Health authorities in the country, including the Minister of Health and all health commissioners should bury their heads in shame for the appallingly poor manner with which they address cancer, which is no doubt, a major health challenge. Recent statistics show that cancer kills no fewer than 78,000 Nigerians and infects 125,000 new persons yearly, with breast, prostate, cervical and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a type of cancer that begins in the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s germ-fighting immune system) accounting for approximately half of all cancer cases.
Yet, for a country so hugely populated, and with enviable resources begging for exploitation, it is sad that the country can only boast of four functional radiotherapy machines serving over 200 million persons across the 36 states and Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja.
Although the machines are supposed to be available in about eight centres, the machines in some of the hospitals are not functioning. This suggests low investment as regards cancer care; and that the nation lacks biomedical engineering companies to fix the broken cancer treatment machines in the country’s service centres. These imply that the cancer treatment framework is weak and government alone cannot strengthen it.
Also, there is high cancer-related mortality in Nigeria compared to other nations. For example, cervical cancer mortality ratio is about 51 per cent compared to less than 20 per cent in North America. This is due to late diagnosis, limited treatment options and poor treatment outcomes.
Cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells grow and reproduce uncontrollably and invade nearby tissues by spreading to other parts of the body. At the early stage, the disease is mere benign tumour, which is not problematic; but the sufferer must keep an eye on it. It is cancer when the tumour becomes malignant, which is a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth with the tendency of invading or spreading to other parts of the body. The three most common cancers in Nigeria are breast cancer, cervical cancer and prostate cancer.
Some signs and symptoms of cancer include a new lump, prolonged cough, abnormal bleeding, inexplicable weight loss, a change in bowel movements, among others. While these symptoms may indicate the occurrence of cancer, they may also occur due to other medical issues.
So, know your family history. In addition, cancer can occur in more than one hundred different ways in the human body, and it is mainly caused by either uncalled practices or dietary risks such as tobacco smoking, incessant intake of alcoholic drinks, obesity, low fruit and vegetable consumptions, lack of physical activities, as well as certain infections like hepatitis B, hepatitis C, sexually transmitted diseases, and human papillomavirus. Some cases of cancer could also be as a result of genetic defects inherited from the parents.
Generally, the high mortality rate from cancer may be attributed to late presentation of cases and late diagnosis; not discounting the high cost of treatment. The late presentation may not be unconnected with the fact cancer is notorious for showing itself in seemingly harmless symptoms that could be dismissed as day to day problems. Treating cancer is expensive and clearly beyond what the average Nigerian can afford. Experts say that radiotherapy costs about N1 million per treatment cycle while the average cost of treating cancer comprehensively for an individual is estimated at N20 million. Nigeria, unfortunately falls into the bracket of countries with few accessible diagnosis and treatment services; referral systems for suspected cancer cases are often unavailable resulting in delayed fragmented care or poor management.
Cancer being a major health problem in Nigeria, the time has come for all hands to be on deck for the prevention and early detection with a view to making cure or proper management possible. It is important that more individuals and groups look in the direction of investing in providing health care services, especially cancer treatment. Availability of health services is germane to early diagnosis and palliative care. In furtherance of containing cancer, the National Institute for Cancer should go beyond research and source for investors to provide health care services for cancer patients.
Government should take the lead in encouraging private participation, providing enabling environment, and subsidising cancer treatment and medications. For a start, government should include cancer among the diseases covered by the National Health Insurance Scheme NHIS to reduce the hardship faced by cancer patients. Prevention is critical to reducing the burden of cancer; and experts recommend regular exercise, screening, vaccination against liver and cervical cancers. Government should make vaccines free, equip more centres, support awareness creation initiatives.
Since cancer affects everyone in different ways, everyone has the power to take actions to reduce the impact that cancer has on individuals, families and communities. Obviously, lamentation on the cases of cancer in Nigeria cannot change the narrative; investing in the health sector in order to save lives is what can change the narrative as many cancer patients will have access to affordable care. Government has a duty to ensure that investors see the Nigerian health sector as a fertile soil for investment and that it is lucrative.
For Nigeria to celebrate a cancer-free day someday, individuals and groups should see the business angle; and invest in the health sector to restore trust in the health care system and save lives!