In Summary
  • Death from cancer used to be attributed to witchcraft or unknown causes.
  • The American Cancer Society associates lead with kidney, brain and lung tumours.
  • Burning fuel inefficiently is dangerous.
  • Reports say exercise is related with lower risk for over 10 cancers.

Most Kenyans are directly or indirectly affected by cancer: If one is not sick, a relative, friend, colleague, neighbour or chama member is. At least 40,000 cases are reported in Kenya annually, up from 20,000 five years ago.

Globally, cancer is killing more people than HIV, malaria and tuberculosis (TB) combined. And it is the third-largest killer in Kenya after infectious and cardiovascular diseases.

Why is cancer fast turning into a plague, so much so that some would rather get HIV? Why the spike? Wild speculation is emerging — that, like HIV, it is a disease “sent to finish us”!

There are two schools of thought. One holds that cancer has always been with us; what changed is the diagnostic technology and population.

WITCHCRAFT

Death from cancer used to be attributed to witchcraft or unknown causes, while more people means high statistical probability and prevalence. Furthermore, people live longer today. The second, predominant one argues that cancer is a recently man-made disease.

Manchester University Egyptologists studied hundreds of mummies looking for cancer in ancient societies. Only one case was confirmed. The scientists then worked up through the centuries and found that cancer was almost unknown until the Industrial Revolution, 200 years ago — implying that it could be related to rapid economic development.

Prof Rosalie David, an Egyptologist involved in the study, says there is nothing in the natural environment to cause cancer, so, “it has to be a man-made disease…pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle”.

And the disease is not discriminating on age, gender, socioeconomic class or education level. It is no longer associated with elderly rich people. But studies show cancer affects mostly people under 75 — a generation born and raised at a time of accelerated use of possible cancer-promoting substances (carcinogens) and lifestyles.

MISUSE OF CHEMICALS

If economic activities or lifestyle are to blame, so what possibly happened, at least in Kenya?

First, to boost agricultural production, there was widespread misuse of chemical fertilisers and sprays in farms in the 1970s and ’80s, much so in central Kenya, possibly explaining the high rate of throat cancer in some counties.

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