People’s Misperceptions of Cancer and its Dangers

7 Min Read

November 27, 2012 By Mary Ajoke Akangbe

Doctors perform a surgery

Health is wealth’ is an adage that I grew up hearing over and over again. From times past, our ancestors have prided themselves on being able to use herbs and leaves for medicinal purposes and effectively so. The fact that farming was a common mode of making a living also meant fresh produce. Fruits and vegetables were easily accessible and in abundance.

That was until civilization crept in with awareness and introduction of different ways of dealing with illnesses and diseases, first by the missionaries, followed by establishments of dispensaries in rural areas and teaching hospitals in Africa.

Before then, even now in some instances, people in Africa would seek help from ‘familiar’ sources for a period of time before going to a doctor be it a clan member, herbalist, church or native doctor. In fact, some illnesses are classified as ‘taboo’ and can only be referred to by their initials like the ‘ C’ word.

So, today let us talk about the ‘C’ word.

What is cancer? It 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. There are more than 100 different types of cancer and it can originate from any organ or part of the body.

The main categories include:

  • Carcinoma – This begins in the skin or in tissue that cover internal organs.
  • Sarcoma – It begins in the bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, and blood vessels among others.
  • Leukaemia – Starts in the blood, forming tissues like bone marrow and cause abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the blood.
  • Central nervous system cancers – These begin in the tissues of the brain and the spinal cord.
  • Lymphoma and myeloma – Begin in the cells of the immune system.

Interestingly enough, even young people (including those living abroad) sometimes still do not embrace treatment for cancer, even when diagnosed early. They resort to all types of excuses and choose to live in denial, not from the shock of the diagnosis because cancer is a big deal and should not be taken lightly, but due to misconceived ideas.
They instead choose to listen to tales, spiritualism and other superstitions , often disappearing from the healthcare system, only to turn up when it is almost or sometimes too late.

God does heal, but please let us mix some wisdom with faith. Most cancers can be successfully treated when diagnosed early and when treatment is started promptly, which can sometimes involve surgery. There are many groundbreaking surgical procedures being done to remove and treat cancers, including breast reconstruction for women and scrotal prosthesis for men. What’s more, most of the procedures can be done through the keyhole – my area of specialty.

Oncology (a branch of medicine that deals with cancer) is often entrusted to traditional healers in Africa, due to the misconception and damning history attached to tumours. One of the myths surrounding cancers for example is ovarian cancer being interpreted as long-term pregnancy, and the “birth of the baby” being delayed by evil “doers”, due to the sheer size of the tumour occupying the abdomen. Treatment is therefore geared towards that rather than medical attention. The same cultural restraint applies to breast, cervical and cancer prostate cancer in men, as they would not want to lose their masculinity or respect as head of the clan by speaking up about their illness or seeking medical treatment.

However according to International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), approximately 715,000 new cancer cases and 542,000 deaths related to cancer occurred in Africa in 2008, and this number is set to increase over the years. In Nigeria, the deaths of high profile personalities such as politicians, media gurus and musicians due to cancer have sparked a wave of awareness campaign, but more still needs to be done. A consultant radiotherapist and oncologist speaking in Lagos recently said about 10,000 cases of cancer are recorded in Nigeria annually. Only 10% of those affected have access to hospitals with radiotherapy facilities and 27% is breast cancer, 25% cervical cancer. Prostate cancer is also high on the list.

Diagnosis is often at a later stage, as lack of awareness, restricted access to screening, treatment and specialized care means patients with cancer are suffering in silence. The fact that cancer receives low public health priority in Africa compounds the matter, as treatment can take place over a period of time and become very expensive.

I am aware there are forces around, but not every illness or disease is the work of the forces of darkness. It is not a taboo to be ill and surgery does save lives. Most importantly, there is nothing to fear about screening for cancers if one has a strong predisposing factor (I know, I still panic when I have to have a test, like mammogram but I do it anyway).

Education, awareness, early detection and treatment will lead us to be bold and call the ‘C’ disease by its name and overcome it.

What do you think about this? Let us know in the comments below…

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