By Louvier Kindo Tombe in Yaounde
Pa Vunan had visited almost every tradi-practitionier and pastor in his native village of Bambili, Tubah Sub Division, Mezam Division of the North West region of Cameroon, in search of solution to a sore on his right chest to no avail.
“Some said my problem was mystical, others attributed it to spiritual challenges, yet no one could provide a solution”, Pa Vunan recounts.
The situation kept getting worse, and the idea of visiting a hospital was not near his mine. The day he was diagnosed with breast cancer, Pa Vunan went to the hospital but to consult for malaria.
“I could not believe the doctor’s report when he said I had cancer”, he said.
“All my life I had known that breast cancer was an infection for women”.
Just like Pa Vunan, many are those who still have the belief that breast cancer only affects but women. In Bambili like in other villages in Cameroon, it is well established that breast cancer only affects women whose families have a history of the disease.
Men are not usually in the picture. Breast cancer in men is usually detected as a hard lump underneath the nipple and areola. Men carry a higher mortality than women do, by 25%, primarily because awareness among men is less and they are less likely to assume that a lump could be breast cancer.
Each year, it is estimated that approximately 2,190 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 410 will die.
“I had accused my village people of being responsible for my condition”, Pa Vunan regretted after the hospital diagnosis.
After the discovery, the 49 years old father of two, immediately caused his wife to go for checkup.
“I felt i might have contaminated her too, but I was relieved when she tested negative”.
According to reports, breast Cancer is not a contagious disease that easily spreads from person to person.
However, The only situation in which cancer can spread from one person to another is in the case of organ or tissue transplantation.
“A person who receives an organ or tissue from a donor who had cancer in the past may be at increased risk of developing a transplant-related cancer in the future. However, that risk is extremely low. About two cases of cancer per 10,000 organ transplants”, an Oncologist, Dr. Atenguena, from ‘La Cathedral Medical Center’ in Cameroon explained.
The idea of rushing to the hospital for diagnosis as Pa Vunan encouraged the wife to do is strongly recommended by medics.
“When you start noticing changes or abnormalities on your breast, notify your doctor immediately”, Dr. Atenguena said.
The president of Cameroon’s National Committee for Cancer Prevention, Professor Paul Ndom, says “many people neglect going to the hospital for consultation because breast cancer is not painful at its early stages.”
Breast cancer is a disease which occurs when some breast cells begin to grow abnormally and divide more rapidly than healthy cells do, and continue to accumulate, forming a lump or mass.
Reports from Cameroon’s Ministry of Public Health indicate that in 2019, 3000 of the 5000 patients diagnosed with breast cancer died. In 2020, the number of breast cancer diagnosed rose to over 7.000 with close to 5.000 deaths.
Just like early diagnosis is key in breast cancer treatment, awareness is equally very important. The world is just from celebrating the annual breast cancer awareness month in October, known in Cameroon as ‘Pink October’.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October is a time to come together to raise awareness; promote education, screening, and early detection; raise money, honor the fallen, and support patients and survivors.
This year, the ‘Pink Month’ was celebrated on the theme “Together we Rise”, with focus on closing up the care gap.
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer, but not the only existing cancer. The next most common cancer infections are lung cancer and prostate cancer. Over 200 different types of cancers have been identified the world over, and the causes vary.
A number of forces are responsible, such as smoking, drinking, radiation, viruses, cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens), obesity, hormones, chronic inflammation and a lack of exercise.
Worth noting is the fact that cancer is not only a human infection. It affects animals as well, but has not been proven to be a zoonotic disease.
Dogs get cancer at roughly the same rate as humans. Approximately 1 in 4 dogs will, at some stage in their life, develop neoplasia (a cancer type). Though there is less information about the rate of cancer in cats, some cancers, such as lymphoma, are more common in cats than in dogs.
Fuel Your Body for the Fight
In the past, Wasp dung and Insect faeces featured heavily in ancient remedies for breast cancer. An Egyptian papyrus recommended a mixture of cow’s brain and wasp dung to be applied to breast tumours for four days.
Insect faeces were still considered one of the most advanced treatments for breast cancer up until the Middle Ages. Thankfully, treatments have advanced a great deal since then.
Breast cancer treatment depends on the state in which the cancer is. “Early detection of breast cancer is key in its treatment,” says Dr. Maimouna Mané, an Oncologist Radiotherapist in Senegal.
She was speaking during a webinar organized by International research-based pharmaceutical and biomedical company (Pfizer) as part of activities to mark the awareness month.
Pa Vunan was very instrumental during the 2022 breast cancer awareness month in Cameroon.
“Don’t be like me. The most important thing to do if you have breast cancer is to examine your breast at home, see your doctor and do your checkup. Living with breast cancer is not the end of life.”, he emphasised to participants in one of the breast cancer awareness events.
“At first just from my looks you will know I have a problem, but now am healthy, strong and looking good”, he added.
Education on breast cancer plays a big deal in the treatment process.
Juliette Awillo, a breast cancer survivor declared that breast cancer is like any other disease that can be treated if diagnosed in an early stage.
“Women diagnosed with breast cancer need to accept the disease, have a positive mindset and strictly follow up their treatment.” Juliette Awilo said as she shared her survival story at another event marking the awareness month in Cameroon.
Breast cancer is now treated in several ways. It depends on the kind of breast cancer and how far it has spread. People with breast cancer often get more than one kind of treatment.
It could be treated through chemotherapy using special medicines to shrink or kill the cancer cells, hormonal therapy by blocking cancer cells from getting the hormone they need to grow, biological therapy through working with your body’s immune system to help it fight cancer cells or to control side effects from other cancer treatments.
