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January 21, 2019

Health: Research key in reducing cancer burden

First Lady Margaret Kenyatta is joined by cancer survivors at a cake-cutting ceremony in celebration of the success in the war against cancer in 2016
First Lady Margaret Kenyatta is joined by cancer survivors at a cake-cutting ceremony in celebration of the success in the war against cancer in 2016 /PSCU

It is now estimated that one in every five men and one in every six women worldwide will develop cancer during their lifetime. East Africa has one of the highest number of reported new cancer cases in Africa. The recently released global cancer statistics show that cancer cases in Kenya are expected to increase to more than 47,000 cases in 2018, up from 35,000 in 2012.  Cancer is the third-leading cause of death in Kenya and is contributing to the growing burden of non-communicable diseases on top of the already existing communicable diseases. 

This double burden of disease is causing a significant strain on health care services in Kenya. The increase in the number of cancer cases is attributed to several factors, such as population growth, increasing ageing population, increasing rates of obesity, alcoholism and tobacco use, better screening and diagnostic testing, as well as lifestyle changes as a result of social economic development. Viral infections with HIV, hepatitis B and human papilloma virus also contribute to the increase in cancer burden.

In addition to the increase in the number of new cases, deaths from cancer continue to be high as opposed to high-income countries, largely due to patients presenting with late stage or advanced disease. Great strides have been made in recent years both by the Ministry of Health and private institutions to improve care of cancer patients from enactment of the Cancer Control Act, formation of National Cancer Institute and National Cancer Control Program as well as investment in radiotherapy machines and cancer centers. The five pillars of the National Cancer Control Strategy of 2017-2022 encompass early detection and treatment, research, monitoring and evaluation framework that is aimed at curbing the scourge from cancer.

It is against this backdrop that the Kenya Society of Hematology and Oncology (KESHO) was founded by cancer and blood disorder experts to be a catalyst in cancer and blood disorders research, to help improve patient care and stimulate capacity building for cancer care within the region and provide cancer experts and physicians involved in the treatment of cancer with a forum to discuss ideas for purposes of improving practice and treatment outcomes.

Through research, cancer experts are able to understand best what ails our communities, the prevalent areas and devise counter measures to reduce new cancer incidences and improve survivorship. Over the years, members of KESHO have been involved in a number of cancer research projects, striking partnerships with leading global cancer organizations including the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), The African Organization for Research and Training in Cancer (AORTIC) among others.

Kenya has about 25 cancer specialists attending to the 47,000 cancer patients across the country who mostly practice in the urban areas leaving out a large population in other major areas that experience similar cancer burdens unattended. Other health care professionals come in handy to bridge the gap and having the correct knowledge to diagnose or refer suspected cancer cases for further investigation is vital in reducing the cancer burden in the country and the region.

To highlight the research that is being carried out in Kenya and the region around cancer, KESHO will be holding its  5th International cancer conference expected to take place this November 15-17th themed ‘Integrating Research and Practice’ in Nairobi. The objective is to showcase a wide array of regional cancer research by cancer scientists, share knowledge on recent updates in management of cancer, discuss opportunities and challenges of treatment, encourage advocacy, influence policies related to cancer care, and highlight the importance of supportive care and palliative care. 

The conference is targeting all stakeholders in the health sector including cancer specialists, physicians, radiologists, pathologists, nurses, radiation therapists among others is expected provide a platform to discuss scientific research and evidence-based information by local and internationally renown scientists.

Continued cancer research and increased knowledge sharing is critical in decentralizing cancer information from the few cancer specialists in major cities and empower the various caregivers at the county level who are sometimes the sole healthcare providers in the areas they operate from. Physicians are able to make timely diagnosis at an early cancer stage thereby improving treatment outcomes and survival. This will ultimately contribute to overall reduction in cancer burden in the country.


Dr Sitna Mwanzi is a consultant medical oncologist with Aga Khan University Hospital and chair, Kenya Society of Hematology and Oncology (Kesho)

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