Yes, Virginia, there IS cancer in Africa

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“It would have been better if you had HIV.”

I know what you’re thinking: “In what situation would this kind of statement be OK?” I heard it in Cameroon, when a patient there was recounting the story about when he first heard the words, “You have cancer.” What his doctor was trying to say in that case – although one might argue with its shock value – is that, while the country and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has made significant progress addressing the seemingly insurmountable problem of HIV/AIDS, they aren’t yet poised to do the same for cancer. In fact, cancer in sub-Saharan Africa today is much like HIV/AIDS was there, before local, regional, or global advocates and leaders called for change.

Right now, here’s what cancer looks like in Africa:

Cancer is a hidden problem, quietly gaining ground as a major killer.

Recent estimates predict that global cancer rates will increase 75% by the year 2030 compared to cases in 2008, and that the bulk of the burden will be borne by low- and middle-income countries which already account for 70% of the disease. Rates of smoking, a significant risk factor for cancer, are still on the rise in developing countries, as well.

Cancer is seen as a death sentence, an unfortunate circumstance with no recourse.

There is a dearth of diagnosis and treatment options for people living with cancer in sub-Saharan Africa. There is also prevailing stigma and discrimination stemming from people who receive late diagnoses, if at all, and radical treatment that renders them disfigured, incapacitated, or otherwise tainted in society’s eyes.

Cancer lacks attention and resources.

Most people make either or both of the following assumptions: That cancer is not an urgent problem outside of the western world and that, even if it is a pressing issue, nothing can be done to help those suffering. “It’s all about lifestyles,” is a common misconception, although many cancers in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries are related to infectious diseases such as Hepatitis B, HPV, and even HIV. “It’s too expensive,” is another refrain, probably all too familiar to the diehard HIV/AIDS advocates of years past.

The fight is bigger than one disease.

I think the statement from that Cameroonian doctor also points to what global cancer advocates can learn from HIV/AIDS, how far that movement has come, and (on the heels of yet another critical World AIDS Day) how we can all work together. Having lived and worked in West Africa, I’ve seen both sides: How HIV and other infectious diseases impact populations and also how cancer and other non-communicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes also rank among the top killers in the region to affect communities and ALL families, not just the wealthy ones. And the fact is there are important links between cancer and the likes of HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and maternal or child health such that we could coordinate our advocacy and on-the-ground efforts in a way that serves people as a whole and not the individual diseases for which they are at risk. We’ve seen this type of resource-leveraging in Rwanda, Uganda, and other countries across the continent, work the foundation has helped promote.

How to join the conversation:

This week, PRI’s The World is broadcasting a series of stories on the global cancer burden, highlighting the pioneering work of some of the foundation’s partners such as Partners in Health and Global Access to Pain Relief Initiative and outlining the road ahead in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. Listen in locally, join the conversation via social media @LIVESTRONG or @PRIGlobalHealth, and stay tuned here for daily blogs from the foundation on how our work and that of our partners relates to each of the stories told.

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