We are together in the fight against cancer

Beryl Osindo, CNS Correspondent, Kenya
Non communicable diseases (NCDs), including cancer, continue to claim lives in a way that is frightening, to say the least. We are dealing with a tragedy whose signs and symptoms are well known, precautions are shared, and possible causes are subjects of continued research. World Cancer Day 2019 came and passed. But it is important to carry on the discourse around this still dreaded disease.

The world’s attention to cancer needs to be sustained day in and day out and not just around World Cancer Day, whose theme this year rightly is ‘I am and I will’. Unfortunately most people remain non responsive and the realities facing cancer patients and their families only start making sense when it hits their homes at a personal level.

Gender face of cancer

As per Globocan 2018, in Kenya, not only more were women affected with cancer, accounting for 56% of all the new cancer cases in 2018, but the death toll was also higher in women as compared to men. The number one cancer in women was breast cancer (as was in the rest of the world), and in men it was prostrate cancer (although globally lung cancer was on top).

However, as breast cancer is curable if diagnosed and treated in early stages, mortality from it is much lower, especially in developed countries, informed breast cancer specialist Dr. Pooja Ramakant in a webinar organised by Citizen News Service (CNS). Unfortunately, emotional, fiscal, and social barriers often impede women from receiving timely care.

“In less developed countries, like India, most women present very late for diagnosis when the disease has already locally advanced or become metastatic. So while survival rate is as high as over 90% in countries like the USA, it is much lower in developing countries where emotional, fiscal, and social barriers impede women from receiving timely care”, said Ramakant. According to her, presenting at a late stage of cancer is mainly because of lack of awareness and lack of screening programs, as well as due to stigma associated with the disease.

Street Families

Recently, a popular mainstream media house aired a documentary about street families or homeless people in Nairobi, Kenya. At least 300,000 street families were identified, and sadly they lacked basic amenities including food, clothing, shelter, sanitation services, education, and medication. When we talk about financing referral hospitals to provide the best primary care, everybody forgets about the homeless people, most of whom are undocumented and unable to access even basic healthcare services, not to mention cancer treatment. Also, the government takes no responsibility for street families, leaving their healthcare to the mercy of well-wishers or donors.

Counselling is a must

Even if the street families come to know about the government’s free screening services on 4th February (World Cancer Day) every year, most of them lack the finances to even reach the health facilities. Besides finances, several other underlying issues including stigma and mental health need to be addressed, not only to help the street families, but also to reduce suicide and depression rates resulting from cancer diagnosis. Unlike HIV/AIDS testing, in which counseling happens before testing, no such protocols are there for cancer screening.

I come from a community in which over 30% of people seek alternative medicine (especially spiritual intervention), about 26% use traditional herbalists, and the remaining seek help from hospitals. Also, most people believe that cancer diagnosis is a death sentence, especially when one comes from an informal setting where survival by the day is a real struggle. Some people prefer committing suicide instead of becoming burdens to their families. So counselling is crucial starting from the pre-diagnosis stage.

We are all together in this fight

People must stop assuming that they are always fine. Periodic medical checkups, avoiding tobacco and alcohol, managing environmental pollution, leading a physically active life, having healthy dietary habits are some of the ways that experts recommend for effective cancer control.

It is important to involve everybody in the fight against cancer or else the burden will continue rising. Poverty, gender biases, homelessness, disability, and financial instability all add a layer of disadvantage to seeking timely treatment. In the end, an entire country has to finance healthcare policies that do not meet the growing demand for societal problems. To stop the march of cancer, we must take he services to the people because some are very poor while others are ignorant about the kind of help they should seek. It makes sense for countries to align their policies to facilitate effective management of cancers by way of early detection, diagnosis and intervention at all levels of healthcare.

And as Dr Ramakant said ‘stay healthy, eat healthy, exercise, do not be scared of it and do not ignore the first signs of cancer.’

Beryl Osindo, Citizen News Service - CNS
February 13, 2019