KIGALI, RWANDA – Rhoda Uwayesu, 5, is a smiling girl who tries to live like any other girl her age, even if she is suffering from eye cancer.
Rhoda was born in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, with a little white line inside her right eye. Her parents thought it would disappear as she grew up. But instead, it got worse.
When Rhoda was 1, her eye began to hurt. Her mother, Mukashema Triphine, says she tried to ease her pain with aloe vera, but it continued to worsen.
“My daughter was crying all night saying that her eye was hurting,” her father, Mushimiyimana Alex, says. “I carried her to Kacyiru Hospital, where they gave us a medicine.”
Doctors treated Rhoda’s eye for about two years without diagnosing it as cancer. Then at age 3, she went blind.
“We tried our best to find what was wrong with the eye,” says Mukeshimana Assumpta, a nurse at Kacyiru Hospital.
She says that the hospital prescribed various types of medicine, including tetracycline for bacterial infections.
“But the case was difficult, as it was the first case we faced,” she says.
Rhoda’s was the hospital’s first eye cancer case. The hospital staff eventually transferred her case to the larger King Faisal Hospital in Kigali.
Dr. Raphaelm Kalengayi of King Faisal Hospital says that Rhoda was born with retinoblastoma, a rapidly developing cancer that develops in the cells of the retina. So surgeons there removed Rhoda’s eye.
But this didn’t remove the cancer. Doctors transferred Rhoda to Kabgayi Hospital in Gitarama province, where she met a specialist in ophthalmology.
“I hope that in coming days, my daughter will feel well,” her mother says. “She received an operation, but she have to be treated for six months to make sure that the cancer disappears.”
Rhoda’s parents can’t afford to send her to school, but they do have health insurance thanks to a government plan that has been working to achieve universal access in recent years.
Rhoda goes to the hospital every week to get fresh dressings and her eye cleaned at Kacyiru Hospital. She also goes for chemotherapy at Kabgayi Hospital, which has made her lose her hair and her appetite.
Rhoda cries as her mother urges her thin daughter to eat some food. She is usually too weak to play with other children, but her mother says things are better now than they used to be.
“Even if she is suffering, she plays with other children,” she says. “Before, many people around were afraid to see her eye. But today, it’s different. They are used to her illness.”
Her parents say they hope the treatment will cure her.
“Now, I feel a bit better,” Rhoda says. “I can sleep well without pain.”
Rwandans say that cancer is no longer a disease of the rich, with the disease increasingly affecting people in low-income areas and children. This change has exposed a lack of preparation in the country to prevent, diagnose