Remembering Carol : How a Brave Cancer Patient Showed us the Failures of Uganda’s Health System

Before 2011, Caroline Atuhirwe was your normal student going about her life. This all changed drastically when Carol was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2011 and worsened when she developed lung cancer in 2013.

Her ordeal was not an easy one. By 2016 Carol could not speak nor eat, she incurred burns from radiotherapy and underwent numerous operations. The one radiotherapy machine at the Uganda’s cancer institute at Mulago Hospital broke down which left patients like Carol with no hope. This failure meant that those who could not afford to travel abroad would have to resort to palliative care. The breakdown of the radiotherapy machine left about 2000 patients in need of radiotherapy waiting. According to 2016 figures, about 46 000 cancer patients die in Uganda each year. The Uganda cancer institute has a survival rate of only 20 percent. By these figures then, many are waiting to die.


Carol’s friends and well-wishers launched the #savecarol campaign which was coordinated by Muhereza Kyamuteterain in order to raise funds to allow her to undergo treatment abroad.  Through this campaign over 270 million Ugandan shillings was raised. Funds raised were used to send Carol to India where she received a series of treatments.  Surplus funds were donated to the cancer ward of Mulago hospital. In June 2017, while in India, Carol who had maintained a positive attitude throughout her unfortunate ordeal lost her battle to cancer.

For many in Uganda, Carol’s story is a clear example of how the health system in Africa fails many. Had Carol, her loved ones and well-wishers not fought hard to raise funds for her treatment, she like many Ugandans and Africans in general who are diagnosed with cancer would have lost her battle earlier. When her story drew public attention many expressed frustration at the fact that the radiotherapy machine at the hospital has long broken down.

It is important to remember that Carol and many others before and after her are human beings. Carol was a daughter, sister and aunt. In her blog Carol chronicled her battle with cancer. She revealed that she was a second year student at Uganda Christian University Mukono when she started getting signs and symptoms which she did not take serious at first. She gradually began to lose her voice and it was not until she finished her third year that a visit to Mulago Hospital revealed that she had throat cancer.

Although frustrated throughout her ordeal, Carol remained positive and a smile.  In one of her posts she expressed how in 2014, her nephew was born at a time when she and her family thought she was going to lose her life. She explained how her sister told her that her child needed an aunt. Carol went on to   see him turn 2 years old and believed that she had been given a second chance in life to tell her story to those who may think that they are suffering that there is someone out there who is experiencing worse.

In another one her posts, Carol expressed frustration at how she did not know how to respond when people asked her how she was. “No one can be OK in my condition”, she wrote. With a broken oesophagus, an exposed spinal cord and a trachea that had moved down, she failed to fathom how people expected her to get better quickly.

Even in her frustration she remained positive and grateful for all the support she got: “To my surprise people I have never met from different countries and those from my own country have also helped financially, spiritually, emotionally. It brings tears in my eyes for the care u give me.”

From Carol’s story of bravery, courage and her strong fighting spirit, we learn that the health system lets many people down. One can only hope that Carol’s story and many others can inspire policy makers to channel more funds towards cancer care. With many dying from treatable cancers, the health system needs to change.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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