Editor’s note: Stephen Ndegwa is a Nairobi-based communication expert, lecturer-scholar at the United States International University-Africa, author, and international affairs columnist. The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.
October 31 marks the end of this year’s international Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During the month-long activities, millions of women have enjoyed free or subsidized testing and diagnostic tests for this leading cause of death in their gender.
The breast cancer month is dedicated to increasing awareness of the causes and symptoms of the disease, the need, the advantages of early detection, and the types of treatment. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the common breast cancer symptoms include a change in size or shape of the breast, pain in any area of the breast, nipple discharge, which might contain blood, and a lump in the breast or underarm.
WHO classifies breast cancer as the most common cancer among women, with 2.1 million women contracting the disease each year. It is also the leading cause of cancer deaths in women. It is estimated that in 2018, 627,000 women died from breast cancer, accounting for 15 percent of all cancer deaths among women.
The real cause or causes of breast cancer are yet to be identified. Experts find that certain factors like advanced age, genetics and hereditary factors, exposure to radiation, and an abnormal reproductive history are some of the major causes that predispose women to the disease.
But while breast cancer affects women in both the developed and developing countries alike, the latter’s incidence has been on an upward trajectory due to factors that the International Agency for Research on Cancer attribute to “increase in life expectancy, increase in urbanization and adoption of western lifestyles.”
Like in many other health challenges, the people in developing countries bear the social and economic brunt of a high disease burden. These countries lack sufficient wherewithal to invest in modern and effective screening and early detection equipment. By the time cancer is detected, it is already too advanced to be treated, leaving the equally expensive palliative care the only viable intervention.
But breast cancer should not be of concern only to women. Although quite rare in males, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about one out of every 100 breast cancer diagnoses in the U.S. affects men. The CDC says the risk factors, symptoms, types, and treatment of breast cancer in both men and women are similar.
Going by the bigger picture, though, breast cancer awareness has also helped to remind the world of a silent pandemic that has devastated societies the world over, albeit in different magnitudes and in various ways. Indeed, before COVID-19, the cancer scourge had already become one of the biggest health burdens.
The WHO says cancer is the second cause of death globally, with an estimated 9.6 million people. Out of this number, 70 percent of the victims are from low- and middle-income countries due to a dearth of data to formulate effective cancer policies.
Cancer is estimated to have cost the global economy 1.16 trillion U.S. dollars, a figure which has definitely increased significantly since then. It is easy to see the reason for this massive economic burden as most common cancers affect major body organs, including the lungs, colon, prostate, skin, and stomach.
Possibly, COVID-19 has a few instrumental lessons that we could learn from in managing cancer, more so in developing countries. For instance, while several developed countries and other emerging economies have been devastated by a coronavirus, African countries have been relatively unshaken.
The foregoing reasons are really not out of design, taking into account the continent’s fragile economic and health care system, especially when faced with such an insurmountable challenge. There could only be something systemic that has broken the chain of infection within communities.
Results from studying the African resilience amid COVID-19 will be important in informing effective responses to the spiraling cancer cases. It is not always about money. Creative solutions could be the saving grace in regions experiencing a dearth of resources to take care of their populations, even for basic needs.
But maybe the biggest lesson from COVID-19 is the basic lesson – prevention is better than cure. Addressing the environmental and lifestyle factors that create a fertile ground for cancer to thrive is a huge step in mitigating the disease’s currently huge impact.
Meanwhile, governments and health authorities are struggling to find affordable ways to provide free medical treatment to persons in need of cancer treatment. One of the popular options entails mobilizing resources, particularly through public, private partnerships to support and fund cancer treatment. To stem the cancer tide, players in the health sector need to establish cost-effective, predictable, and sustainable interventions that benefit persons with cancer in need of free medical treatment.
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