Victory over cancer not beyond us
WITH advancements in science, it is good news that cancer is now being denied its capacity to continue to afflict and decimate humanity. Today, World Cancer Day, humanity should rejoice at the prospect of defeating this menace and commit itself more to the fight. For decades, the disease has consistently mocked efforts to tame it and whenever it creeps into a life, it gleefully becomes a source of financial haemorrhage and nibbles away at people’s happiness.
In its attacks, cancer blurs the distinctions of race, age and life station. In fact, some children are born with it. It is often said that a person does not get afflicted by cancer, a family does. Cancer hits the poor and the vulnerable particularly hard, and drives them deeper into poverty. Alarmingly, it is only in a negligible number of cases that victory is recorded over the disease.
Thankfully, humanity has launched a commensurately desperate battle against the ferocious disease and its grip on humanity is now waning. As part of the campaign against the disease, today has been set aside as World Cancer Day (WCD) by the United Nations/ World Health Organisation. The theme for this year’s WCD is ‘Not Beyond Us’, which takes a positive and proactive approach to the fight against cancer, highlighting that solutions do exist across the continuum of cancer, and that they are within humanity’s reach.
Cancer is a large group of related diseases, all involving unregulated cell growth. In cancer, cells divide and grow uncontrollably, forming malignant tumours, and invading other parts of the body. Indeed, cancer is now a global epidemic, the number one killer disease of mankind. According to records, one out of every three persons would be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime. The worldwide burden of cancer doubled between 1975 and 2000 and is set to double again by 2020 and nearly triple by 2030. It is projected that by 2030, one out of every two persons will be diagnosed of cancer. In contrast, deaths from infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS will decline by seven million every year. Sadly, 70 per cent of cancer deaths take place in developing countries like Nigeria. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that over 100,000 Nigerians are diagnosed with cancer yearly, and about 80,000 die from the disease. Indeed, the Nigerian cancer death ratio of four in five is one of the worst in the whole world.
Tragically, according to the WHO, cervical cancer which is virtually 100 per cent preventable kills one Nigerian woman every hour even though a vaccine has been developed for women to prevent it. Breast cancer now kills 40 Nigerians daily (up from 30 daily in 2008). Prostate cancer kills 26 Nigerian men daily (up from 14 daily in 2008). These three common cancers alone, kill 90 Nigerians daily, a death rate mainly due to poor infrastructure to deal with the problem. The result is that Nigerians spend $200 million yearly on treatment overseas. Incidentally, $200 million is the approximate amount needed to establish three comprehensive cancer centres or to acquire 300 mobile cancer centres. Unfortunately, the outcome for Nigerians who embark on cancer-related medical tourism is often poor, because of late detection.
Yet, cervical cancer is virtually 100 per cent preventable. The fact that most of these deaths occurred in hospitals abroad calls to question the preparedness of Nigeria’s health sector to tackle the worsening cancer epidemic. When the late Nelson Mandela had prostate cancer at the age of 83, all aspects of his diagnosis and treatment took place in South Africa. He was successfully treated and cured; he lived for another 12 years and remained cancer-free until his transition. Apart from South Africa, other developing nations such as Egypt, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Pakistan and Mauritania have led the way in providing comprehensive cancer care within their borders. For example, Bangalore, an Indian city with a population of eight million people , has four world-class comprehensive cancer centres, while Nigeria as a whole has none.
In particular, cervical cancer underscores the fact that cancer is preventable, and epitomises the cost-effectiveness of investing in preventive health care. It is the easiest of all cancers to prevent. Cervical screening is the best cancer screening test in the history of medicine and the most cost-effective of all medical screening tests. Consequently, cervical cancer is now a disappearing disease in the western world, while it remains the number one cancer killer of African women. In fact, human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines have been successfully developed to prevent (not cure) cervical cancer in women when taken in their early years .
Unfortunately, in Nigeria, most women are not aware of the need for cervical cancer screening as most have never had cervical cancer screening in their lifetime. Which is why cervical cancer kills one woman every hour in Nigeria with the rural Nigerian woman being worse off, because of the near-total absence of facilities for screening. The improvement in cervical cancer survivorship is positive proof that humanity can win the war over cancer if government at all levels, health practitioners and the general public would scale up their efforts. Victory over cancer is, indeed, not beyond us.