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2022 Ambassador – Meet Natasha, St. Baldrick’s First International Ambassador

February 23, 2022
4 min read
Natasha in her school uniform

Meet Natasha, a 13-year-old from Uganda, and St. Baldrick’s first International Ambassador.

She loves school, a 30-minute walk from home, where she excels at science, English and math. In her free time, Natasha enjoys puzzles, reading, and playing netball, which is like basketball. Her favorite foods are pork and African plantain.

Natasha was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in April 2019. She knew something was wrong when she developed sores on her tongue, was very weak, and started to bleed from her nose and mouth. Dr. Joseph Lubega, St. Baldrick’s International Scholar, was leading a team of childhood cancer specialists at Uganda’s most advanced medical facility – Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala. AML is one of the childhood blood cancers (leukemia) that are very difficult to cure. Most centers in Sub-Sahara Africa only provide end-of-life comfort care for children with AML. However, Tasha got a timely accurate diagnosis using advanced laboratory technology (called flow cytometry) that Dr. Lubega initiated in Uganda as part of his St. Baldrick’s supported research. Natasha started treatment within one day, and she recalls, “I immediately started feeling better and stronger. At first, I didn’t have an appetite, but it returned.” Today, almost three years later, she remains cancer-free.

Natasha smiling

Natasha shortly after diagnosis.

Natasha’s treatment lasted about three months, shorter than kids diagnosed with AML in the United States. According to Dr. Lubega, “We use older protocols in Uganda because we lack the intense supportive care resources that are necessary to handle complications from more intense treatment that children in the United States would receive.”

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 100,000 children will be diagnosed with some sort of pediatric cancer each year. More than 90% of those children will die – a much higher mortality rate than in the U.S., where 80% of children diagnosed with cancer will survive. There’s a scarcity of specialized pediatric oncology doctors, the shortage and inadequacy of access to diagnostic equipment and proper facilities, the severe lack of finances in the case of both institutions and families, plus inadequate supportive care when a patient is going through intense treatment – all leading to grim survival statistics for these kids.

Dr. Joseph Lubega

Dr. Joseph Lubega

Bridging the Gap for Kids in Africa

With St. Baldrick’s support, Dr. Lubega launched the first Pediatric Hematology Oncology Fellowship program at Makerere University to train childhood cancer specialists to help more children like Natasha get well. The program is making a very broad and long-lasting impact: Twenty childhood cancer specialists have already graduated from the two-year program, and they lead care and research at nine different centers in four countries, seeing a total of more than 2,500 new children with cancer annually.

“It is very exciting to see that the initial investment by St. Baldrick’s Foundation in global pediatric oncology is producing leaders who are transforming access to quality pediatric cancer care in Africa. This is perhaps the best example of how the commitment of St. Baldrick’s Foundation’s donors can rapidly multiply to impact an enormous number of children and families worldwide,” said Dr. Lubega.

Investing in the next generation of childhood cancer researchers can change the lives of kids with cancer all over the world. For a kid with cancer, the speed and accuracy of diagnosis, plus appropriate treatment for that diagnosis, means the difference between life and death. But for most kids with cancer in Sub-Sahara Africa, often even an accurate diagnosis never comes – never mind appropriate treatment and supportive care.

While International Scholars such as Dr. Lubega are usually trained at a partner institution in the U.S., the program was created so that researchers from countries that the United Nations classifies as “low- or middle-income” can be trained in pediatric oncology, with a commitment to continuing that research in their home country.

Ten International Scholars have been named so far, and each researcher is focusing on cancers that affect children in the parts of the world from which they hail, with studies underway in Latin America, China, India, and Sub-Saharan Africa. You can see a full list of the International Scholars here.

Advice from Natasha

When asked what she would say to other kids with cancer, Natasha didn’t hesitate in her response. She said,

“Take them to the hospital. Get them good treatment like me. Show them much love and take care of them so they will get well like me.”

Help Give Kids Like Natasha A Lifetime