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Rachel Sanyu’s passion to improve cancer care in Uganda

Rachel Sanyu.

UB senior Rachel Sanyu says her experiences as a high school student visiting a hospital in her native Uganda inspired her goal to become a doctor and return to her home country to improve treatment for cancer patients. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


Published February 22, 2024

“A hospital is supposed to be a place of hope. It’s supposed to be a place where people can get help, get a cure, get treated. And that wasn’t the case with cancer. ”
Rachel Sanyu, senior pharmacology and toxicology major
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Among the moments that shaped UB senior Rachel Sanyu’s young but eventful life, none was more formative than her visit as a teenager to Mulago Hospital, the main hospital in Kampala, Uganda.

Because of her talent and interest in becoming a doctor, she had the opportunity to visit the heart and cancer institutes during high school. She observed treatment for heart patients, but for those treated for cancer, there was a completely different mood.

“In the cancer institute, there was … I don’t want to call it a sense of doom, but there was a certain level of hopelessness,” says Sanyu, a pharmacology and toxicology major in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “A lot of things have changed, but at that time, most of the patients that were diagnosed were told to travel outside the country.”

Sanyu, known for her upbeat demeanor, lowers and shakes her head, trying to catch her emotions.

“It was heartbreaking, honestly,” she says. “Even at that young age, I could see that level of pain and loss of hope. A hospital is supposed to be a place of hope. It’s supposed to be a place where people can get help, get a cure, get treated. And that wasn’t the case with cancer. Third World countries don’t have the same access. Many Third World patients are referred to the U.S., India and the U.K., and they can’t afford it. And once that happens, it means we’re losing many patients.

“Why not start a new wave of doctors who can come, get the qualifications they can, and then take those qualifications back home?”

Fast forward to the present. Sanyu has honed her ambition to be a doctor by altering the lockstep course structure of most aspiring medical students by taking a more diverse set of classes. And she has already displayed a remarkable combination of entrepreneurship and research, founding MedScript, a digital service addressing limitations in cross-country communication, learning and networking that hinder health care exchanges.

No doubt she has started her path toward her goal, which is nothing less than changing the way cancer patients are treated in her native country.

She recently won UB’s first McCall MacBain Regional Award, a $10,000 scholarship recognizing engaged student leaders demonstrating “exceptional character, community engagement, leadership potential, entrepreneurial spirit, academic strength and intellectual curiosity.”

And Sanyu will probably be embarrassed reading this. Having the limelight on anything personal clashes with her British pedagogic influence, part of which is her refined English accent. Nevertheless, she has things to say — and can’t help being a role model.

“I am not just passionate about reforming Uganda’s cancer care, but rather driving that transformation,” she has written, and is a little sheepish when reminded of that quote.

Then she takes a breath and doubles down on that bold statement.

“It takes a visionary to get certain things,” she says. 

Sanyu says Uganda lags in clinical trials and experimental procedures. “A lot of that is based on things that have been done long term, rather than taking up newer technology.”

And Sanyu will not rest until she changes that.

“My goal with my medical degree in the future will be to take home all the knowledge I have gained from all the experiences I have had, and drive change.”

DIY approach

H Fogarty, postdoctoral researcher in equity and inclusion, Department of Engineering Education, helped Sanyu with the McCall MacBain application when Fogarty worked for UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships. Fogarty calls Sanyu one of those notable students they are “deeply grateful and honored to know.”

“One of Rachel’s most notable characteristics is her creative problem-solving,” says Fogarty, who praises Sanyu’s health equity research credentials and professional contributions, including her accomplishments in expanding access to medical information worldwide with MedScript.

“Rather than waiting for someone else to fix a problem,” Fogarty says, “Rachel finds a way to do it herself, mastering new skill sets, taking on additional responsibilities and forging interdisciplinary collaborations.

“Rachel’s commitment to social justice goes far beyond her already impressive ventures. Her intersectional, equity-minded approach is clear not only across all of her intellectual and professional endeavors, but also in the thoughtfulness and intentionality she brings to every interaction.”

Coming across loud and clear is Sanyu’s love of her resource-rich country with a troubled past. She is an advocate for “the people of Uganda’s collective responsibilities to the communities around us.”

Lasting memories

Sanyu remembers fondly the Sunday gatherings of her childhood.

“When it’s your time to host, you have to welcome people into your home,” Sanyu says. “You have to feed them, you have to be able to provide for them, regardless of whether you have a lot. It’s all about using what you have to play your part in the community. That’s the same idea I have carried out through most of my work. I don’t have to be the most talented person. I don’t have to be the richest person. It’s about taking what I have right now, taking knowledge, skills.”

After graduating from UB, Sanyu plans to do research next year, and enroll in a master’s program — she’s looking into experimental medicine or cancer biology. Then she’ll apply to medical school.

Fogarty points out that Sanyu has remained humble and self-reflective without missing a beat as an “indomitable leader, collaborator and change-maker.”

“I have no doubt that she will continue to effect meaningful change,” Fogarty says, “both within her field and beyond.”