Today is World cancer day with the theme “We can. I can”. We can fight cancer together and each of us can help slow down cancer.
Nothing unites us more, regardless of who we are or where we live than the suffering from cancer. 8.2 million people around the world succumb to cancer every year.This toll will triple by .
A few years ago, one of them was my brother– Kwamina in Ghana. Last year, one of them was my friend, Joy, here in the US.
The challenges facing Africa in cancer diagnosis was brought home to me forcefully while practicing and teaching at the Cape Coast Regional hospital in Ghana in 2011. I was chatting with a 59 year-old Director of Nursing when I asked about her last pap smear and mammogram. She revealed that she had NEVER had either test! When I asked why, she said no doctor had ever discussed either test with her.I was stunned. Last month, here in the US, I sent a patient for a mammogram who is awaiting a biopsy. The burden, though universal, is heavy on Africa.
According to the World Bank, in 2012, 645,000 new cancers were diagnosed in Africa while there were 456,000 deaths. The World Health Organization reports that over 530 thousand died of cancer in Africa in 2015.
In Africa, most cancers are diagnosed late. Only 5% of global cancer resources are spent in Low and Middle Income Countries while a significant portion of the burden is in these places. In men, Kaposi sarcoma, Liver and Prostate are the commonest cancers while in women, Breast and Cervical cancer lead the way.
The risk factors in Africa include , besides family history, HIV, Human Papiloma virus, Human herpes virus, Hepatitis B virus, Aflatoxins and alcohol. Amazingly, a third of these cancers are infection-related and some of these infections, including Hepatitis B and HPV, can be prevented by vaccines.
For a continent bereft of resources, prevention should be central to our approach. We need aggressive vaccination, more widespread condom use and better prenatal care , amongst other measures, to reduce the incidence and burden of cancer.
Even in the non-preventable cancers, early diagnosis can significantly improve cure. Unfortunately, only about a third of cancers are preventable- according to Dr. Lawrence Shulman, Director Dana-Farber’s Director of the Centre for Global Cancer Medicine.
This Valentines Day, in addition to sweets and others, get your female partner, based on age, to get a pap smear and a mammogram. If you are a woman, get your man to get a prostate check and lay off on drinking. And get your sons and daughters to commit to responsible sexual practices. These would be gifts, not for one Valentine but for years.
If you can , ask your country’s policymakers to commit more resources to vaccines, diagnosis and treatment of cancer across Africa.
Let’s encourage leaders to build facilities like the Butaro Cancer Hospital in Rwanda that is the first of its kind that is bringing cancer care to rural Africa or the Specialized cancer hospital planned for Lusaka, Zambia.
Let us do our part, to lessen the burden of cancer.
Africa needs us to stand up to cancer for her.

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