We cannot run away from cancer, we have to fight it

Alice Sagwidza-Tembe, CNS Correspondent, Swaziland
On September 25th 2015, countries adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all, as part of a new sustainable development agenda. Each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years. For the goals to be reached, everyone needs to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society and ordinary people.

Of these 17 goals, the 3rd goal is dedicated to Good Health and Well-being. One of its targets envisages to reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases (NCDs)—like cancer—by 2030. It has been more than 1 year since then, but with 8.8 million cancer related deaths in 2015, there does not seem to be any major change towards reduction and prevention of cancers. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about one third of cancer cases are preventable.  Anne Jones, Senior Tobacco Control Expert with the International Union Against TB and Lung Disease (The Union) and former CEO of ASH Australia as well as Medal of the order of Australia (OAM) awardee, expressed that 20% of cancers are caused by tobacco.

Although tobacco mainly causes lung cancer, it also increases the risk of many other cancers. Setsabile Tsabedze, a 36 year old mother of 2 toddlers, has battled with breast cancer. Mrs Tsabedze worked as a bank teller in Mbabane, the capital city of Swaziland. Her husband is an accountant with a legal firm in the same town. She had been ignoring the numb pain (perhaps for too long) she felt every time she lifted her arm, dismissing it as having something to do with period pains and hormonal reactions.

The day when she was finally diagnosed with the dreaded disease is forever etched in her mind. She had woken up at the break of dawn like on any normal day, prepared her children for school and waved at them as the school bus disappeared round the corner of her house. She then started to go to work. But the pain became unbearable and the last thing she remembers was her husband shouting for her to hurry up or he was leaving without her. That mid-morning Mrs Tsabedze woke up in the hospital and a team of doctors and nurses were consulting each other on the way forward for the cancer patient with a bad prognosis. No one had realised she had woken and she just figured out that the patient with a bad cancer prognosis was she herself. She faded out, hearing voices but not listening. “I  could hear them, but I could not make out what they were saying. From that moment, my whole life played out in front of me. It was like I had lost my mind, I felt like this is the end”. The next time she woke up, her husband was sitting next to her and many tubes were sticking out of her. It was only later that she realised that “this (the surgery) was not the worst of it”. Surgery was followed with appointments for chemotherapy, meaning travelling at least 350 km across the border at least once every month. “I lost my hair, my complexion, my job, my friends and, worse of all, on some days I lost hope too. But luckily my husband proved to be a financial as well as emotional support. Today, I cherish every breath, smell, taste and I have a new lease on life”.

Cancer is a class of diseases characterized by out-of-control cell growth and there are over 100 different types, each classified by the type of cell that is initially affected. According to WHO factsheet on cancer, there are a few key life style aspects that can be incorporated to prevent over 30-50% of cancer cases:

i. Tobacco use kills approximately 6 million people each year, from cancer and other diseases and is the single greatest avoidable risk factor for cancer mortality. Out of the 250 Tobacco smoke has more than 7000 chemicals, at least 250 are known to be harmful and more than 50 of them are known to cause cancer.  Chewing tobacco can cause oral cancer while smoking is a high risk factor for lung cancer

ii. Physical inactivity, unhealthy dietary habits, and being overweight are major risk factors for cancer. Diets high in fruits and vegetables, along with a healthy body weight and physical activity may have an independent protective effect against many cancers.

iii. Excessive use of alcohol is another risk factor. Heavy drinking of alcohol, combined with tobacco use, can substantially increase the risks of several types of cancers.

iv. Some cancers are attributable to infectious agents such as helicobacter pylori, human papilloma virus (HPV), hepatitis B and C, and Epstein-Barr virus and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It is essential to maintain a healthy balance, more so when one has a compromised immune system, including adherence to prescribed treatment plans.

v. Environmental pollution, including air, water and soil pollution with carcinogenic chemicals, contributes to the cancer burden to differing degrees depending on geographical settings. Promotion of environment friendly habits and products is not just for the lovely green grass and thick forests; it plays a huge part in good health of the public.

But then even when one has been diagnosed with cancer, there are treatment plans that can be followed to manage it. While the treatment plans including surgery and chemotherapy may be invasive, aggressive and even toxic, there are plenty of cancer survivors who have lived long and full lives afterwards. This gives hope that if diagnosed early there is life after cancer.

Alice Sagwidza-Tembe, Citizen News Service - CNS
February 9, 2017