IN the first week of the month, on 4th February, World Cancer Day was commemorated worldwide. The Guyana Cancer Foundation, which is the premier Non-governmental organisation (NGO) involved in cancer education and in helping cancer patients, was in the forefront of the commemoration activities.

In Guyana in past generations, little or nothing was heard of cancer and it was very rare to meet a cancer sufferer or patient. Today cancer is a well-known disease and both the medical profession and the public are concerned with it. Some may consider cancer to be a Western disease since its greatest incidence is in Western countries, with Australia leading.

Africa has the lowest incidence in the world. Some have therefore reasoned that the more Guyana has become Western in its diet and lifestyle, the greater has become the cancer risk. More likely, in the past, there was little knowledge about the disease among the public or even the medical profession and this created the illusion that cancer was a rarity.

Until recently, cancer was regarded as a dreaded disease which was inevitably terminal and that there were no adequate treatments for it. Today, these myths of hopelessness about the disease are fast disappearing. Most of the public are aware that cancer is a disease that can be successfully treated and two types of cancer, cervical and breast, have been successfully treated in Guyana. Successful campaigns have been carried out to diagnose these two types of cancers in their early stages when cures could be more quickly effectuated.

The basic cause of cancer is attributed to uncontrolled cell proliferation. Cells are the basic building blocks of the body and among their main use is to fight off attacks by various harmful bacteria and diseases. Cells produce new cells by splitting up in an orderly and controlled way, but sometimes the normal working of the cell goes wrong and produces an abnormal cell which keeps rapidly replicating itself and it is these abnormal cells which cause cancer. These cancer cells form a lump or tumour and these divide into further tumours. The spread of these tumours gradually destroys the body and its organs. Since detailed medical or scientific explanations of the cause of the disease are esoteric and can’t be readily understood by the public, we considered it more appropriate to use the simplistic explanation.

The symptoms of the disease are many, often reflecting the type of cancer with which the sufferer is infected. Among the symptoms are unusual swellings or lumps, weight loss, fatigue, urinary complications, loss of appetite, urinary complications and unusual breast change among others. The diagnosis of the disease is usually done by three procedures: biopsy — where a small sample of the cells of the body is removed and microscopically examined. Blood tests are another method. The third most common type of diagnosis is the use of scans and x-rays which are able to check the changes inside the body. Doctors then decide what type of cancer is affecting the patient and would then apply appropriate treatment.

The main treatments are: surgery, whereby the cancer is removed; radiotheraphy, where high-energy x-rays are used to destroy the cancer cells; chemotheraphy is one of most known treatments. By this treatment, a number of anti-cancer drugs are used to destroy the cancer cells; hormonol therapies, whereby there are changes in the hormones of the body which can slow or stop the cancer from growing; biological theraphies are the other treatment used which interferes with the way cancer cells grow.

The general causes of the disease fall into three areas: heredity, from which most scientists have moved away; toxicity, that is the amount of toxins one takes into one’s body such as tobacco smoking; and diet, the kinds of foods which should be consumed or not consumed. The supporters of the diet theory are generally agreed that a vegetable-oriented diet is preferable to one where meat predominates.

In the Caribbean, Guyana has the highest incidence of cancer-related deaths but the Ministry of Public Health is working very hard to change this. It offers free treatment and free vaccines and also engages in some educational work. The ministry’s activities are greatly assisted by the Guyana Cancer Foundation led by Ms Bibi Hassan. The foundation’s main goals are: “To provide help and inspire hope to those affected by cancer through early detection, education, awareness and free medical screening with a focus on the medically underserved, low-income and uninsured population and to make a difference in their lives. To reintegrate cancer survivors into society. And to widen the community’s support systems to make strides against cancer for fighters and survivors.” The Cancer Foundation has seriously been carrying out its objectives and is certainly a source of hope to cancer patients and their families.

As pointed out above, there are several types of cancer, each of which has its own symptoms and treatments. The most common and known cancers in Guyana are Breast; Cervix uteri ovary and corpus uteri: Prostate; Non-Hodgkin lymphoma; Lung; Stomach; Pancreas; and Liver. More than half of the total cancer cases consist of Breast, Cervix uteri and Prostate and the Ministry of Public Health and the Cancer Foundation have concentrated a good deal of their effort on them with good results. The Cancer Institute at the Georgetown Public Hospital has been very helpful in its efforts and plans are afoot to upgrade it. The fear of inevitable and untimely death from the disease has been fast receding.