by Joyce J. Wangui
Biopsy, mammogram, and chemotherapy are words all too familiar with cancer patients. Death is another word often at the tip of many tongues as patients describe the disease. Kenyans are coming to terms with cancer, hitherto perceived as a disease of the West and the rich.
Grim statistics show that over 60 Kenyans die of cancer and its related complications every day. In fact, cancer is Kenya’s third leading cause of death, killing more people than HIV and Malaria combined.
According to David Makumi, manager of the cancer programme at Aga Khan University Hospital and vice president of the Kenya Cancer Association, “Almost a third of cancer incidences are preventable, while another third of local cases could be treatable if early diagnosis and sufficient resources were available.”
July 12, 2011 marked a new beginning for cancer patients and those at risk in Kenya – the launch of The Africa Cancer Foundation. The first of its kind in Africa, it will include advocating for early diagnosis and treatment of cancer as well as quality cancer care.
“Screening, screening and more screening, should be our national anthem if we have to fight cancer,” says Kenya’s minister for medical services Professor Anyang Nyong’o, himself a cancer survivor.
Since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year and sought proper treatment in the U.S.A., the minister has vowed to ensure that no Kenyan would die of any form of cancer. In Parliament, he has been on record advocating for the medical rights of middle-class and poor Kenyans.
Cervical cancer, the biggest killer of all cancers affecting women, is the second most common cancer after breast cancer, Makumi tells me. It accounts for 20 percent of cancer deaths among women. According to the WHO/ICO Information Centre on HPV and Cervical Cancer report Human Papillomavirus and Related Cancers in Kenya, Summary Report 2010, 2,454 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, in which 1,676 die annually. The irony is that Kenya has facilities to treat cervical cancer but information surrounding diagnosis and early treatment is accessed by a paltry number of Kenyans.
“People tend to seek treatment when the situation is dire. We have no culture of routine medical check-ups,” says Mary Onyango, a breast cancer survivor. She notes that any woman who succumbs to cervical cancer is to blame for ‘carelessness.’ With no intention to offend women, Onyango decries the ignorance associated with early screening.
Dr. Shahnaz Shariff, Director of Public Health and Sanitation believes, “Early screening is the surest way of treating the disease in its infancy.” He adds that women should take advantage of screening centers at public hospitals. Noting that screening for cervical cancer is available in the country, he reiterates that no woman should die of the disease.
Collins Wambasa, a clinical officer in Nyanza Provincial General Hospital notes, “We still have gaps as far as information is concerned.” Wambasa attributes lack of routine screenings among Kenyan women to the negative perception associated with cervical cancer screening.
The Kenya Cancer Association (KENCASA) has been instrumental in bridging the information gaps that exist in cancer awareness by initiating outreach programs in churches, schools, and women’s networks. In a bid to save Kenyan women, the Kenya Cancer Association has partnered with the ministry of health, Kenyatta National hospital, and other likeminded organizations in mainstreaming the disease in all health programs.
“KENCASA was very instrumental in drafting the National Cancer Control Strategy, which is a 5-year government plan to reduce the incidences of cancer and improve the quality of life of those who develop cancer in Kenya,” notes David Makumi proudly.
Contrary to popular belief that cancer is mainly inherited or caused by environmental hazards, as well as bad luck, medical research shows that lifestyle changes are a major contributor to the many forms of the disease. In fact, a recent report from the Kenyan government National Cancer Control Strategy, 2011-2016, shows that “about 40 percent of cancers are preventable through interventions such as tobacco control, promotion of healthy diets, physical activity, and protection against exposure to environmental carcinogens.”
In 2009 while living in South Africa, I was on cloud nine. The KFC’s, Mac Donalds, Shoprite, and Checkers supermarkets were my second home. In my quest to fit in my social circles, I was always dining out. My house was along the busiest street in Africa - Long Street, endowed with pubs of all sizes. With South Africa known for best wines, I earned an accolade of heavy drinker from friends and foes alike.
I did not realize the health problems I was inviting to my body. I experienced difficulty breathing as I had became unfit. My weight jumped from 59 to 66 kilos and my Body Mass Index was almost surpassing the normal 18.5. Physical fitness was a peculiar word for me and I can count the number of times I ate a fruit.
A turning point came during a seminar on the need to adapt a healthy lifestyle. I regretted the carefree life I led as it pertained to my health. One year down the line, I am a changed person. Having lost close friends and relatives to cancer, I have chosen to live a healthy life. I exercise daily, eat healthy, and if I am to drink, I limit my wines to twice per week.
“Cancer is not a death sentence and, just like HIV, we can battle it,” Makumi said during the Africa Cancer Foundation launch event attended by medics, cancer patients, survivors, government officials, diplomats and corporate organizations.
Though Kenya is involved in an uphill battle against cancer due to lack of resources, lack of infrastructure and trained personnel, and the prohibitive cost of treatment, Doris Mayoli, a breast cancer survivor, believes that cancer can indeed be over come.
“I had to come up with a motto - Live on purpose…You can either choose to believe that the disease is a certificate to an early grave or believe otherwise,” says Mayoli.
With her book Ashes to Beauty, that chronicles her time with cancer, and her larger-than-life smile, Mayoli now traverses the whole country, telling people of her triumph over cancer. She sticks to the adage that cancer is not a death certificate and that people should live their lives on purpose.
Mayoli has formed an organization, Twakutukuza Trust, to help poor people, especially in the rural areas, access the necessary resources of managing cancer. Twakutukuza, a Swahili word meaning “we praise you,” incorporates singing and dancing among cancer patients and survivors in a bid to give hope to the hopeless and also raise funds to help the poor access treatment.
About the Author:
Joyce J. Wangui is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya and writes for various online media agencies. She earned a Diploma in Mass Communication in 2002, and started her media career in Rwanda in early 2003 where she worked as a senior political reporter for The New Times, a state-owned English newspaper. Joyce is an active member of Highway Africa; an annual gathering of African journalists in South Africa and the Deutsche Welle Global Media forum held in Bonn, Germany. She is currently pursuing a one-year correspondence degree in International Journalism.