Renewing the fight against cancer

Josephine Chinele, CNS Correspondent, Malawi
For many February is a month of love, as Valentine’s Day is celebrated. But 27 year old Elisa, based in Lilongwe, remembers this month because of her father who died of cancer. “Of course, World Cancer Day is commemorated on 4th of February every year. But I feel that the disease should be remembered all the time and efforts to control it intensified and renewed every year,” she says.

“My father was a chain smoker. He had a prolonged cough for more than 2 years,” narrates Elisa. Elisa’s father died of lung cancer, which was diagnosed at an advanced stage. She says her father wasted much of his illness time believing that he had been bewitched. “He was a successful tobacco farmer in our village, and therefore thought that people were jealous of him. He only accepted to go to the hospital when he became very weak.” Elisa’s father is one of the more than 20% of all people around the world who have died of cancer due to smoking. Statistics point out that tobacco use is the single biggest avoidable cause of cancer globally. Smoking  increases  the  risk  of  at  least  14  types  of cancers:  lung, larynx, oesophagus, mouth, bladder, pancreas, kidney, liver, stomach, bowel, cervix, ovary, nose and sinuses, as well as some types of leukaemia.

Information released by the WHO in January 2017 says that 226 million smokers live in poverty. It further says that tobacco control is a key component of WHO’s global response to the epidemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), primarily cardiovascular disease, cancers, chronic obstructed pulmonary disease and diabetes. “Reducing tobacco use plays a major role in global efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of reducing premature deaths from NCDs by one third by 2030,” said WHO Director for Prevention of NCDs, Dr Douglas Bettcher. During a webinar hosted by CNS,  Anne Jones, senior tobacco control expert with the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung disease (The Union), shared that cancer is one of the leading causes of death and disease worldwide There were about 14 million new cases of cancer in 2012, and this number is expected to increase by 70%  over the next 20 years. Also, over 20% of all cancer deaths are caused by tobacco use (and hence are preventable).

According to the The economics of tobacco and tobacco control report published by the WHO, currently around 6 million people die annually as a result of tobacco use, with most of them living in developing countries. The report also says that tobacco does not contribute to economic development, but rather costs countries more than USD 1 trillion each year in health care costs and lost productivity. It also highlights that low and middle income countries bear disproportionate burden of tobacco related diseases, including cancers. And yet, tobacco is Malawi's economic backbone, contributing 11% of gross domestic product and 60% of its foreign exchange earnings. There are 350,000 growers in the industry, which provides 80% of rural jobs. Vice President of Pharmaceutical Association of Malawi (Phasom), John Mponda notes that tobacco is unlike any other product on the market, as it is the only legal consumer product that kills when used as intended by the manufacturer. “Tobacco is one of the leading risk factors for NCDs such as hypertension, cancer and diabetes among others,” he had said in a press statement on World No Tobacco Day, 2016.

Ironically Malawi does not have good medical capacity to diagnose and treat cancers early on and provide quality care to cancer patients. “Prevention is better than cure. This mostly applies to the Malawi situation where primary health care facilities do not have the capacity to detect diseases like cancer in its early stages,” says Dr Leo Masamba, oncologist at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. Just like Elisa’s father, many Malawians do not understand the link between cancer development and tobacco use/exposure and smoking. Perhaps renewing commitment to fight this disease this month, more than Valentines’ Day celebrations, would help a lot.

Josephine Chinele, Citizen News Service - CNS
February 14, 2017