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by / Thursday, 17 October 2013 / Published in Blog

“Early detection is Key. And if I hadn’t found my lump early, I don’t know what would have been. I am still here and I want to encourage women to do that on a regular basis.” Olivia Newton-John: Musician and breast cancer survivor.

Agnes and I have one thing in common, our love for fish and our distaste for preparing it. That is why once in a month we have to meet to eat Tilapia at one of the renowned restaurants in town. That way we can enjoy the fish, and gossip and be glad we aren’t going to do the dishes afterwards. We would normally agree on when the next date would be before we leave for home so that explains why I was in shock when she asked to move the ‘fish date’ as we called it to a closer date. She didn’t sound her usual bubbly self so I agreed. Half way through our dinner, Agnes confides in me that she has a septic wound on the side of her arm and it has been there for the last three months. The wound had so much pus she could smell it walking around and had seen all her doctors and nobody seemed to know why she wasn’t responding to treatment.
“Please help me” she said tears filling her eyes. I looked at the crowd enjoying their meal around us wondering what to tell her. I wasn’t going to be able to see the wound so I didn’t know what to tell her.
“Does any of your doctors know your HIV status?” I asked.
“No, I haven’t told them” she replied in shock. “Do you think this is because of my HIV status?” she asked concerned.
“I don’t know and neither will you if you do not disclose medical conditions to your doctors so they treat you well.” I replied stunned. “Besides, I know when one’s CD4 is low, or when one is diabetic, sometimes wounds take a lot longer to heal.” I continued. After she promised to see her doctor on Monday morning, we finished dinner and she promised to let me know what the doctor says.
She did call after two weeks to drop a big bombshell on my lap and change my outlook to life all together. After disclosing her HIV status to the Doctor, Agnes was referred for a biopsy and had just collected her results when she was on phone with me. The oncologist had just informed her she had breast cancer.
“I’m not even crying because I am sick, I’m crying because I spent so much time, energy and money trying to find out what is wrong and now I don’t think I have anything left” she wailed.
That is the last thing I expected to hear from her, in fact after being totally engrossed in HIV/AIDS work, I totally forgot other diseases exist until Agnes used herself and Cancer in the same line. The other girls in the support group were shocked when I informed them, no one ever thought seriously about being infected with anything else, after all, weren’t we all walking around with one of the biggest diseases in the planet? There is no way there would be anything thing worse than HIV. Being around for Agnes during her treatment made us realize that we couldn’t be further from the truth.
World Health Organization reports Cancer as the leading cause of death globally in 2007 with 7.6 million people believed to have died of cancer in that year. 70% of these deaths occurred in low and middle income countries from where it is projected that if nothing is done, by 2030, Africa will bear 1.6 million new cancer cases and some 1.2million deaths annually. The most common cancers in the world are breast, lung, colon and rectum, stomach and prostate. Lung cancer is reported to be the leading cause of all cancer deaths in the world.
Back home, with two of our medical ministers having publicly declared their battle with cancer and the country having lost a number of iconic figures to the disease this year, the fact that Cancer is becoming one of the greatest public health challenges the country is grappling with is clear. During this year’s World Cancer day commemoration on 4th February 2012, the ministry of public health and sanitation reported that Cancer is the third cause of death after infectious and cardiovascular diseases. There are about 28,500 cancer cases diagnosed annually with 22,000 people dying of cancer in the same period every year.
Affording healthcare remains the biggest challenge in Kenya leading to people often seeking help when it is too late and the cancer has progressed to stage IV. In many occasions people diagnosed with this disease are burdened with costs of treatment with specialized care, chemotherapy, radiation and other treatment options remaining a preserve for the few. Majority of Kenyan’s remain uneducated with low awareness on the disease being attributed to people seeking treatment when it is often too late. The unending myths and misconceptions about the disease, poverty and presence of other communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria make an already bad situation worse.
Cancer is a class of disease characterized by out of control cell growth resulting in over 100 different types of cancers each classified by the type of cell that it initially affected. Cancer is the untimely results of cells that uncontrollably grow and do not die. These overgrown cells sometimes know as tumors can grow and interfere with the digestive, nervous and circulatory systems and can also release hormones that interfere with normal bodily functions. These dangerous tumors are known as Malignant tumors, however not all of the tumors are dangerous. Benign tumors stay in one spot demonstrating limited growth and very little or no interferences with bodily functions.
According to the policy brief on the situational analysis of cancer in Kenya, the most common types of cancer for men are Oesophagus, Prostate and Kaposi sarcoma(a type of skin cancer) While the most types of cancer seen in women are Breast, cervical and throat. The misconception that Cancer is a disease of people from a certain economic class, most often the ‘rich’ is refuted in this report as many cases of cancer are reported among people seeking medical care from public hospitals. Cancer is also not a disease of older people as many young people and children are diagnosed as well.
