Using innovation and dedication to fight cancer in rural South Africa

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People around the world focus on breast cancer during October to raise awareness of the disease but, at the Hlokomela Women’s Clinic, it’s a priority every day - especially for Sonja Botha.

Botha is a nurse sonographer with the Tshemba Foundation, the organisation that funded the building of the Hlokomela Women’s Clinic – a pioneering healthcare infrastructure project in Limpopo. Tshemba is dedicated to promoting women’s health and places medical volunteers where they are needed at clinics in the area, including at the Hlokomela Women’s Clinic.

The clinic is the only one of its kind in the region, offering breast and cervical cancer screenings and treatments to local farm workers and their families. The team at the clinic strive to be creative in making their services accessible to all and so, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, they ran a special deal to motivate women to come in for a breast exam, Pap smear or ultrasound screening.

Share the love, bring a friend

“We arranged a two-for-one special, where many women brought a friend, family member or domestic worker to the clinic. We thought it was an innovative way to get women in need to get screened and it actually sparked a pay it forward movement among many members of our community,” says Botha.

In the month of October, the clinic saw 61 patients, ran 78 scans, 58 Pap smears, 49 breast scans, 12 abdominal scans, 6 pelvic scans, 2 4D scans and 9 pregnancy scans. With it being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the team also travelled around the region and conducted a total of 355 breast screenings, where they also discussed signs, symptoms, treatment and breast self-examinations.  

But, what makes the clinic so different, is the dedication of the staff. Their involvement doesn’t end with a differential diagnosis, they take patients through the screening process and then in most cases maintain supportive relationships during difficult journeys of biopsies or treatments.

Quality care for everyone

According to Botha, “The Hlokomela staff are all heart and we strive to make each woman who enters the clinic, feel welcome, safe and important. The quality of care, commitment and dedication you receive is not influenced or determined by your race, culture, economic situation, social standing or level of education – every patient receives the exact same level of quality care.”

While the clinic is a beautiful, clean and comfortable space, it does still have its share of challenges. Since it was established in 2017, staff have overcome initial difficulties with referral systems but according to Botha, one of her biggest challenges is not having a formal feedback system in place for ultrasound image interpretation and confirmation. The doctors that images are referred to, work on a voluntary basis and are therefore not always immediately available to assist.

 

“When I started working for Hlokomela, all the ground work, planning, building, funding and strategising was in place, now we function like a well-oiled engine, where one part cannot work properly if the next one is not pulling its weight,” says Botha. “We are a team here and we always go the extra mile for our patients, so that they leave knowing they received the best possible quality service and care.”

 

With cases of breast cancer increasing globally, it’s become even more essential to have clinics like Hlokomela in rural communities, to improve knowledge and education, and provide support and regular care, so that women are more aware of breast cancer and the risk factors, and cancer can be detected earlier. These communities also need more medical professionals like Sonja Botha, whose passion is for her patients and whose heart is committed to helping all women.