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Cancer: The myths, misconceptions and realities

01 February 2013, 14:26

Tunwase, a 25-year-old banker, appears very tired and overworked.

All along, she has been procrastinating going for a medical checkup because of her busy schedule.

The first time she fell in the office, she sustained a bruise that took a long time to heal. The second time she fell, her friend, who incidentally is a doctor, insisted that she should come over for a health check.

Tunwase agreed to visit her friend’s hospital and she was later diagnosed as having breast cancer.

Cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute, is a term used for diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues.

Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), one of the most common sexually transmitted virus; is a leading cause of cancers in humans.

The World Cancer Day is celebrated on Feb. 4 every year and the focus of this year’s celebration is on dispelling damaging myths and misconceptions about cancer.

Some people erroneously describe cancer as a disease of affluent or elderly persons, while to others; cancer is more or less a death sentence.

However, research has shown that such viewpoints are mere fallacies.

Dr Abia Nzelu, the Coordinator, National Cancer Prevention Programme (NCPP), however, noted that in Nigeria, cancer was like a death sentence.

"When we had the Dana crash, we are all shouting but each day, people are dying of cancer. And due to the fact that these people are dying silently, we are not doing anything about it," he added.

Nzelu’s cynicism is quite understandable, as cancer is believed to be a major cause of deaths across the world.

According to the WHO, 7.6 million people died of cancer in 2008, representing 13 per cent of all deaths worldwide.

The global health agency also affirmed that about 70 per cent of all cancer-related deaths occurred in low and middle income countries.

Deaths from cancer worldwide are projected to continue to rise over 13.1 million in 2030.

Going from the general to the specifics, the Minister of Health, Dr Onyebuchi Chukwu, said that the data collected from 11 federal tertiary hospitals by the National System of Cancer Registries revealed that there were 7,000 new documented cases of cancer.

He said that an average of 100,000 new cases of cancer was reported in Nigeria every year.

"From our data, 60 per cent of cancers occur in women and 39.8 per cent in men.

"Breast cancer accounts for 40 per cent of women cancers, while cervical cancer accounts for 17.9 per cent. Lymphomas and ovarian cancer are next.

"Whereas in men, the most common reported cancer is prostate cancer and this accounts for 29.2 per cent of male cancers. It is closely followed by colorectal cancer and lymphomas," he said.

Dr Simom Akogu, a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynecologist, said that each year, about 500,000 cases of cancer of the cervix were reported worldwide, adding that this kind of cancer affected people within the age bracket of 35 to 65 years.

"It is the most common gynecological cancer in Nigeria and it represents 65 per cent of female genital cancers," Akogu said.

In general terms, the main types of cancers include lung, stomach, liver, colorectal, breast and cervical cancers.

Cancer can affect anyone -- the young and old, the rich and poor, men, women and children – and it heaps a huge burden on patients, families and societies.

Although WHO describes cancer as one of the leading causes of death in the world, particularly in developing countries, many of the deaths can be avoided.

This is because over 30 per cent of cancer can be prevented via healthy lifestyles or through immunisation against cancer-causing infections.

Other kinds of cancer can be detected early, treated and cured. Even if the cancer has reached an advanced stage, the patients’ suffering can be relieved with good palliative care.

According to the National Cancer Institute, leukaemia, also known as cancer of the blood, as well as cancers of the brain and the central nervous system account for more than half of new cancer cases among children.

There are, however, some risk factors that provoke the development of cancers. These include tobacco use, alcohol use, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity, radiation and environmental pollution.

Infections such as hepatitis B and C and some type of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) are the leading risk factors for cancer in low and middle income countries.

The WHO states that tobacco use is the single greatest avoidable risk factor for cancer mortality worldwide, stressing that it causes an estimated 22 per cent of cancer deaths every year.

"In 2004, 1.6 million of the 7.4 million cancer deaths were due to tobacco use."

On cancer prevention, Chukwu said that most of the cancers could be prevented by changes in people’s lifestyles, such as dietary modification and physical activities.

"Diets high in fibre, such as fruits and vegetables, may have a protective effect against many cancers.

"Regular physical activity and maintenance of a healthy body weight, along with a healthy diet, will considerably reduce cancer risk," the minister said.

However, Nzelu , the NPPC Coordinator , stressed that early screening and detection of cancerous tissues in the body was the best way to prevent untimely and avoidable cancer-induced deaths.

"Prostate cancer, the second commonest cancer in men, kills 14 men in Nigeria every day. This is not acceptable because it can be prevented.

"India has over 120 comprehensive cancer centres; we don’t have even one centre that is fully equipped to deal with any kind of cancer and carry out world-class research," he said.

Nzelu underscored the need to have a comprehensive cancer centre in Nigeria, saying that the centre would take care of cancer patients, particularly those who cannot afford treatment abroad.

"Cervical cancer, which is caused by Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), kills one woman every hour in Nigeria, while 14 men die of prostate cancer in Nigeria every day. This is not acceptable because these deaths can be prevented," he added.

Sharing similar sentiments, Dr Omolola Salako, the Founder of Sebeccly Cancer Support Centre, said that the risks of breast and cervical cancers could be reduced through regular checkups.

"More women are having these diseases yearly because they lack awareness and they do not exercise their bodies regularly.

Salako urged women to go for yearly medical checkups, saying that women should take issues relating to their health seriously.

"Women above 50 years should go for mammography test yearly and those below 50 should go for sonomammography.

"Sonomammogram checks the breasts for any abnormalities and gives a distinct image of the inside of the breasts," he said.

All the same, Akogu said that HIV-positive women had higher risks of developing cancer of the cervix because
60 to 80 per cent of them harbour the Human Papiloma Virus (HPV) which causes cervical cancer.

"Their suppressed immunity equally enhances cancer development," he added.

Akogu, however, bemoaned the women’s apathy toward matters relating to their health, advising them to take their health seriously and avail themselves of available cervical cancer screening tests.

Dr Rasaq Oyesegun, Chief Consultant Radiologist and Oncologist at the National Hospital, Abuja, also complained about the attitude of most Nigerians to issues relating to screening for breast, cervical and prostate cancers.

He stressed that the prostate, breasts and cervix were easily accessible for screening, adding that the process was, therefore, non-invasive, unlike screening for brain or stomach cancer where the person had to undergo surgery to confirm a diagnosis.

Oyesegun said that a simple breast examination could be done by the woman herself, while cervical and prostate cancer could be examined by a doctor.

He, nonetheless, noted that a lot of people carelessly wait for the disease to reach an advanced stage before presenting their case at the hospital.

The consultant called for increased efforts to disseminate relevant information about cancer,

"If the women go for this test, we would not be seeing these advanced cases that we are seeing, but people don’t just go for any form of examination at all because of the low level of public awareness," he said.

Mr Caleb Egwuenu, the Project Director of an NGO, Stand Up To Cancer Naija, said that his organisation had been using the social media like Facebook and Twitter, to heighten public awareness on breast, cervical and prostate cancers.

"That is one of the major ways through which we get across to young people. We have a group on Facebook; we talk to people about cancer.

"We tweet on breast cancer, we tweet on the various causes of breast cancer; the risk factors of breast cancer and how people can detect breast cancer and their next line of action," he said.

Egwuenu stressed that every member of the society had a major role to play in efforts to create appreciable public awareness on breast cancer.

All in all, experts insist that early detection of cancer ensures a patient’s survival, as it protects the patient from life-threatening complications.

- Okeoghene Oghenekaro and Tosin Kolade (NAN)

Tags cancer

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