People living with HIV are at risk of developing certain types of Cancers like Kaposi sarcoma, non Hodgkin lymphoma and cervical cancer. These three cancers are often called ‘AIDS defining conditions’ meaning if a person living with HIV is diagnosed to have any of them then is signifies a development of AIDS. The link between these cancers and HIV is however not clear but could be attributed to reduced immunity of persons with HIV.
The ministry of Health believes that about 40% of cancers in Kenya are preventable through government, community and individual interventions such as tobacco control, promotion of healthy diets and physical activity and protection against exposure for environmental carcinogens. Early detection of disease through frequent screenings improves disease outcomes due to early and timely treatment.
Cancer prevention is possible through an individual’s decision to make a few lifestyle changes one can successfully keep cancer at bay. Avoid smoking and exposure to smoke. Smoking is responsible for majority of the Lung cancer cases diagnosed. Practice sun safety by limiting the time spent on direct sunlight and using sunscreens to protect against skin cancers, Eat your fruits and vegetables always while limiting red and animal meat in your diet. Limit alcohol intake. Exercise frequently. Practice safe sex, Human Papiloma Virus (HPV) which is responsible for cervical cancer is passed during sexual intercourse. Know your family medical history to enable you assess risk and seek medical advice and help as appropriate. Get frequent screenings for cancer to enable early detection and treatment.
National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) is an annual international health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities and organizations every October to increase awareness of the disease and to raise funds for research into its cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure. The campaign is characterized by identifying and wearing a pink ribbon and serves as platform to offer information and support to those affected by breast cancer as well as giving an opportunity to organizations and charities to raise awareness of their work and of the disease.
Breast cancer awareness month is a prime opportunity to remind women to be breast aware for early detection and treatment. In Kenya, breast cancer has been identified as the No. 1 killer of women aged 35-55 years. The women diagnosed in Kenya are said to be much younger than those in developed countries with late diagnosis being the main reason for high mortality.
Mother Teresa once said, “We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love”. It is my prayer that as we mark this year’s breast Cancer awareness month in October, we can all begin to reflect on what things we can do to contribute towards making our country and ultimately the world, lessen the burden of cancer disease to individuals, communities and healthcare facilities.
In no particular order here are some of the things you can do this October;
Raise your breast cancer I.Q
Read, share, talk, do whatever it takes to know more about breast cancer. What causes it, what treatment options are available and assess risk of self to the disease. Education is power they say. The more aware you are about the disease, the better placed you are at prevention and treatment strategies. What you know, share with others and get to know their experiences too. Ask your doctor or any health care worker when and how often you should be checked for breast cancer. Seek their help in learning how to conduct a self breast examination. This applies to both men and women as there have reports of breast cancer diagnosis in men as well.
Create awareness
Use any medium available to you to create awareness about the disease and break the stigma associated with breast cancer. Many women are embarrassed or scared of going for breast exams because they are shy. We were raised that way. Let’s talk about breast cancer whenever we have an opportunity, in the community, in social gatherings,in schools, in church, on our social media pages. Let’s use those opportunities to educate people, to set right with facts all the myths and misconceptions people have so that they can come forward for screening and early disease detection.
Be a part of the activities near you.
Find an awareness or charity organization awareness function near you and be a part of it. You can volunteer or offer support in any way you can Many hospitals and corporate organizations use this month to create awareness and provide screening of breast cancer, prostate cancer and cervical cancer either for free or at a reduced cost. Share the information with others and be a part of these activities.
Wear the Pink Ribbon.
The pink ribbon is an internationally recognized symbol for breast cancer awareness. Wearing the ribbon helps to raise awareness about the disease and show support for people affected with breast cancer. Wearing the ribbon during the month of October shows you support the cause.
After surgery and enough rounds of Chemotherapy, Agnes recovered and is doing well. She would not have done this without immense will power to live, faith and hope in a better future. She kicked cancer away. Terry Tempest Williamson said, “An individual doesn’t get cancer, a family does”. Agnes has a lot of support from her employer who allowed for ‘flexi hours’ as she was going through her chemotherapy, her family and friends who were there for her physically and in prayer. Her story, being around her during this trying period made me realize how precious life is. Awareness is the best medicine, frequent screening and detection goes a long way in how one recovers from a cancer diagnosis.
Have a blessed month of October.


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