Cancer is increasingly recognized as a critical public health problem in Africa. While communicable diseases continue to burden African populations, it is becoming clear that non communicable diseases also require the attention of those whose goal it is to ensure the health of Africans. Increases in life expectancy, changes in diet and lifestyle, and lower burden of communicable diseases promise to increase the cancerburden in Africa over the coming years.
To address this growing cancer burden, the African Organization for Research and Training in Cancer (AORTIC) is committed to fostering research, education, and advocacy on a variety of levels to increase awareness of cancer in Africa. This awareness must be evidence based and built on data that accurately and completely capture the occurrence, causes, prevention, and reatment of cancer in all African populations. It is important that the collection and application of data represent all parts of Africa. These data are critical for researchers, clinicians, nongovernmental organizations, ministries of health, and other policy makers to prioritize efforts that address Africa’s cancer burden
Timothy R. Rebbeck, PhD. AORTIC Executive Council
Dr Niba Jude Ngwa is a Cameroonian born surgeon practicing in Padua, Italy. He recounts his first personal cancer encounter and how the disease is now part of his work.
Following the dead of my grandfather some 11 years ago from cancer, I finally had an opportunity last year (2012) as a resident surgeon to work in the mysterious world of approximately 70 different deadly species of cancer at the Melanoma and Sarcoma department of Padua university hospital in Italy.
I remember back in Cameroon, my grandfather was misdiagnosed and treated for elephantiasis though he had all the classic symptoms of skin cancer; including progressive local aggressiveness of a body lesion (continuous wound infection and local progression of the disease).
The traditional doctor or local “magician” who first saw my grandfather was convinced he must have stepped on an evil charm portion or “ill-luck” must have visited him. He was eventually taken to a hospital when a “too-late” diagnosis finally cleared the air when we learnt he never stepped on any evil charm but was suffering from a very silent killer; lymphangio sarcoma or cancer of the lymph vessels.
Cancer begins when normal cells change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancer).
Sarcomas are a non-frequent group of cancers with a bad prognosis. The word originated from the Greek word for “flesh” and has an incidence of 2-4 in every 100,000 people across Africa. About 60% of the disease is found on the limbs and if noticed early enough, can be treated to a degree.
Only about 60% of patients live for more than five years after diagnosis.
The real causes are unknown but there are risk factors which include exposure to certain pesticides, vinyl chloride, HIV, virus (Karposi Sarcoma), lymphangitis, and excessive exposure to ionizing radiation.
Treatment is exclusively surgical after diagnosis. Diagnostic imaging with RM and CT scans help indicate how far the disease has spread in the body.
The treatment of the disease has improved with each passing decade.
In the 70’s, patients had no other treatment option apart from amputation of the affected limbs. However,improvements in technology in the 80’s introduced radiotherapy after conservative surgery.
From the ’90s, hyperthermic limb perfusion HILP (using heat and cancer drugs) has been used in combination with surgery and radiotherapy to control the disease. Even with improved technology, some 10 percent of patients need amputation as the only treatment to stop the disease from spreading.
My advice as an oncological surgeon to all Africans is that anything bigger than a tennis ball on your body should never be ignored and you must visit a doctor as soon as possible for a diagnosis. Early intervention might save your life or save a limb that might end up being amputated.