Smoking and drinking have both been associated with cancer. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH
As you make merry, think of the effects of what you eat
Christmas is here with us. Despite the economic hardships familiar to most families, it’s the one occasion when Kenyans go out of their way to splurge.
Revellers shut their eyes to the multiple demands on their pockets, come January.
Yet, pecuniary blues may be the least price of revelling. A recent interview with Kenya Network of Cancer Organisations (Kenco) chairperson David Makumi revealed that the overall effects of revelling far exceed the so-called ‘Njaanuari’ blues.
Kenco is the umbrella body of cancer civil society organisations and cancer patient groups with over 25 organisations working in different areas of cancer control in the country.
In the countdown to Kenco’s first-ever consultation with religious leaders, Mr Makumi faulted clerics for dwelling on the social aspects of alcohol instead of addressing its health hazards.
The former East Africa regional manager for cancer programmes of the Aga Khan Health Services, described alcohol as a group one carcinogen, which is capable of causing cancer in living tissues.
The religious leaders’ breakfast forum in Nairobi, was jointly hosted with the National Cancer Control Programme, and the Ministry of Health, led by Dr Mary Nyangasi, who drummed up support for cancer screening facilities, in a telephone interview.
The talks were informed by the fact that up to 40 per cent of cancers are preventable by basic lifestyle changes. What we eat or do not eat is something clerics can push from the pulpits, Mr Makumi said.
He accused industry of suppressing information on the carcinogenic effects of alcohol and tobacco, which peaks during holidays. He cited the World Health Organisation (WHO), whose studies have not found safe levels of alcohol.
Mr Makumi urged religious leaders to debunk the myth that a daily glass of wine is healthy.
A Nation search on the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, a WHO agency) website spotted a study indicating that, out of 13 listed cancers, six had a causal link to drinking alcohol.
(The list included cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, the larynx, the oesophagus, the colon and rectum, the liver, the hepatobiliary tract, and the female breast.
Mr Makumi described tobacco as the biggest known carcinogen, implicated in more than 16 cancers, besides its linkages to heart diseases like hypertension. Tobacco-related cancer is mostly found on the gums, the throat and lungs, he said.
About 40 per cent of cancers have known risk factors, Mr Makumi said, meaning, they can be cheaply controlled through prevention. He wants tobacco banned because in terms of treatment, its hazardous effects far outweigh the gains from taxing the industry.
Fruits and vegetables have a corrective effect on some cancers. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH
Mr Makumi also accused industry of promoting junk food. “Children are more familiar with food from multinationals than with mrenda (a slippery traditional leafy vegetable); they’re not familiar with managu (black nightshade).
“Religious leaders can help advance the cultural change towards traditional foods,” he said, including fruits and vegetables, which have been shown to have a corrective effect, especially on colorectal cancer.
Reducing sausage, ham, and bacon intake also lessens the risk of cancer since nitrite preservatives have been “proven beyond reasonable doubt [to have] a cause-effect relationship with colorectal cancer”, which is also common among nyama choma lovers.
Dr Andrew Odhiambo, a medical oncologist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s School of Medicine, wants cancer declared a national disaster. “Ninety patients die [from cancer] everyday. That is four Kenyans every hour,” he told the Nation via e-mail. “Let’s make headlines not only when celebrities and MPs get cancer and travel overseas for treatment. Let’s talk more about cancer.”
Talking reduces ignorance and stigma, increases knowledge and lessens fear, improving access to care and reducing deaths.
The don, who is also the secretary, Kenya Society of Haematology and Oncology, supports religious leaders’ involvement in cancer control and prevention, which requires coming together as one voice.
And, it is not enough to build cancer centres everywhere in the name of securing votes when there is nobody to run them, Dr Odhiambo said, with only 26 oncologists in Kenya, sentiments Mr Makumi shares.
“A multidisciplinary team is needed to prevent, screen, diagnose and treat cancer effectively.” He, too, wants a national cancer discourse tabled.