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Dealing with the cancer scourge

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The high number of Nigerians being daily afflicted with, and dying of cancer is very worrisome, particularly for a terminal disease that can otherwise be better controlled. Governments in saner, but not necessarily richer countries have done a lot for their people in the prevention and cure of cancer. There is no reason why Nigeria cannot replicate such efforts. While the blame is to be put squarely on poor response of successive governments that persistently fail to provide basic healthcare system for the people – majority of whom are poor – it is important that public-spirited persons and organisations get involved in efforts to curb the cancer incidences and thereby improve the health lot of the citizens.

Currently, about 200 Nigerians die every day from cancer. Disaggregated data indicate that 32 die from breast cancer, 28 from cervical cancer, 16 from prostate cancer and 14 from liver cancer. Furthermore, reports from the World Health Organisation (WHO), Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and cancer experts indicate that COVID-19 raises death risk in cancer patients because priority is given to COVID-19 patients in the already burdened health facilities. Similarly, the National Cancer Prevention Programme (NCPP) stated that there are currently over 200,000 cancer cases in Nigeria with over 100,000 new cases occurring every year. Yet, the deaths are largely preventable with early detection and care.

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According to the World Health Organisation, there are currently 43.8 million cancer patients worldwide, with over 18 million new cancer cases yearly. The global body also decried rising cancer cases in Africa, from 338,000 in 2002 to 846,000 in 2020. Cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells grow and reproduce uncontrollably and invade nearby tissues by spreading to other parts of the body. Sometimes linked to unhealthy lifestyle such as tobacco smoking or incessant intake of alcoholic drinks, some cases of cancer can arise from genetic defects inherited from the parents.

Some of the multiple negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer care include budgetary diversion of local resources towards addressing the COVID-19 crisis; social and physical distancing guidelines which represent barriers to seeking care; restriction on crowding, which is normal practice during mass cancer screening; increased strain on health personnel and infrastructure; and restriction on medical tourism.

The high mortality rate from cancer may be attributed to late presentation of cases and late diagnosis. The late presentation may not be unconnected with the fact that cancer is notorious for showing itself in seemingly harmless symptoms that could be dismissed as routine problems. Furthermore, Nigeria is sadly in the category of countries where, despite her wealth potential, majority of her citizens generally have no accessible diagnosis and treatment services; while referral systems for suspected cancer cases are often unavailable resulting in delayed, fragmented care or poor management. For instance, there are only eight teaching hospitals that have radiotherapy machines for tackling cancer, and their systems are often malfunctioning. These imply that the cancer treatment framework is weak and government alone cannot strengthen it.

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The time has come for all hands to be on deck for the prevention and early detection with a view to making cure or proper management possible. Individuals and groups should invest in providing health care services, particularly on cancer, as it is critical to reducing the number of deaths from the disease and other non-communicable diseases. The National Institute for Cancer should go beyond research and source for investors to provide health care services for cancer patients. However, government should subsidise cancer medications and make them available. Besides, the country needs more oncologists, while those on the job should constantly go for retraining in current trends for handing cancer cases.

Since early detection is key, individuals should invest in their health and go for constant cancer testing or screening. Vaccination is also an option for cervical cancer. Early diagnosis and treatment will reduce loss of lives. Relevant ministries, departments and agencies of government (MDAs), Nollywood, NGOs and the media, including the social media should help to sensitise Nigerians on the causes, prevention and consequences of cancer.

Obviously, lamentation on the cases of cancer in Nigeria cannot change the narrative. Rather. Government should take greater responsibility and invest in the health sector in order to save lives. The private sector (including NGOs) and health foundations need to be encouraged to join the efforts, along with the National Health Insurance Scheme. Cancer treatment is expensive and should not be left with sufferers. Only a holistic approach involving the public as well as the private sectors can enable Nigeria to celebrate a cancer-free day someday.

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