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Cancer patients hope to beat disease with medical advances

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It is a few minutes to five in the evening and most of the patients who had flocked Texas Cancer Centre in Nairobi for consultation and treatment have left for the day.

But there is a small crowd of about seven who have been left behind.

They are waiting for the hospital’s van to transfer them to the in-patient branch of the facility for the night.

Unlike the rest of the patients, these seven will have to spend a few days at the Hurlingham branch for further treatment, which cannot be administered at the out-patient level.

It is among these seven patients that we spot a young, bubbly woman who constantly cracks jokes with other patients.

But, beside her infectious humour, it is easy to pick out Elizabeth Wamaitha, 24, from the group: She is the youngest patient undergoing chemotherapy on Monday.

Most of the patients lying on the reclined chairs inside the chemotherapy room are above the age of 40.

Her frail frame and resilience are what is left of the battle she has fought since being diagnosed with colon cancer in June last year. The disease is now at stage four.

“Before the diagnosis I always felt constipated,” she says.

“Doctors at school kept putting me on anti-bloating medication, which never really relieved me.”

After six months of taking the medication without any improvement, she sought a second opinion in June last year, and the doctor broke the shocking news to her.

“At first I was heartbroken because I had regularly heard of people dying from cancer,” Elizabeth, who was immediately put on chemotherapy after diagnosis, says.

“For a while, the cancer cells reduced and I got better, but two months ago my doctor told me the cells were back and I had to be put on a different treatment.”

Even as cancer treatment improves and survival rates go up, so, too, does the number of people afflicted with the deadly disease.

The 14 million new cancer cases recorded in 2012 worldwide will grow to 24 million within two decades, outstripping the increase in global population, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In 2015, all forms of cancer combined claimed 8.8 million lives, making it the second leading cause of death after heart disease.

Cancer is the third highest cause of death in Kenya — after infectious and cardiovascular ailments — and most of those who suffer from it cannot afford treatment.

But doctors believe that today, compared to decades ago, the outcomes and survival rates for patients like Elizabeth have significantly improved.

“We know how to help avoid it, and to detect it,” Prof Nicholas Abinya, an oncologist at the Nairobi Hospital, says.

“We are getting better at treating it, but, overall, we still have a long way to go.”

An estimated 40,000 new cancer cases and 28,000 cancer deaths occur each year in Kenya, meaning the disease accounts for seven per cent of all annual deaths.

In 2016, the Economic Survey estimates, 15,762 patients died from cancer.

Documents at Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) show that 80 per cent of reported cases in the country are diagnosed at an advanced stage, leaving few options for remedy.

This late diagnosis, when combined with lack of — or uneven — distribution of cancer diagnosis and treatment facilities, personnel, and equipment, makes the disease a virtual death sentence.

A study in 71 countries and covering 18 types of cancers showed that, despite the increase in survival prospects globally, there still are huge disparities between countries and societies, particularly for children, depending on the level of development and differences in health care systems.

And in the most up-to-date study of cancer survival trends — between 2010 and 2014 — covering countries that are home to two-thirds of the world’s population, researchers found some significant progress in management, but also wide variations.

While brain tumour survival in children has improved in many countries, the study, published last week in the journal The Lancet, showed that for children diagnosed as recently as 2014, a five-year survival is twice as high in Denmark and Sweden — at around 80 per cent — as it is in Mexico and Brazil — at less than 40 percent.

This gap was attributed to variations in availability and quality of cancer diagnosis and treatment services, the researchers said.

“If we want fewer deaths from cancer, there are two ways: first, better prevention, and, second, improving outcomes,” Michel Coleman, co-author of the study, in an interview with AFP last week, said.

Several factors account for the disease’s growing prevalence.

One is a long list of lifestyle habits linked to cancer, with cigarette smoking and eating of processed foods being ranked the top.

The cost in diagnosing, treating and caring for cancer patients is also a challenge that the society and the health sector have to bear.

Globally, the WHO estimates that the total annual economic cost of cancer exceeds a trillion dollars (approximately Sh100 trillion), and much of this burden falls on developing nations.

“It seems plausible that the global cost of cancer treatment and care in 2017 must already be substantially higher than $300 billion (Sh30 trillion),” the authors of the Lancet study concluded.

Another risk is exposure to carcinogenic industrial pollutants, including asbestos, organic pollutants such as dioxins, heavy metals, and small air particles that lodge in the lungs.

Other risk factors include eating poorly, lack of exercise, drinking alcohol, and obesity.

Cancer-causing infections such as hepatitis and the human papilloma virus (HPV) account for a quarter of cancer cases, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.