Imagine a woman without breasts? What would be your reaction? There many survivors of Cancer around the World, who had their breasts removed to beat off the deadly condition. But to Malawi, cancer remains a rarely spoken topic.
On May 27, 2007, Cancer claimed the life of the country’s mother –The First Lady Ethel Mutharika, there was a talk of a need for specialist cancer centre, hope was created to many cancer survivors that something would be done.
Almost three years later, a retired politician-turned- cancer activist Aleke Banda breathed his last on 9 April, 2010, the mourning nation remembered that we were yet to honour our promises as a nation we made in 2007 when we mourned the passing of the late First Lady. A cancer clinic is still far away from the cards.
With the emergence of HIV and Aids, cancer patients now even have to live with stigma of being accused of having acquired HIV which has seen many in rural areas shun seeking medical treatment in public hospitals.
The lack of equipment including CT scan and mammography in the Central and Northern Regions of Malawi, has led to thousands of women and men to develop preventable and curable cancers and many loosing their lives due to absence of professional care.
According to Dr. Charles Dzamalala in Malawi, the top ten cancers include Kaposis Sarcoma, Cervix, Oesophagus, Lymphoma, Urinary Bladder, Breast, Liver, Conjunctive, Prostate and Stomach being registered at the Cancer registry by 2005.
Kaposis Sarcoma, Cervix, Oesophagus, Lymphoma are among the highest recorded, with kaposis Sarcoma accounting for the 38 percent of cancers registered in 2005.
Health journal- the Lancet cites three major components contributing to the switch in the cancer burden to less-developed countries from developed nations due to growth of the world’s population, ageing of the world’s population and introduction of cancer risk factors from developed countries to add to those already existing in low- and medium-resource countries.
There are over 200 types of Cancer, and the shift towards poor countries like Malawi is mainly attributed to lifestyle changes including smoking, which is not regulated and also for many exposures to smoking fumes in tobacco production areas.
The Malawi Cancer Registry data base indicate that that between 1985 to 2005 there were 38,232 cancer cases but only 130 were recorded as having Lung cancer. These figures however might not be a true reflection of the reality, as hundreds others do to have access to cancer diagnostic experts.
The major causes of cancer include intrinsic factors (genetic) and extrinsic factors (environment, age and lifestyles) with the shift in diets and nutrition in poor nations creating a space for more cases to develop.
Diet, smoking, infections, hormones, radiation, alcohol, occupation, pollution and inactivity are some of the key factors that influence the emergence of cancer but very little attention has been paid in Malawi to public awareness related to cancer.
Malawi currently has no facilities to treat and palliate cancer nor a national cancer control plan. Kaposi's Sarcoma is the leading cause of cancer in males, while cervical cancer is the leading malignancy in females, followed by Kaposis Sarcoma.
Millions of Kwacha’s are spent to refer cancer patients mainly those with resources to Zimbabwe, South Africa and Tanzania leaving the majority poor being sent home without treatment where they are suffering and dying a painful death unnecessarily.
President Bingu wa Mutharika, then Health Minister Marjorie Ngaunje on February 3, 2007 launched an ambitious ambitious two-year fundraising project to mobilize resources to build Malawi's first and only radiotherapy centre. To date very little has been heard of what would have evolved into the National Cancer centre to offer competitively priced treatment to at least 10,000 patients annually.
Individual efforts and campaigns have tried but it is time that Government should make a firm commitment and budget for a Cancer diagnostic and treatment centre to reduce the burden many face especially with the emergence of HIV and Aids, which has led to increase in Kaposis Sarcoma type of cancer.
Each month of April and May, as Malawians commemorate the passing of the late Ethel Mutharika and AKB as the Late Aleke Banda was fondly called, their pain and battle of cancer should move the nation to act fast on this painful killer.
Those women battling cervical and breast cancer in our villages need to be given new lease of life, the young generation sensitized on the risky behaviours and accelerate cancer and those living with the condition be given access to treatment which is denied due to ones financial status.
Cancer, just like other new burdens especially emerging Non Communicable diseases will create a double burden of diseases for poor nations like Malawi, where modest economic gains have seen more people develop hypertension and diabetes among other conditions.
Malawi cannot afford to let part of its population suffer in silence.