In extreme cases, radiation therapy. Using high-energy rays (similar to X-rays) is used to kill the cancer cells or doctors may carry out an operation to cut out cancer tissue.
“It is very difficult to carry out breast cancer treatment if the causes are not duly identified”, Dr. Sango Anne Juliette Flora, an Oncologist Radiotherapist, scribe of an oncology unit in Cameroon said.
She was one of the panelists at the webinar organized by Pfizer.
To Dr. Sango “if patients play a role in their treatment process, it will encourage them to take informed decisions for themselves.”
She revealed that breast cancer can best be treated with the patients involved, and through multifaceted efforts.
According to the Cameroon Ministry of Public Health, screening programmes with mammography can lead to early detection, and that coupled with effective treatment will lead to reduction in breast cancer mortality.
One of the major challenge to cancer treatment besides early detection is lack of finances.
“One session of chemotherapy costed far more than my monthly salary, and I needed to undergo about 2 per month”, Pa Vunan recounts.
The price for cancer (breast cancer) treatment is very costly in Cameroon like other countries. The government of Cameroon has tried to provide subvention for breast cancer treatment but yet, it is not helping out. Besides cost, public treatment centers are not enough to contain the patients in the country.
“There is need to introduce new strategies like empowering communities to embrace the fight against breast cancer and other types of cancer”, Serge Aime, a sociologist told News Upfront.
Research indicates that the National Cancer Control Program (NCCP) from 2004-2019 carried out activities to improve on the fight against breast cancer but failed to strengthen community actions and individual skills for cancer prevention and control. The NCCP has limited partnerships and does not provide or in-view financial subvention to other cancer organizations in Cameroon.
Cancer treatment is actually financially complex, and health experts advice on the use of alternative prevention measures.
Experts believe that the government should improve on its policy in developing a health promotion and prevention strategy, with an integrated and functional nationwide communication plan on the causes and avoidance of modifiable risks factors for cancer.
Research is vital in breast cancer treatment. Most governments and institutions now devote a lot to encourage research on breast cancer and cancer in general.
“We cannot over emphasize on the importance of clinical research in the treatment of breast cancer”, Dr. Maimouna Mané said during the Pfizer webinar adding that ” collaborations are essential as they permit actors to share ideas and discoveries which can help patients win the breast cancer battle.”
In 2020, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization indicated that 4170 new cancer cases were detected in Cameroon said 1817 in Senegal.
One of the world’s largest research-based pharmaceutical and biomedical company is Pfizer, dedicated to discovering, developing, manufacturing and marketing prescription medications for both humans and animals.
“We work to achieve medical breakthrough with the potential of changing the lives of patients significantly”, says Dr. Kodjo Soroh, medical director of Pfizer for East and West Africa.
Dr. Kodjo Soroh chaired the webinar organized by Pfizer in October and declared that oncology remains a key therapeutic domain for Pfizer.
Pfizer has been assisting in cancer treatment for over 20 years today. They focus on offering more treatment options and breakthroughs for all across the world.
In a release that sanctioned the October 28 webinar, Pfizer indicated that “cancer treatment is motivated by the hope to move-on thanks to all and sundry, beginning with the decision and actions of every one, friends, community, scientists and researchers who consecrate their efforts in developing new treatments.”
Prevention is the Best Medicine
Researchers are trying out several vaccine strategies. Some use so-called tumor antigens, molecular markers that are scarce on healthy cells but plentiful on cancer cells.
“We are continually researching new ways to fight these cancers. This includes developing treatments that target specific features of the cancerous cells”, Dr Kodjo Soroh of Pfizer said.
When a patient has a serious infection, they may be treated with antibiotic or antiviral drugs that aid their body in fighting the pathogen. While these medicines can be effective, fighting an infection once it’s advanced and the patient is hospitalized is not as easy as preventing it in the first place.
Pa Vunan is quick to tell whoever wants to hear that “if I had visited the hospital instead of tradi-practitioniers and pastors, my story would have been different.” This he said “I have come to learn that vaccines are very essential in cancer prevention.”
Vaccines work by preparing the body’s immune system with a defense against the pathogen. With vaccines, the virus or bacterium is recognized, neutralized, and destroyed, often before it can spread to other parts of the body.
In cancer treatment, the novel vaccine uses proteins unique to people’s tumors to train their immune systems to recognize cancer cells and then fight and hopefully kill the cells.
“Instead of using more traditional chemotherapy, we now try to get the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer,” said Dr. Scott Kopetz, a professor of gastrointestinal medical oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, who is leading the phase 2 clinical trial of the novel vaccine in the U.S.
There are two types of cancer vaccine. One targets the viruses that can cause cancer.
There aren’t any breast cancer vaccines available yet, but a few are in clinical trials. These are studies that test whether new treatments work and if they’re safe.
Current cancer-treating vaccines
BCG live vaccines which can treat early stage bladder cancer, Sipuleucel-T vaccine which can treat prostate cancer, Talimogene laherparepvec vaccine, which can treat melanoma, and many more can be listed as some vaccines available in the market.
According to a report published by the American Association for Cancer Research, significant strides in cancer treatments, diagnostic tools and prevention strategies continue to drive down cancer death rates.
Death rates from cancer have been falling over the past two decades, particularly sharply in recent years.
“This is a really exciting time in cancer management,” said Dr. Stephen Ansell, the senior deputy director for the Midwest at the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center in Rochester, Minnesota. “We see that the death rate from cancer keeps going down,” he added.