Winter 2009

Improving cancer care one doctor at a time

The Hutchinson Center is helping train a new generation of oncologists for Uganda, a country with more than 30 million people and only three cancer specialists

By Brad Broberg

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Forced to decide between two dreams, Amos Mwaka chose to become Dr. Mwaka, not Father Mwaka. His decision cost Uganda a priest but gained the nation an oncologist—one of just three for more than 30 million people.

Mwaka recently completed a rigorous oncology fellowship at the Hutchinson Center as part of the Uganda Program on Cancer and Infectious Disease, following Dr. Victoria Walusansa as its second graduate. The Center plans to train five more Ugandan doctors in as many years.


Dr. Amos Mwaka
During his fellowship, Mwaka worked with Dr. Corey Casper, an investigator with the Center’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Institute. Mwaka divided his days between the classroom and the clinic—and managed to see patients at several medical centers during his stay in Seattle.

It’s been quite a journey for Mwaka, who spent half a year living as a refugee in Sudan with an older brother. Mwaka was 12 and his brother 16 when they fled Uganda with their father’s uncle— a prominent politician—after a power struggle during the mid-1980s led to violence in the countryside.

Their escape was actually a mistake. The uncle only stopped at Mwaka’s home with his family to obtain food from Mwaka’s father to take on the journey to Sudan. Mwaka and his brother assumed their family also was fleeing and hopped in one of three trucks. When they reached Sudan, they realized the rest of their immediate family had not come along. The caravan took refuge in a Catholic mission in southern Sudan, where the Mwaka brothers worked in the fields, planting and weeding cassava root.

“We typically ate only one meal a day in the evening, so we preferred weeding instead of planting a new garden because the cassava provided lunch without cost to us,” Mwaka said.

His stay was short-lived as Ugandan refugees eventually faced even greater violence in their host country. After six months, Mwaka and his brother reversed their exodus. “In Uganda, it was the frying pan, but in Sudan, it was real fire,” Mwaka said.

His brief refugee experience left a lasting mark. “Those very hard six months taught me a degree of independence and autonomy in myself early,” Mwaka said. “I learned how to focus and do A, B and C to get where I want to go.”

After finishing high school, Mwaka planned to study theology and medicine at the same time, but couldn’t find a way to combine the two. Family history—one brother is a lab technician and another is a physician’s assistant—tipped the scale in favor of medicine.

Tragedy also played a role. A third brother died after being beaten by street thugs— a death that might have been avoided with a proper diagnosis of his injuries. “I felt there was a gap in medical care and that I could contribute to filling that gap,” he said.

Mwaka hopes to start a program to train rural doctors to better diagnose cancer, and do so early enough. “We many times see patients at the Uganda Cancer Institute too late and when we can do so little to help them,” Mwaka said.

A training program also will help improve follow-up care. “If every general practitioner has a handful of knowledge, not every patient would have to travel to the cancer institute,” Mwaka said. “It’s a dream that will not be easy to achieve because it will take a number of resources, but we should be able to start in a small way and grow.”

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