Cancer in Africa

Posted on August 3, 2016 02:47 pm

In Africa, majority of the population until recently thought it was a Western countries disease but as more and more people learn about the disease, there has been awareness from both government agencies and media.When it comes to cancer, the African media traditionally paints a picture of two extremes.It celebrates the outliers especially like the person who defied death and went on to have long, successful life, or the unfortunate patient whose life and circumstances were cruelly defined by a terminal illness.In my view, these stories are powerful and valid, of course.But the stories Africans also need to hear are those about everyday people. How they live with illness and how they cope with the swings and roundabouts of having a chronic illness, when you are not always sick but not well either; the challenges of access to care.In the World’s most poorest region, the realities of being poor and sick, non English speaking African countries and sick, has a side effect on those affected by the deadly disease.Sadly, apart from Swahili, English, Portuguese, French speakers, there are few materials that are in place to help educate the mass.Africans who promote this dichotomy must realise that by only showing us one small aspect of cancer, they do the general population a disservice.African countries can begin to address this though, by realising that the fear, vulnerability and indignity of having cancer is real and common and also amenable to help, if they recognise it. Africans also need to find a way to address what many cancer researchers have been rightly pointing out for a while now about the menace in Africa, that some cancers attract the lion’s share of attention, whereas many other deserving cancers don’t.Breast and prostate cancer are some examples of highly visible cancers, backed by strong advocates and fundraisers.For example, there are marathons or events that take place annually to help raise monies for those affected by the illness.

I’ve heard little about brain, pancreatic or gallbladder cancer being publicised in African media.These are diseases with bleak survival rates, in desperate need of more research to yield better treatments.I think part of the problem is that when people are very sick, or have a limited life expectancy, they may not have the energy for advocacy.However it’s African countries responsibility to not forget their needs.The good news is that unlike previous generations, many cancer patients now live a long time after diagnosis or in remission. I think general awareness about this is growing as more of Africans meet someone who has been brushed by cancer.More than half of people diagnosed with cancer today are likely to survive five years. The chance of surviving longer rises for every five years you have been alive.Overall, the medical profession has a long way to go in catering to the needs of survivors and Africans have traditionally been inadequate at this because treatment has focused on ridding the patient of the disease, but not the trauma that accompanied it.Africans who have had cancer often describe being permanently changed by the experience.As a community, Africans must try to support them in their personal and professional lives, and learn from their perspectives.And although cancer survival rates are on the increase, African countries also need to have better conversations about dying and it’s doctors who have the biggest role to play here.However it’s very difficult to practice good medicine, without preparing patients for the notion of mortality.This doesn’t mean abandoning impeccable preventive or medical care, but realising that the demand for a good quality of life extends to the quality of death.Africans must recognise that discussing death and dying is not an optional extra in the making of a doctor.No matter what area of Africa health experts practice, if they care about their patients they have a role to play in discussing a time when no drugs or machines can suspend death.Far from extinguishing hope, this realisation can be a powerful step towards preparing Africans to die.

Contador Harrison