attributed to cancer, there is a significant portion that can be blamed on mismanagement by our medical system; characterised by misdiagnosis, delayed decision making and unavailability of drugs. But I will not dwell on procrastination aided by bureaucratic red tape, but rather I will choose to pick some lessons to inspire us all.
First, my first biggest lesson as partly mentioned earlier is will power to overcome problems, regardless of how big they seem. Will power makes it easier for you to think through your problems, design strategies to overcome them but, more importantly, makes it easier for others to help you. If Atuhirwe chose to give up on herself, she would never have lived for another year.
The second biggest lesson I have learned is that doing good is good business; whether at a personal or organisational level. It doesn’t have to be for only the people you know.
Little did I know that two months after closing the #SaveCarol Campaign, my own wife would be diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer. The amount of goodwill and support that we have been able to get from friends and strangers alike, has seen us fight her cancer with very minimal social and financial disruptions to our lives.
One year later, we are still fighting and I do believe we are on course to victory.
The third lesson, which is inter-linked with the above, is to those running this country. According to the World Health Organisation’s Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) Country Profiles, 2014 report, the probability of dying between the ages of 30 and 70 years from the four main Non-Communicable Diseases (cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic respiratory diseases) in Uganda is 21 per cent.
The combined mortality rates in this age category, for ages 30 and 70 years due to Non-Communicable diseases and injuries is 30 per cent.
Another report, Trends in the incidence of cancer in Kampala, Uganda 1991-2010 (Henry R. Wabinga et al,) International Journal of Cancer) the incidence rates of major cancers such as breast and prostate cancers have annually increased by 3.7 per cent and 5.2 per cent, respectively. This is higher than our annual population growth. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer for men — 65 cases per 100,000 and among the highest in Africa.
Despite these glaring facts, those in charge of budgeting for this country, still continue to under-invest in fighting non-communicable diseases.
According to the Uganda government’s Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF), government projects to spend Shs45.4b on the Uganda Cancer Institute in 2017/18 and this will gradually reduce to Shs40.2b by 2021/22. Whereas Uganda plans to double allocations to the Uganda Heart Institute from Shs11.8b in the 2017/18 Financial Year to Shs25.5b in 2021/22, this is still not enough.
And the lesson is this: today you could be under-investing in the health sector because you are covered by a government health insurance that affords you treatment in India or Europe- but who knows where you or your family members will be next year!
Atuhirwe was indeed one of the very lucky few unprivileged ordinary Ugandans whose trek to media houses, appealing for help, earned her publicity and visibility to charm the hearts of hundreds of philanthropists. They offered generously and their collective largesse gave her a year-long lease of life.
The citizens’ selflessness is, as we all know, not sustainable. The enduring solution lies in making the right investments in our health systems as well as early testing at a personal level.
May her death teach us to embrace early testing for cancer and, to decision-makers, the need to invest in our healthcare adequately.
Rest in peace, Atuhirwe! You fought a hard battle, bravely.