The documentary ‘Surviving Burkitts’ was filmed throughout Malawi.

Some 50 years ago, the Irish surgeon, Denis Burkitt, described a tumour prevalent in children living at low altitude areas in Equatorial Africa (a belt lying 15 degrees either side of the Equator, the so-called ‘Great Lakes Region’ of Africa). Since then, much has been written about this tumour, the fastest growing malignancy known to man. It still exists, as in Burkitt’s time, but is now known as Burkitt’s Lymphoma. It is the most common tumour of children in this region of Africa, and it still kills approximately half its victims.

This is one of the saddest lymphomas as it hits mainly otherwise healthy children between the ages of 5-10, who survived infancy in parts of the world where childhood death rates before the age 5 are particularly high.


The documentary follows a British mother, Stephanie Hampton (whose son died from this cancer 5 years ago in the UK) to Malawi, to understand first hand what can be done to speed up the diagnosis and treatment of these children.

Stephanie observes the treatment of three children at various stages of Burkitt’s Lymphoma at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre; shadowing Dr Elizabeth Molyneux OBE, head of oncology and world-renowned expert on the disease.

Here she is given a window into the lives of these children and their parents. For example, eleven year old Grace and three year old Ganizani have just been admitted to the hospital with large tumours on their eyes, Stephanie observes their full treatment from the initial diagnosis through to chemotherapy. Five year old Precious has been in the hospital for sometime, and because of logistical problems getting to hospital and initially being treated by a traditional medicine man, the cancer has aggressively advanced throughout his fragile body.

Stephanie explores this phenomenon further by travelling through some of the worst hit areas of Malawi to see how this Lymphoma is treated and viewed in traditional rural areas and conducts interviews with key people from the political, traditional and Western viewpoints.

As she travels to remote villages where parents rarely understand or recognise the first crucial signs of this cancer, Stephanie soon discovers that awareness of this cancer is a major issue. Initially, parents turn to the local medicine men for treatment. With no results they then turn to the local medical centres where a child can easily be misdiagnosed. This, along with the arduous journey from the village to the hospital, means vital time is lost with a cancer where quick diagnosis is paramount.

Stephanie discovers throughout the film that this cancer is treatable and can be reduced in a very cost-effective way with the help of the continuing work of the doctors in Malawi. However education regarding this cancer in the outlying areas is severely lacking and this ultimately results in children needlessly dying.


Whilst Stephanie witnessed some wonderful work by the doctors in Malawi, it was tainted by witnessing the needless suffering and deaths of its country’s children. In a small way we hope this film will make a difference to the lives of these children, their parents and communities across Malawi and eventually across Sub-Saharan Africa.

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