The theme of this year’s World Cancer Day 4 was “We can, I can”. It underlined how everyone, together or individually, can help to reduce the global burden of cancer. While the day is usually characterised by messages and graphics on social media that highlight the grave danger of cancer, there is still lack of awareness as more people continue to die.
Almost everyone knows someone who has succumbed to cancer, both the elderly and the young, yet when diagnosed at an early stage, cancer can be treated.
According to the World Health Organization (Who), cancer is said to be the second leading cause of deaths from non-communicable diseases after cardiovascular illnesses, accounting for seven per cent of overall national mortality. About 40,000 new cases and 28,000 cancer deaths occur each year.
The most prevalent cases in Kenyan women are breast and cervical, while in men, oesophagus, head, neck and prostate cancers. Other risk factors for some cancers, include infectious diseases such as HIV/Aids, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and Hepatitis B. Who estimates that the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infections accounts for 22 per cent of all cancers in women and 12 per cent in both men and women every year. In children, cancers of the blood (leukaemia) and lymphomas are common. Cancers of the digestive tract, including the stomach, liver, colon and the rectum, are also on the increase. The recent increase in cases in Kenya has been associated with changing lifestyles, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and excessive intake of alcohol and tobacco. Research by the Kenya Medical Research Institute shows that 80 per cent of cancer cases in the country are diagnosed at an advanced stage. Moreover, health systems in public hospitals are poorly equipped to cope with the cases. Kenyans who cannot afford the treatment bear the brunt as some have to travel from the villages to towns for treatment.
The vast majority of patients find themselves on a waiting list for up to a year to access radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Only the few wealthy ones can visit private hospitals, or go abroad, mostly to India for treatment. The cost of treatment even in the public hospitals is high. There are a few specialists who deal with the ailments. For a long time, the capacity for cancer treatment in the public sector has been minimal.
The government has developed cancer control strategies and guidelines, including the National Cancer Control Strategy (2011-2016). The Ministry of Health has had a few awareness campaigns for breast cancer. Besides, Hepatitis B vaccine is now part of routine immunisation in children and the HPV vaccine is also available. But the level of public awareness is still low. There is lack of knowledge and misinformation on cancer.
To support the already constrained public health system, the Texas Cancer Centre was started in June 2010. It has three branches, two in Nairobi and one in Eldoret. The centre offers specialised treatment services, including cancer screening, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. With the rise in cases of cancer, we need more of these centres.
The ministry and the stakeholders must come up with robust public awareness campaigns. In addition, policies to support cancer-related interventions, specifically screening and treatment, are also needed. The government must also increase funding to the ministry to make the screening more affordable. But it is our individual responsibility to take care of our bodies, get vaccinated and go for the screening, as detected early cancer can be treated.
Jane Valentine Mangwana is acommunications specialist.