On 12 July, the African Cancer Foundation celebrated its official launch in Nairobi, Kenya. The foundation was created out of an initiative by cancer survivor, Professor Anyang’ Nyong’o. The aim of the foundation is to mobilize resources for a comprehensive cancer centre to meet the needs of millions of cancer sufferers in Africa, as well as to provide information on prevention and treatment.
Africa’s medical attention (awareness, prevention and treatment) has traditionally been limited to malaria (particularly in children), HIV and AIDS – and rightly so. However, cancer – which is extremely complex – has been largely sidelined.
Cancer is the number one cause of death worldwide. The statistics in Africa are alarming: firstly, many countries on the continent do not even have a cancer registry; in places where cancer treatment is available, it’s often limited due to the high costs; only 21 countries (out of 53) have radiotherapy equipment.
In South Africa, which is one of the few countries with accurate statistics, one in six men and one in seven women suffer from cancer. Breast cancer affects women more than any other cancer. There is a survival rate of only 20 per cent in those cancers which are curable in the West – cervical and breast cancer, for example – but that’s only if you are lucky enough to get a diagnosis, let alone treatment.
In 2000, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately, I was living in London at the time and the level of medical care I received was exceptional – everything was available to me and nothing was left to chance.
But even here not everything is alright. Free access to mammograms – which, along with self-examination, are the main detectors of breast cancer – are only available to women over the age of 50. I consider myself lucky as my cancer was discovered by accident. After a visit to a clinic for unrelated reasons, suspicions were raised and I was able to have a mammogram and other diagnostic services.
In any other situation I would be dead now.
But what’s worrying is that most of the women I met there were under 50, some as young as 25. The medical industry’s rationale is that most breast cancers occur after the age of 50, but this is no help to younger women. One of the problems with breast cancer is that, other than a lump which is not always easily detectable, there are no symptoms; when finally one begins to feel ill, it’s often too late: the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body.
The situation on the African continent is compounded by high levels of poverty, poor nutrition, anxiety and general poor health. Additionally, medical services are heavily pressured to deal with malaria, HIV and AIDS first.
Dr Olola Oneko, a gynecologist in Tanzania, explains the difficulties she has in meeting the needs of cancer patients despite the availability of screening:
‘The hospital offers a screening service with a new method called VIA (visual inspection with acetic acid) which means that the disease can be detected much earlier. However, once detected, the hospital has no radiation therapy and is therefore unable to offer further treatment.
We still need resource people which at the moment we don’t have, we need oncologists, cancer specialists which we don’t have, we need technicians. The way forward is to first of all have units in our countries, in our teaching hospitals. These radio therapy units would function for example, as training oncologists and through that we think that we would manage cervical cancer much better than what we are seeing today.’
Globally, cancer is on the increase, but awareness campaigns and advances in treatment mean that, with early detection, most cancers in the West are treatable.
But for the millions who have no access to even the most basic treatment, painful death is the most likely outcome. The African Cancer Foundation is a timely intervention, but there is a monumental struggle ahead before Africa can begin to address the health care needs of the millions of cancer sufferers across its 53 countries.