Involve more stakeholders to create cancer awareness among Kenyans

NAIROBI: There is no doubt that cancer is on the increase globally. There is also no doubt that in Kenya people are becoming more aware that cancer, like many other non-communicable diseases like diabetes, has become more life threatening. What Kenyans do not seem to grasp are two things. One, that there are many ways of “reasonably keeping safe from being attacked by cancer” which are within the reach of most Kenyans. Two, that if cancer is discovered early — and this depends on how well we know ourselves health wise — it can be successfully treated.

Over four years ago I discovered that I had prostate cancer. This was very difficult news to take. Remember I was then the Minister for Medical Services and it was fair to assume that I should have known what to do when that message was delivered to me by the doctor. The truth is I didn’t. Though I had been taking annual medical tests to know my health status I was not fully aware at what time prostate cancer becomes life threatening and what I was to do on knowing that I was a victim!

To cut a long story short, I did finally get good treatment in California and I have been living healthily since then. But I had to change my lifestyle substantially in terms of the food I eat, how much water I drink in a day, how frequently I do physical exercises, what stress I am prepared to take in life and how often I give the body some rest to repair itself and face the rigours of life subsequently.

There is currently a debate going on regarding the announcement made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that red meat causes cancer. That the “nyama choma” you are so fond of, especially when it is “washed down” with four or five bottles of beer every “member’s day”, is actually a recipe for cancer after a while.

But of course anything done in moderation, like a beer or two drank socially every now and then, may not be that bad. But the choice is yours really. There are those who argue they are going to die of one thing or the other. So why can’t they just enjoy their beer and nyama choma while the going is good.

At the Africa Cancer Foundation (ACF) that we founded in July 2011, we have put together substantial information about cancer. This information deals with prevention, care, treatment and how to live after cancer treatment. We give this information freely, either on our website, or in the various fact sheets we have produced. We believe very strongly that the first line of attack against cancer is awareness. The second line of attack is lifestyle. These two combined will help one take certain preventive measures and know how to live after cancer treatment.

The ACF has, over the last four years, been carrying out cancer screening across Kenya. The screening exercises have covered ten counties and have involved about 13,000 people. We screen for three types of cancer: prostate, cervical and breast cancers. These, perhaps, are the easiest cancers to screen in such camps. They are also the most prevalent in the Kenyan population. Whenever people are discovered to have any of these cancers we are able to direct them to the right institutions where they can get help.

We do all these in collaboration with hospitals and health professionals. As a non-profit making organisation we depend on volunteers and donations for our work. At the moment we have over 300 young volunteers who help in the screening exercises, carry out awareness campaigns and work on our messaging systems.

Globally, it is now estimated that about one in every three men will suffer from cancer some time in their lives while one in every four women will do so. This means each and every one of us should take cancer seriously. I do not mean you begin panicking that you may die tomorrow from cancer; no! But you should accept that the next cancer
candidate may be you and you should know your health status today and not tomorrow. And once you know your health status you should know how not to invite cancer into your life. There is no fool-proof way to be sure that how you live will give you effective prevention against cancer. But better live better today than regret it when it is too late: that is a good rule of thumb.

Globally, it has also been proven that proper diet and appropriate life style are not only good preventive measures but also good curative measures. Research has shown that highly processed foods, sugar, non-organic salts, oils and fats and non-organic foods are generally dangerous to health. Quite a good number of these foods are cancer causing, hence the prevalence of cancer today compared to our traditional societies where organic foods dominated our diets.

Education in nutrition should therefore be a must in all our schools. Our radio talk shows and television programmes should be educative along these lines. In my younger days I used to work with the Schools Broadcasting Division of the Voice of Kenya (now the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation-KBC) under the auspices of the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE). I believe this is a challenge KIE can still take up in our war against cancer. I offer my meagre knowledge to spearhead such an initiative pro bono. But that will just be the beginning. The Ministry of Education should itself follow in institutionalising public health education in our school system, knowing full well that washing our hands after going to the toilet is just the beginning, not the end, of health education.

This further means those employed to teach public health should be from the health profession. I would like to propose that we have nurses and clinical officers trained as teachers to undertake public health education in our primary schools. I would also propose that those with bachelors degrees in health teach public health in high schools.

In 2012-2013, the ACF worked closely with the ministries of health, which received technical and financial support from Management Sciences for Health to develop and produce 1,000 copies of the National Guidelines for Cancer Management in Kenya. ACF was later able to print 1,000 copies of the guidelines with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. These guidelines should help all health professionals, from nurses, clinical officers and doctors, at all levels of healthcare delivery, to help our people.

On a daily basis we at the ACF will continue to work with all parties in our country in the struggle against cancer.