In Summary
  • It is unfortunate that it should take the deaths of eminent people to recognise cancer for the killer that it is.

  • For, inasmuch as the much-publicised recent deaths have left huge gaps in the dockets the deceased held, so does every single cancer death that deprives families of loved ones and breadwinners.

  • cancer is just one of the non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that are afflicting Kenyans, with cardiovascular (heart) diseases claiming even higher numbers than cancer.

  • Instructively, although the recent high-profile deaths seem to have thrown Kenyans, especially legislators, into panic mode, the sad reality is that some 90 Kenyans will today succumb to cancer, which claims at least three people every hour.

The past one month has seen deaths of high-profile individuals through cancer, starting with Bob Collymore, CEO of East Africa’s most profitable company, Safaricom. He was followed by charismatic Kibra MP Ken Okoth and, shortly thereafter, the governor of Bomet, Dr Joyce Laboso.

Predictably, the deaths have sent shockwaves across the land with renewed calls to the government to declare cancer a national disaster. Specifically, Laikipia Woman Representative Catherine Waruguru has asked President Kenyatta to declare cancer a national disaster; indeed, she has already presented a Bill to Parliament to that effect.

It is unfortunate that it should take the deaths of eminent people to recognise cancer for the killer that it is. For, inasmuch as the much-publicised recent deaths have left huge gaps in the dockets the deceased held, so does every single cancer death that deprives families of loved ones and breadwinners.

In matters cancer, several fundamental points need to be taken into account. First is that cancer is just one of the non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that are afflicting Kenyans, with cardiovascular (heart) diseases claiming even higher numbers than cancer. Instructively, although the recent high-profile deaths seem to have thrown Kenyans, especially legislators, into panic mode, the sad reality is that some 90 Kenyans will today succumb to cancer, which claims at least three people every hour.

What is needed is not a narrow focus on cancer but a holistic look at all the NCDs, which, although previously regarded as “lifestyle diseases” — or diseases of the rich — are sparing no one. Both rich and poor are victims of an increasingly impoverished dietary regime, thanks to the craze for junk food in an unregulated environment where anything goes. Our soils have been depleted of vital minerals, which are replaced with carcinogenic fertilisers to the exclusion of organic fertilisers.

Although some milestones have been achieved in the policy and regulatory arena — with the crafting of National Cancer Control Strategy (NCCS), national cancer screening guidelines, national cancer treatment protocols and the guidelines for establishment of cancer centres — none of these will bring about a reversal in the scourge without a holistic approach to tackling all the NCDs.

The lament about the government’s failure to set up six national cancer centres misses the point — that the centres are treatment-focused when what is really needed is preventive measures like a clampdown on known carcinogens by strictly regulating or even banning advertising of alcohol, tobacco products, and sugar-sweetened beverages and the like.