CANCER DIALOGUE

Research and training in cancer is what will save us

Our lack of a critical cadre of cancer specialists is a major concern.

In Summary

• The first thing that each one of us should do is to be aware of our health status by subjecting ourselves at least once a year to some medical check-up.

•  Every one of us should be aware that what we are in terms of our health is directly correlated with what we eat and drink.

Medics attend to residents during a free cancer screening medical camp sponsored by MKU at the institution in Thika
Medics attend to residents during a free cancer screening medical camp sponsored by MKU at the institution in Thika
Image: FILE

The last couple of days has seen intense debates in our media about cancer: Its prevalence, how to create awareness about it, the paucity of diagnostic, treatment and care facilities and the need for effective government intervention. 

The debate has been lively, engaging and very sincerely meant. The blame game has been prominent by its absence. The usual chastising of leaders for seeking treatment abroad as wananchi die at home has not been repeated ad nauseam. What Kenyans seem to be yearning for is meaningful intervention and institutional capacity to save us from the cancer menace.

I have a few ideas to share with you as my readers. They arise from a long time reflection that arose from my experience as minister for Medical Services and cancer smitten Kenyan.

There is always a beginning to everything. The first thing that each one of us should do is to be aware of our health status by subjecting ourselves at least once a year to some medical check-up. In fact, as part of implementing Universal Health Coverage, it should be mandatory for every Kenyan to freely access such check-up in public facilities.

Second, and almost as important as check-ups, every one of us should be aware that what we are in terms of our health is directly correlated with what we eat and drink. Nutritionists advise that a diet of fresh vegetables, fruits and water, complemented by moderate quantities of carbohydrates and proteins will take one a long way towards good health, which is less likely to be predisposed to cancer. 

Before we were invaded by so-called western diet, we ate fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, dry meat and drank guard preserved milk (chak mawach in Dho-Luo). That is perhaps why our people lived longer and there might have been very few cases of cancer: We don't really know.

Third, keeping the body and mind fit and well-tuned through exercise and good sleep is cardinal to healthy living. Our lifestyles today make it rather difficult to adhere to a proper exercise regime. As a kid, I don't remember my father and mother going jogging at any time of the day. But they kept a regime of exercise through work: Tilling, weeding the crops, walking to church and visiting relatives many miles away by walking to their homes. That was enough exercise not needing another jog through the forests! Properly put, they walked through life.

Today, however, we sit in our offices from morning till the wee hours of the night! When we have an early break in the evening we go for a drink in the club to relax. Not bad. So we supplement this by going to the gym twice a week. Not bad again. But, by the demand from the work we do and the many meetings and harambees we attend after work, we find it difficult to sustain a regular exercise regime. We are highly exposed to lifestyle maladies, including cancer, unfortunately.

Fourth, to add insult to injury, the food and pharmaceutical industries are of no help to us either. The adulteration of the drugs we use as prescriptions or off the counter has become a danger to the health they are meant to save. We were recently treated to some horrible revelation that the meat we buy from butcheries and supermarkets is preserved with lethal substances. The same is true with fruits as well. Another obvious exposure to carcinogenic substances that manifest themselves as cancer in our bodies sooner rather than later.

One can, therefore, understand why our parents and grandparents who had no refrigerators and hence cooked their food fresh from the garden or the herd were much better off than us. 

 

The time has arrived when the war against cancer must be seen as a holistic war involving "us" as the potential victims, regulatory agencies such as the Kenya Bureau of Standards must safeguard us from dangerous foods and drugs, traders who should be ethical in the manner they make money and the government which must seriously fight this war with sound public policy and appropriate law enforcement.

 That leaves one group of people critical in this war on cancer. This is the medical fraternity and cancer advocacy groups. Apart from the obvious proposal that they should not work in silos but should complement each other, it needs to be emphasised that all need to know that our concern is with saving lives no matter who gets the credit. 

In that regard, we should respect the urgent need for knowledge-based advocacy and treatment. Our lack of a critical cadre of cancer specialists is a major concern. National statistics reveal that we are way below the numbers that we need to wage the war on cancer in our health facilities. Oncologists are very few, whether as surgeons or radiologists. If we break this down to specific areas of professional training, you will find that leg, neck, head, etc specialists are almost non-existent in Kenya. Medical physicists are in great shortage. This tale of woe can be told till cows come home.

So what do we do? The governments, county and national, need to work with universities to launch aggressive programmes of training in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care. Along with this should be building research capacity on cancer and sharing the outcome of this research with those who are charged with prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.