Who Cares About Cancer?

Cancer is not captivating. Or, at least, in sub-Saharan Africa it doesn’t seem to be when compared with, say HIV/AIDS or malaria. Why is that? Is it the sheer numbers? The assumption that you are more likely to die of a communicable disease before you will ever develop cancer in this region? Or maybe, like global warming, it’s a scary topic that it is easier to put off thinking about until tomorrow. Or the next day…Or the next day…

It seems like a lot of friends of friends are dying or have died from cancer recently in Kampala. On Sanyu FM this morning, a caller asked for advice on how to handle his relationship with a girl who had terminal cancer. While I have long been interested in health and healthcare in Uganda, I have never looked much into cancer prevalence or treatment. I assumed, at any rate, that treatment was prohibitively expensive for most people when available at all. But do we even have accurate figures on who has cancer and where? I went circles around the WHO Uganda site to find any figures. At best they have projections for 2005, based on 2002 burden of disease estimates. Not exactly what you might call up-to-date or very accurate.

I next went to Uganda’s most recent Demographic and Health Survey, from 2006. I was shocked to find that in searching “cancer”, there was a SINGLE result, out of 501 pages! It was a note on reproductive organ cancer made in reference to the Sexual and Reproductive Health Policy Guidelines that had been developed in 1994.

According to WHO’s stats, cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer in women, followed by breast cancer. In men, the most common is prostate cancer, followed by esophageal cancer. Lung cancer is surprisingly low on the list (9th for men, not even ranked for women), given the number of people I see smoking around Kampala (of course this is not indicative of the rest of the country, but still, Kampala-ites are more likely to be diagnosed anyway I would imagine).

Uganda does have a Cancer Institute, which is almost definitely underfunded, understaffed and ill-equipped, though I haven’t done much in-depth investigation of the place. While cancer may not yet be killing as many Ugandans as malaria or diarrheal disease (which primarily affects children), I have a strong suspicion that it is much more prevalent and pernicious than meets the eye. It may not be captivating, but it is killing. More on this to come…

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