World Cancer Day: Be the change you want to see
February 7, 2019 | 10:10 AM
by Gautam Viswanathan

Cancer is never a pleasant subject to talk about. That’s probably because of the untold, immense pain and suffering that it causes not just to those who suffer from cancer, but the families and friends who form part of their inner circle, the ones who know of the pain their best friends or loved ones suffered from at the very end, but could do little to ease their burden.

It’s difficult to talk about the awful journey that doctors, researchers and scientists throughout the world have tried to reverse since they first began to discover the suffering that cancer caused, and while there have been success stories, they, truth be told, are few and far between.

If global predictions are anything to go by, that number could only worsen in the future: more than 36 million people die from Non Communicable Diseases annually, say the World Health Organisation. That, to put it in some perspective, is more than 60 per cent of deaths that occur globally. This include the 14 million who die too young.

One of them who has survived cancer is Radiant Racheli. “World Cancer Day motivates me to ask what I can do to raise awareness and educate others about my experience,” she said.

And that’s what the day is all about. World Cancer Day is a chance for those who have dealt with cancer to be given a voice, and share their experiences with the world, so that we learn from the lessons they share with us.

We commemorated World Cancer Day on February 4, but the fight against cancer is waged in laboratories, hospitals, clinics and so many other places for the other 364 days of the year as well. But the start of the fight against cancer begins with us: ‘I am and I will’ is the motto of this year’s World Cancer Day, and it seems rather appropriate, that we should be at the centre of positive change.

The the best way to sum up the efforts of the men and women who are fighting to stop the deadly march of cancer, whether they are patients who have to deal with it every day, doctors who give it their all to keep the scourge at bay, researchers who try to fight the disease at molecular level, or scientists who are always looking for new ways to drive back cancer, it is the words of Yuthar Al Rawahi, the Founder and Life President of the Oman Cancer Association, that come to mind here. Given that the next World Cancer Congress is being held in Oman, it is particularly poignant, for “this is not a Congress, this is a movement.”

Al Rawahi is herself a four-time cancer survivor, and on the occasion of World Cancer Day, T Weekly was able to find out about her latest initiative – a house in Oman where terminally ill patients could receive care, and spend time with their families.

“The next thing we intend to do, and most likely it is going to be a big initiative, is the bridging of the gap between terminally ill cancer patients leaving the hospital and going home,” she said. “These patients will come and stay in the home that we are setting up. We will try and support the family to look after the patient, and will help send them home once they are rehabilitated.”

In the past, the Oman Cancer Association has received several awards for their efforts in the country, including the UN Public Service Award, but that is not what motives Al Rawahi to reach out to cancer patients. Like many of their other efforts, this too will be free of cost. Previous efforts from the OCA to increase cancer awareness include free mammography screenings for over 18,000 women, and the housing of more than 500 children at their centre.

“Once all this is done, we will follow up with them to see if they have any problems because it is not easy to look after a patient and it could affect the family as whole,” she added. “We feel that terminally sick patients should be with their families and not be put in a home; so this will be a transition between the hospital and home. At the same time, it will free the beds in hospitals for acute patients.”

T Weekly was also able to speak to cancer patients and their families in the Sultanate.

“I want to thank His Majesty the Sultan and ask Allah to keep him healthy, and those who welcomed us and took us to the hospital,” said the father of Ali Abdullah, a five-year-old boy diagnosed with lymphoma. “Also, I want to thank the Omani people, who are kind, and the whole crew who took care and gave us everything. We did not feel as if we were strangers.

Ali and his parents had been staying at the OCA for a year and a half, and the little one is undergoing treatment at Royal Oman Hospital (ROH). “The treatment has been successful and things are looking well now,” his father added.

It is community outreach programmes like these and the ability to join hands that will provide the momentum towards beating cancer, not just in Oman, but countries all around the world. It is this network of care, compassion and communication that will help people around the world share ideas and gain insights.

“Data suggests that the biggest increase in cancer cases will be seen in countries with the lowest income and least advanced health systems,” said Dr Freddie Bray, Head of Cancer Surveillance Section, International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). “But investing in cancer data is a win-win. By building capacities we can make better estimates to inform effective local action.”

What’s worse is that more than 90% of these premature deaths occur in low and middle-income countries, but the silver lining here is that going forward, these deaths can indeed be prevented, and it’s providing people a proper solution to problems they think are beyond us, that World Cancer Day is all about.

Yes, the scientists and doctors in their white lab coats and blue scrubs may be the ones poring over the mountains of research they find, but it is from us that they understand how they can stop cancer in its tracks, and there is so much we can do ourselves to protect against cancer, rather than wait for some miracle drug.

