Oncologist declares war against cancer

CANCER is one of the silent killer diseases claiming lives worldwide with 8,8 million people dying from the disease every year.

The number of cancer deaths is projected to increase to 13,2 million per year by 2030.

Zimbabwe is recording over 
7 000 new cancer cases and over 
2 000 deaths per year.
It is this disheartening scenario that has prompted oncologist Anna Mary Nyakabau to rise up to the challenge and play her part in the fight against the disease.

Cancer prevalence is very high in Zimbabwe with over 36 people in every 100 000 people succumbing to it.
This is in comparison to around six people in 100 000 people in developed nations.

It is for this reason that cancer has gained recognition as a major cause of morbidity and mortality in Zimbabwe.
Driven by her quest to help the sick and making a difference in society, the oncologist who is based at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals has established an organisation called Cancerserve Trust whose mandate is to alleviate the cancer burden on the affected patients and their families while seeking to motivate the healthcare workers by improving their working conditions.

Having been discouraged from taking up a teaching profession which was her childhood dream, the mother of three is somewhat still pursuing her passion, albeit through spreading information on cancer and enlightening others as she continues to train and mentor junior colleagues.

Nyakabau believes that specialising in radiotherapy and oncology, palliative care, public health and health education, has helped prepare her for the mammoth task ahead.

“Palliative care was to give optimum quality care to the majority of cancer patients who present with advanced stage disease, and upon realisation that with palliative care and treatment I was waiting for the disease to present rather than being proactive, I went to study public health.

“At first my public health colleagues did not see why a cancer specialist wanted to specialise in public health, but later in the training we bonded and I made sure that I ... introduced the cancer agenda to the future influential public health specialists,” Nyakabau recalled.

Now that she has founded the Cancerserve Trust to address cancer care gaps in Zimbabwe and beyond, Nyakabau believes that the impact of awareness is greater if it is linked to improved access to treatment.

The Trust, which is also a member of the prestigious International Union Against Cancer, is pinning its hopes on continued expansion and introduction of cancer projects that make a difference to the cancer cause.
“My priorities are implementation of high impact measures in the cancer care continuum. 

“Being a clinician I hope to implement cancer education programmes starting with health care workers particularly physicians and at the same time oncology curriculum review at the medical schools.

“It is the mandate of the Trust to ensure that healthcare workers are empowered by giving them the requisite resources to carry out their duties, and workers also need motivation by improving their working conditions and ensuring they get satisfactory salaries,” she said.
Nyakabau argues that when health workers are cancer-literate, they can raise cancer awareness.

The Trust therefore seeks to ensure that cancer patients receive an effective and efficient health care service in the country.
“The Trust endeavours to avail funding for payment of curative chemotherapy, resuscitating cancer accommodation facilities and sponsoring self-help projects for cancer survivors,” Nyakabau said.

“Cancerserve Trust is also lobbying for a cancer policy through the ministry of Health, and among other activities we aim at being involved in the implementation of cancer prevention, control strategy and also the review of cancer management guidelines.”
The passionate oncologist said efforts to raise cancer awareness in the country need to be done in a coordinated manner guided by a cancer Health literacy policy.

Nyakabau’s decision to fight cancer and improve cancer services was spurred by the fact that the country has only two public centres for cancer treatment. 
These entail Parirenyatwa and Mpilo hospitals, and a private centre in Harare which has six treatment machines.

“There are only two government cancer treatment facilities in Zimbabwe serving over 16 million people, and some patients travel hundreds of kilometres for treatment with nowhere to sleep,” she said.
“HIV prevention and control is a success story in Zimbabwe and the same can be done for cancer if people are committed to the cause.

“To date there are government supported programmes to aid cancer patients yet mortality rates are on the rise. The unfortunate part is that the majority of cancers present themselves at an advanced stage in a background of limited resources.”
Nyakabau added that for most people, a diagnosis with cancer is a death sentence due to the high costs of treatment and the stigma associated with the disease.

She revealed that one of her patients wished she had been diagnosed with HIV, because infected individuals can live with it if they have access to treatment.But with the support she got from people around her, Nyakabau said the patient managed to rise above the disease.

“We will continue lobbying government and partners for cancer policy change, as we also aim to collaborate with government and relevant partners to review policy documents,” Nyakabau said.

“There is need for coordinated, multi-sectoral, comprehensive cancer control programmes with support from all to fight the war on cancer.”