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Cancer dubbed a world health pandemic - experts say we have a looming crisis on our hands

Breast and cervical cancer are the leading causes of death among women in Africa. Picture: Anna Tarazevich/Pexels

Breast and cervical cancer are the leading causes of death among women in Africa. Picture: Anna Tarazevich/Pexels

Published Feb 13, 2023


The World Health Organization has dubbed cancer a global health pandemic second only to Covid-19.

This is gravely alarming considering the magnitude of the cancer burden is attributable to potentially modifiable risk factors crucial for the development of effective prevention and mitigation strategies against cancer.

It’s understandable that many people associate the word “cancer” with fear and anxiety, and rightfully so; however, health-care professionals worldwide have been working tirelessly to substantially improve the quality of life and survival of cancer patients.

Cancer is the cause of 10% of deaths in South Africa.

In line with cancer awareness and mitigation strategies against cancers affecting women, IOL Lifestyle attended the media oncology roundtable, with discussions led by industry experts on cancer-related issues.

Breast and survival cancer are the leading causes of death amongst women in Africa. Breast cancer accounts for over 27% of all new cancer cases of women in sub-Saharan Africa.

In South Africa alone, female breast cancer accounted for over 14% of all new cancer cases recorded in 2022 and about 20% of those were triple-negative breast cancers. This indicates we have a looming crisis on our hands, said Zwelethu Bashman, managing director of health-care company MSD’s South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa division.

“In addressing the issues plaguing our communities like HIV and TB with new technologies as well as taking a more integrated approach in reaching patients throughout their health journey we are now applying these lessons to advance our commitment to address a new scourge of cancers that mostly affect women.”

In his opening remarks, Bashman said, “I say this because triple-negative breast cancer is a more aggressive form of breast cancer with an overall poor prognosis and strongly associated with recurrence of tissue lesions involving the liver, lungs, and adrenal glands.”

Since breast cancer affects 1 in 1 0000 women of all races and accounts for 1 in 12 cancer deaths, South Africans need to raise awareness of the disease.

The most common cancers among South African women are cervical, colorectal, uterine, skin, and lung cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Women need to be empowered with knowledge on lowering their risk of getting cancer and recognising the warning signs.

The MSD media roundtable focusing on cancer.

Cancer screening Early detection of breast cancer is essential for easier treatment, especially for those with a family history. Signs of breast cancer include swelling, swelling, skin irritation, pain, nipple pain, redness, scaliness, thickening, discharge, and a lump in the underarm area. Consult with a doctor if signs persist for two weeks or longer.

Regular screening for breast cancer creates the opportunity for an earlier diagnosis, which improves the response to treatment and reduces the need for a mastectomy. Women should perform a breast self-examination once a month two days after their period and should have a clinical breast examination as part of their annual health check-up. Cansa offers excellent guidance for performing breast self-examinations on its website.

Annual mammograms are recommended for women from the age of 40 to 55.

Immunotherapy is different from chemotherapy or radiation therapy in that it works with your immune cells to help fight cancer. Immunotherapy for the treatment of cancers of the skin, lung, head and neck, stomach cancer, cervical cancer, certain types of breast cancer, and other cancers are now available in South Africa.

What are the warning signs of cancer that shouldn’t be ignored?

Knowing what to look out for is crucial because the warning signs of cancer, especially gynaecological cancers, often resemble those of other illnesses. Your chances of discovering cancer early, when it is most treatable, can rise if you are aware of these symptoms.

Consult your doctor if you experience these symptoms:

• Abnormal vaginal bleeding

• Unexplained weight loss

• Vaginal discharge that is discoloured with blood

• Constant fatigue

• Loss of appetite or feeling full all of the time

• Persistent indigestion or nausea

• Changes in bathroom and bowel habits

• Changes in the breasts

• Pain in the pelvis or abdominal area.

How best to protect yourself from getting cancer?

As with many other diseases, poor lifestyle choices are associated with a higher risk of developing cancer. Exposure to environmental chemicals can also increase the risk of cancer, as can infection with certain viruses such as HIV and the human papilloma virus (HPV).

By avoiding these risk factors, 30-50% of cancers can be prevented.