Writer: AKETCH NGESA
Dr. Andrew Odhiambo is a well-known oncologist who is recognized for his contribution to the improvement of oncology services in Nairobi. He speaks with AKETCH NGESA on his medical career journey and also the good fight against cancer.
For a doctor who is quite accomplished and with so much on his plate, Dr. Andrew Odhiambo has such a warm and friendly personality that begs to differ from the widely held opinion that doctors don’t have bedside manners. He is not just a medical doctor, but a proud husband and father to two sons. His wife, Joyce, is also a medical doctor, making them the ultimate power couple in the medical field.
He wears many professional hats. He is a board-certified physician and a board-certified medical oncologist. He is also a programme director for medical oncology and for over ten years has been a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s department of medicine.
“An oncologist is a doctor who treats cancer using mainly chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy,” he explains the work he does.
He was brought up by an accountant mother and an engineer father. He grew up in a household where education was key. He definitely inherited his parents’ smart genes to become such an accomplished professional.
He has a Medicine and Surgery degree from the University of Nairobi, a Master of Medicine in Internal Medicine from the same university, and a fellowship in Medical Oncology from the Federation of the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom.
He credits Dr. Gladwell Kiarie as one of his mentors. She recognised his abilities and encouraged him to pursue a career in oncology. Dr. Kiarie, a leading oncologist in the country, gave him an opportunity to work by her side and this sparked his interest to become an oncologist. For his contribution towards scaling oncology services in Kenya, he was nominated as one of the top 40 under 40 Business Daily Winners in 2017. As a scholar and a doctor, he has quite an impressive resume.
“I treat cancer patients within my specialised field so much that I don’t get a chance to treat any other diseases. I specialise in cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, breast, lung, and lymphoma among others,” he explains.
Gastrointestinal cancer is simply cancer that affects the colon, the rectum, the stomach, the liver, and the bile duct. Because Dr. Odhiambo specialises in chemotherapy treatment, most of the patients he works with are usually at stage three or four of their illness.
He works towards getting the patient into remission using drugs to kill the cancer cells. He says oncology is a highly emotional field of medicine as doctors go through the entire journey with the patients and some, unfortunately, succumb to their illnesses. “There is a huge mental and emotional load on the part of the doctor when working with cancer patients and especially the younger ones. You form a great bond with your patients during the long treatment process and it is quite heartbreaking when you lose them,” he talks of his everyday experiences.
He also says that there are also other unfortunate experiences when you work as a cancer doctor.
“Some patients may doubt their doctor when the treatment is not working and blame them. This can be overwhelming to a doctor who is doing his best to save a life. But even in those cases, we put on a brave face and work diligently with the patient and family members to give them hope,” he says.
The game changer in the treatment of cancer is the introduction of targeted therapy and immune therapy treatments, known as precision oncology. Through precision oncology, a doctor can test for the specific mutation in cancer and then prescribe a specific drug that in turn counteracts that mutation. So far there has been an increment in the survival rate for breast cancer and leukemia patients. Through this progressive treatment, many patients can now live for ten to twenty years after diagnosis. “I get many referrals to work with patients at stage four cancer and while this is a very difficult stage of cancer to treat, I feel that I am trained well enough to offer them good outcomes,” he says.
He has found great purpose in his work especially when he gets to work with patients during a very complex stage of their treatment. Treating cancer patients goes beyond physical care. They need holistic care as well and this extends to providing emotional support to their loved ones.
There are many ways of preventing cancer that he feels the public should be made aware of from an early age. He says cancer information should be disseminated to the population using every available channel, including schools. He wants to reassure Kenyans that our local specialists are well-trained and capable of providing quality care when cancer strikes. He encourages survivors to maintain diligence to rehabilitate themselves beyond physical therapy. This will help them get back to their life as they knew it before their diagnosis. He concludes by saying, “We are in this fight against cancer together and we need to do our very best from a personal level to the government and the medical fraternity and other stakeholders for us to win the battle.”