KIGALI, Rwanda

Struggling to overcome the deadly cancer and related taboos, Rwanda joined the rest of the world on Feb. 4 in solidarity, raising awareness about cancers.

The World Cancer Day on Thursday offered an opportunity to honor and remember people and families affected by the disease.

While it is a seemingly an under-reported area of people’s health, cancer can be easily detected with the right technology.

“One should visit the nearest health facility for checkup any time one experiences any cancer-related symptoms,” Marc Hagenimana, the director of cancer disease unit at the Rwanda Biomedical Center, told Anadolu Agency.

Rwanda has set a target of reaching 70% cervical cancer screening, targeting 1.46 million women aged from 30-49 in the next five years, he said.

Medics recommend that all men over 40 years and women over 35 should consider seeking a checkup once a year for all non-communicable diseases, including cancer.

Cancer symptoms may include an inability to urinate and pain or blood during urination. Screening includes a clinical exam, a prostate-specific antigen blood test, and a sonogram.

Use of new technology

Until recently, Rwanda has been using the old technology for cervical cancer screening, which required a trained doctor or nurse to take samples to determine whether a woman had precancerous lesions, where some women were left out.

However, the country has adopted a new technology, enhancing accessibility to screening and diagnosis of the disease, according to Hagenimana

The Human Papillomavirus (HPV)/DNA test helps detect HPV virus that causes cancer, and it has been the most effective screening strategy, he said.

With the new technology, women perform a self-sample collection and provide those specimens to a nurse, who takes it to a lab technician for analysis.

“It has good acceptability; it is more sensitive and specific. It is advantageous because women with precancerous lesions are immediately treated at health centers,” said Hagenimana.

The technology is being used at different hospitals in three districts of the country with a goal of scaling it up countrywide. Overall, 20,168 women have so far been screened using the HPV/DNA test.

In 2019, 5,040 cancer cases were registered in Rwanda, a landlocked country in East Africa. The age group 50-69 is the most affected, while the proportion of cancers among people aged 15 to 29 is low compared to other age groups.

The most common cancers in the country include cervical cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer and gastric cancers among others.

Challenges

One of the challenges faced, according to Philippa Kigubu-Decuir, a breast cancer survivor, is that some people associate cancer disease with curse, which is not the case.

“This means patients typically seek a doctor at a very advanced stage of the disease,” Kigubu-Decuir, founder and chief executive of Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa (BCIEA), told Anadolu Agency.

She underlined that educating people about a disease they don’t understand is very difficult.

“Some people think it’s a taboo. You don’t talk about this disease, when you talk about it, you contract it. They think it is infectious. There is a lot of myth and stigma about it. Even women who have their breasts removed are abandoned by men,” she added.

“Love yourself, know yourself, get tested, get treatment, and get vaccinated. People need to learn this because it’s a lack of knowledge that people, particularly women, do not get the disease detected early,” she said.

While it is usually not easy to understand exactly why one person develops cancer and another doesn’t, research has shown that certain risk factors may increase a person’s chances of developing cancer.

Besides lifestyle-related factors such as smoking tobacco, excess drinking of alcohol and obesity, some people may be particularly at risk due to their family medical history.

Cancers are often associated with older age groups. However, children and young adults are also vulnerable to cancers especially in low and middle-income countries.

Medics advise the public to do physical exercises and take a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables to keep cancer at bay.

Solutions

Hagenimana cited insufficient funding to scale up screening services, limited diagnosis capacity at health centers and district hospitals, ignorance about cancer, and limited capacity to afford cancer treatment among the challenges humanity face.

He, however, said Rwanda’s Health Ministry, along with other partners, regularly organize campaigns to create awareness about the disease such as during the annual World Cancer Day and the Breast Cancer Awareness Month every October.

According to Dr. Rasha Kelej, the chief executive of Merck Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Merck KGaA Germany is helping to transform the cancer-care landscape in Rwanda and the rest of Africa through a strategy that focuses on providing training in oncology and other different specialties.

This would increase the limited number of trained oncologists in Africa, she said, adding scholarship of oncology builds capacity and improves patients’ access to quality and equitable cancer-care.

Merck Foundation, through its Merck Cancer Access Program, has to date trained more than 70 oncologists from 24 countries, including Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo and Kenya among others.

Cancer remains the second leading cause of death globally. The World Cancer Day this year marked under the theme “I Am and I Will” was designed to promote the enduring power of cooperation and collective action in fight against the disease.

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