At the World Cancer Congress that was held last year, global cancer bodies decided to band together and create Treatment for All, a programme that enables cancer sufferers everywhere to gain affordable, sustainable, fair treatment. While this will of course take some time to achieve, the people who deal with the various steps involved in cancer treatment are uniting to address this problem at global level and it is indeed a step in the right direction.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we have to learn from each other,” exclaimed Dr Maira Caleffi, President of Femama, one of Brazil’s leading organisations towards coordinating the efforts of NGOs across the country. “Sharing best practices is the best way one gets inspired.”

“I would urge you all to join these calls and look at their broader potential to support the entire population. Every life matters,” said Dr Princess Nothemba Simelela, Assistant Director General for Family, Women, Children and Adolescents at the World Health Organisation.

Though between 30 and 50 per cent of all cancer cases are preventable, prevention offers the most cost-effective sustainable strategy towards cancer control, and policies to this effect need to be implemented to raise awareness, reduce exposure to cancer-causing agents, and ensure that people receive the right information and support towards healthier lifestyles.

“The advocacy is challenging us to do more and better, particularly to invest more in our community partners,” explained Eamonn Murphy, Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific. “They challenge us and create demand for essential services. The community is the critical success factor”.

An all-inclusive solution would indeed be the way to move forward. Cancer is unfortunately the second leading cause of death worldwide, and it is only together that we can change that. Plugging a couple holes with short-term fixes isn’t the problem either. What is required is a personal commitment from all of us to actively take positive action against cancer, but educating ourselves and learning about what we can do on an individual level to keep cancer at bay. After all, the whole is better than the sum of its parts.

It might seem a bit off-putting, maybe deflating, even, to talk about budgets when things that are far greater are at stake. But the reality is that in the modern world, few look at doing things, no matter how good they may be, without first asking that all-important question – how much is it going to cost me? While there is definitely a cost attached to cancer care, treatment and research, the truth is that not pursuing ways to cure cancer are far costlier.

Even if one were to detach the tragic human cost of this, which is unfortunately what some do when looking at healthcare, the reality is that over the next 15 years, the economic and human costs of Non Communicable Diseases are going to cost the world more than US$ 7 trillion in developing countries alone.

As part of the United Nations’ commitment to Sustainable Development Goals, which looks at providing equitable and sustainable methods for all to grow by 2030, plans have been rolled out to ensure that the next generation does not have to suffer from the same illnesses that we and those who came before us did.

Funding is indeed a concern for many nations, many of which have to juggle several economic and social responsibilities, and can be especially hard to come by at a time of such economic uncertainty. It is, however, something that the UN are aware of.

It was a sentiment that Professor Sanchia Aranda, the former President of the Union of International Cancer Control, agreed with, as she said, “We need to take urgent action on cancer through a combination of tools, training, education, and collaborations in order to improve the quality of care and life for patients. This will look different in each country and city, but improvements are possible everywhere.”

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Here’s how you can deal with the key issues around cancer

Awareness, understanding, myths and misinformation

Increased awareness and accurate information and knowledge can empower all of us to recognise early warning signs, make informed choices about our health and counter our own fears and misconceptions about cancer.

Prevention and risk reduction

At least one third of cancers are preventable giving us every reason to champion healthy choices and prevention strategies for all, so that we have the best chance to reduce or prevent our cancer risks. Learn about how your lifestyle and/or occupation could affect your health, and take steps to avoid them.

Equity in access to cancer services

Life-saving cancer diagnosis and treatment should be equal for all – no matter who you are, your level of education, level of income or where you live in the world. By closing the equity gap, we can save millions of lives. You can therefore donate to causes that raise funds for cancer. Your small sacrifice today means someone in need will benefit tomorrow.

Beyond physical: mental and emotional Impact

Quality cancer care includes dignity, respect, support and love and considers not just the physical impact of cancer but respects the emotional and social wellbeing of each individual and their carer.

Financial and economic impact

Financial investment can be cost-effective and can potentially save the global economy billions of dollars in cancer treatment costs and offer positive gains in increased survival, productivity and improved quality of life. If you have the means, please contribute towards cancer research and care. It could help an untold number of people in the future.

Reducing the skills gap

Skilled and knowledgeable healthcare workers are one of the most powerful ways we can deliver quality cancer care. Addressing the current skills gap and shortage of healthcare professionals is the clearest way to achieve progress in reducing the number of premature deaths from cancer.

Working together as one

Strategic collaborations that involve civil society, business, cities, research and academic institutions, and international organisations offer the strongest ways to help expand awareness and support, convert political will into action, and deliver comprehensive solutions.

With inputs from the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC)

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