On Saturday, February 4, Nigeria joined the global community in marking the World Cancer Day. An initiative of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), the 2023 day, with the theme: “Close the Care Gap”, was dedicated to uniting the cancer community to reduce the disease’s burden, promote greater equity and integrate cancer control into the world health and development agenda.
The day raises awareness of cancer and encourages its prevention, detection and treatment. Essentially, cancer occurs when changes in a group of normal cells in the body lead to uncontrolled and abnormal growth forming a lump called a tumour.
Divided into three groups: benign, malignant and precancerous (or premalignant), the tumours, if left untreated, can grow and spread into surrounding normal tissues or to other parts of the body via the bloodstream and lymphatic systems, affecting the digestive, nervous and circulatory systems or release hormones that may affect body function.
Globally, cancer is the second leading cause of death, with 10 million deaths each year, more than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. By 2030, experts project cancer deaths to rise to 13 million. Up to 70 per cent of these deaths occur in developing countries.
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Indeed, the prevalence of cancer in Nigeria is alarming. Founder of Medicaid Cancer Foundation (MCF) and Kebbi State First Lady, Zainab Shinkafi Bagudu, on Thursday, said that Nigeria recorded over 10,000 new cancer cases since the beginning of the year, citing the statistics of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and GLOBOCAN.
Dr Adamu Alhassan Umar, President of the Nigerian Cancer Society (NCS), said 124,815 new cases of cancer were recorded in Nigeria in 2020, with 78,899 cancer-related deaths. He noted that the situation on ground was a lot worse than the estimated statistics because of poor data, as majority of cancer patients died without going to the hospital and their figures were not captured.
But stakeholders in the health sector say the good news is that more than 40 per cent of cancer-related deaths are preventable as they are linked to modifiable lifestyle changes and risk factors such as smoking, alcohol use, poor diet and physical inactivity. And at least one third of all deaths related to cancer could be prevented through routine screening, early detection and treatment.
This is the more reason why the federal and state governments, in partnership with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and the private sector, should launch more awareness campaigns to reduce cancer risk factors, increase prevention and improve diagnosis, prevention, treatment and care.
The awareness will reduce fear, increase understanding, dispel myths and misconceptions and change behaviours and attitudes.
Also, Nigerians should embrace early and routine medical checkup. More importantly, treatment through chemotherapy and radiotherapy should be deployed in cancer treatment.
But the facilities are not easily available, especially in most of the nation’s public hospitals. The National Hospital, Abuja, conceived as a major cancer treatment centre, from diagnosis and counselling to taking medications and other treatments, has two radiotherapy and brachytherapy machines. This explains why it has loads of patients referred to it as three other centres have one Linear Accelerator (LINAC) each, which are old and not so consistent, making the pressure on them unimaginable.
In the South, the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), which is a Public-Private Partnership (PPP), suffers the same fate, as it is daily loaded with referrals from other hospitals.
But what is killing most cancer patients, especially the poor, is the high cost of treatment. Therefore, the treatment should be affordable. To help subsidise the treatment, the Federal Ministry of Health established the N1bn Cancer Health Management Fund in 2021. It is yet to be functional.
During last year’s World Cancer Day, the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, announced approval of 12 additional hospitals for chemotherapy as part of the ongoing Cancer Access Partnership Programme. The installation of machines in the 12 hospitals should be completed and made operational.
And this is the time to go beyond annual speeches and proclamations on cancer treatment. In 2021, the Federal Ministry of Health announced the development of the National Chemotherapy Safety (ChemoSafe) policy. In 2022, it floated the National Hospice and Palliative Care Policy that will address the Palliative Care Need of cancer patients. These initiatives must become operational as a showcase of government’s commitment.
In addition, as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), firms should embrace procurement of cancer equipment for hospitals. In 2019, the National Hospital got one of its two cancer treatment equipment through a joint venture between the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company Limited (SNEPCo). Nigerians would be delighted to hear more of such procurements and partnerships.
Also, Nigerians should look out for signs and symptoms of cancer, including unusual lumps or swellings, breathlessness or difficulty swallowing, changes in bowel habit, unexpected bleeding, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, complications with urinating, unusual breast changes and appetite loss; and go for proper medical checks.
More so, the federal government’s introduction of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in the country’s routine immunisation schedule this year in order to help prevent cervical cancer should be fully implemented. After all, it is the second most common form of cancer diagnosed in women in Sub-Saharan Africa. All hands must be on deck to tame cancer.