‘I had no idea what cancer was or what it meant to have it’
The first Sunday of June is National Cancer Survivors Day, commemorated in South Africa and other parts of the world. But much needs to be done here to increase awareness.
For Moloko Morema (26) from Ga-Mothiba, a rural village outside Polokwane in Limpopo, being diagnosed with osteosarcoma mandible cancer in 2011 meant that she had to rely on the internet to learn more because she didn’t know much about it.
Marred by untruths
Myths, stigma, and lack of cancer awareness often result in late diagnoses of various types of cancers in rural villages in Limpopo. While various parts of the world will be commemorating National Cancer Survivors day on Sunday, survivors from villages in Limpopo have called for increased cancer awareness aimed at educating people about the types of cancer and symptoms.
National Cancer Survivors Day is an annual celebration of life that is held in some parts of the world, a movement that originated in the USA, falling on the first Sunday of June.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for an estimated 9.6 million deaths in 2018, with the most common cancers being lung, breast, colorectal, prostate, skin, and stomach cancers.
Despite WHO recommendations that early detection of cancer increases the chances of successful treatment, for most who live in rural areas with limited access to health facilities and little knowledge about various types of cancers and symptoms, there is often in late diagnoses, which can be fatal.
“I was still young… when I was diagnosed with cancer and to be honest I had no idea what cancer was or what it meant to have it and I had to do a research on my own,” says Morema. “After gathering more information about cancer, I was devastated knowing what I was set to go through.”
Osteosarcoma mandible cancer is a primary malignant bone tumour, which typically affects the metaphyseal growth plates in the femur, tibia and humerus. Though marking eight-years being cancer free this year and having received treatment at the Provincial Hospital in Polokwane, Morema says people don’t have enough knowledge about cancer, which is still associated with witchcraft.
“There is still a lack of cancer awareness in rural areas. I believe that as survivors we can address this challenge by teaming up and organising awareness campaigns in villages where we can speak to people at their local clinics about cancer,” she says.
It was a rough journey
Having to jungle studies and going through chemotherapy was challenging for Morema. “The journey I had with cancer was rough one as I had to focus on my studies and chemotherapy at the same time. There was a time I wanted to give up as the side effects of chemotherapy got the better of me. I started losing my hair and I could spend days without eating as I had no appetite at all. I remember having to use 21 pills a day and I would spend more than an hour looking at them knowing very well that I might vomit them,” says Morema.
Earlier this year, Health-e News reported that Nkhanyeleni Vele (30) from Nzhelele village, outside Louis Trichardt died of cervical cancer, leaving her family believing that her death could have been prevented had she been diagnosed earlier.
Stage three osteosarcoma cancer survivor, Nomsa Tshingowe (29) of Mulima village outside Louis Trichardt, who is also the founder of Cancer 0 Thirty 5, a non-profit organisation (NPO), has attributed lack of knowledge as the driving force behind myths associated with cancer in rural areas.
“With stigma attached to people with cancer, many are still reluctant to attend awareness campaigns aimed at educating them about various types of cancers. People still associate cancer with witchcraft and some still believe that being diagnosed with cancer means it’s the end of one’s life which is wrong,” says Tshingowe.
Through her organisation, Tshingowe hosts annual cancer awareness campaigns aimed at educating villagers. “There is still a lack of knowledge about cancer amongst our people [so] Cancer 0 Thirty 5‘s main target is to conduct campaigns in rural areas. Though we might not be able to change everyone‘s attitude towards cancer at once, those who do attend our campaigns will help bridge the cancer knowledge gap amongst our rural brothers and sisters,” she says.
Having spent months without knowing what was wrong with her health, before she was finally diagnosed with cancer when she was 23-years-old, Tshingowe says that it opened her eyes. “It took me many months to finally know that I had cancer and by the time they made a diagnosis it was already at stage three. It was difficult fighting the signs and symptoms without knowing the root cause of the problem. The worst part was that I had no information about what was going on,” she recalls.
“All I knew was that once diagnosed with cancer, you‘re going to die but that did not stop me from fighting and doing research about the cancer I was diagnosed with, which I think contributed to my recovery, because it was easy for me to make the informed decision about the diagnosis,” adds Tshingowe.
The Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa) in Polokwane says there are a few factors that contribute to late diagnosis. “Cancer in rural areas is a huge challenge as lack of knowledge and understanding result in a late diagnosis which means less successful treatment. This is often hampered due to the language barriers and poor health outcomes which leads to progression of disease. There is a shortage of screening equipment or clinics which means less screening, access and that means late presentation of cancers that could have been treated successfully if caught earlier,” says Lucy Balona, Cansa head of marketing and communication. – Health-e News