Cancer is not a death sentence

Friday October 5 2018

Dr Catherine Nyongesa. PHOTO| COURTESY

Dr Catherine Nyongesa. PHOTO| COURTESY 

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Dr Nyongesa is a clinical oncologist with experience in cancer treatment spanning more than 10 years. She is currently the acting head of department at Kenyatta National Hospital’s Cancer Treatment Centre.

The honorary lecturer at the University of Nairobi is also the first female radiation oncologist in the country.

As the world celebrates the breast cancer month this October, the award-winning doctor shares tips on how best to manage the disease.

October is the breast cancer month. Is this type of cancer a women-only affair as most people imagine?

Even though men do not have breasts like women, they have a small amount of breast tissue. As such, they too can get breast cancer.

Men get the same types of breast cancers that women do, but theirs spread more quickly to the surrounding tissues due to small amounts of breast tissue.

Breast cancer is more prevalent in women worldwide than in men.

The latter contribute only one per cent. At Texas Cancer Centre our statistics show prevalence among men to be at about three per cent.

What are some of the other most common misconceptions about cancer among Kenyans?

That Cancer is a tragic fate, punishment and a death sentence. Some people imagine that undergoing radiotherapy or chemotherapy would kill them.

There are those who erroneously think that surgery or needle biopsies can disturb cancer cells, causing them to spread to other parts of the body. Although some types of cancer can be contagious, they do not spread arbitrarily.

Additionally, to some people, cancer is one disease. Still, others believe that if your close relative had cancer, you will definitely contract it too. This is not always the case.


What specifically was Texas Cancer Centre established for?

Texas Cancer Centre was started in June 2010. This was in response to a wide gap for cancer treatment in Kenya and the region.

The majority of local clients were unable to promptly access specialised cancer treatment, leading to agony as families sought services overseas, usually at an added cost. Patients who were lucky to access treatment locally would normally wait for two years for radiotherapy services. This is where we came in. We treat and manage cancer by use of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

What is your most memorable experience in college?

Through my four years in high school, my parents were jobless. They were unable to fully provide for me. At one time, my fellow students contributed to my school fees after sympathizing with my plight.

I was able to join university upon winning a scholarship without which life would have been very difficult. There are good people in this world who go out of their way to selflessly offer help where there is genuine need.

What advice do you wish you never heeded to, as a young person?

I wish I had never listened to pessimists who instil fear in others that one cannot flourish in life if they hail from a less fortunate background.

I am who I am today because I had the grit and the determination to keep going after my dreams in spite of the numerous setbacks that I faced.


Share some statistics and prevalence of the common types of cancer in Kenya.

According to the latest data from Globocan (a web-based platform that provides cancer statistics), 47887 new cancer cases are reported annually in Kenya.

The report also shows that 32987 cancer patients die in Kenya every year. Breast cancer remains the most common type of cancer with 5985 cases reported annually. Prostate cancer follows with 2864 cases every year.


Do you have other interests outside cancer treatment?

I love listening to music; which is my favourite pastime. I listen to Bongo and West African music both at work and while relaxing at home. I find it highly nourishing.


Are you satisfied with the country’s progress in the fight against cancer?

We have made massive strides in the campaign against cancer over the years.

Cancer is in the health pillar among the Big 4 agenda of the government. By making cancer treatment a priority, the government has demonstrated its willingness to take on the disease in the country. The need for more investment and awareness can, however, never be overstated.


How can cancer patients live with their condition to prolong their lifespan?

The most critical aspect of cancer management is positive living. Accepting oneself is the first step. Cancer is not a means to an imminent end. There is life after diagnosis.

Secondly, a healthy lifestyle is of supreme importance. Cancer weakens the body, and eating a balanced diet, for instance, helps to recoup energy lost through the treatment process such as chemotherapy.

Ultimately, strict adherence to doctors’ recommendations and regular check-ups are necessary.


What is the role of young people in the fight against cancer?

There is a whole lot of ways in which young people can contribute to the campaign against cancer. They can train in cancer management to become cancer ambassadors and carry out advocacy work.

After all, they have the energy and enthusiasm. There is need to actively and consistently engage them in this campaign. Cancer is a collective battle that needs the honest contribution of all.


In what three fronts do you think the battle against cancer will be won?

Awareness, education and more research. We need to carry out awareness programmes with more vigour on how to live with cancer and the need to go for regular cancer screening sessions.

With informed masses, Kenya will be able to comfortably manage the disease and curtail the rate of infections.

The future is bright. But first, there is work to do. Some cancers are caused by infective agents and this can be prevented through immunization.

Among these is HPV for cervical cancer and hepatitis for liver cancer.