It’s human nature to avoid uncomfortable subjects until we are personally affected. I would like to challenge you to put yourself in the shoes of the many thousands of South Africans for whom a cancer diagnosis has become a reality, and the millions of families, friends and colleagues whose lives have also been shaped by the silent threat of cancer.
Given the high and rising incidence of cancers – one in seven men and one in eight women – it is a painful yet almost inevitable reality that cancer will strike close to home for far too many of us at some point in our lives. Empower yourself with knowledge about cancer prevention and screening.
More people need to realise that cancer is not a death sentence and that there is more hope and less cause for fear than ever before. What we have most to fear, is the consequence of fear itself.
Some people with cancer have shared that one of the most difficult aspects of their cancer diagnosis was the change in how their circle looked at them and treated them. Let’s address this stigma by amplifying awareness that there is life after a cancer diagnosis and normalise routine screenings to ensure earlier detection.
There are so many different types of cancer, each with its own set of specialised treatment options depending on many factors. To compare different people’s experiences of cancer is not so much like comparing apples with oranges, as it is like trying to compare apples with the Nelson Mandela Bridge – it utterly defies comparison.
Our approach emphasises person-centred cancer care supported by multidisciplinary healthcare teams focussed on the needs of the individual, who remains the main decision maker in partnership with the doctors. No one walks alone on this journey.
At Netcare facilities, specialised multidisciplinary treatment units, along with a nationwide referral network, have been established to ensure the delivery of optimal and safe care for specific cancers. Equally important to the medical aspects of cancer care, the psycho-social implications of a cancer diagnosis are hugely significant, and many of the specialised units based at Netcare facilities include psychologists and social workers as part of the multidisciplinary team to help navigate treatment holistically.
A typical example within the Netcare context is the renowned Netcare Breast Care Centre of Excellence, which is under the leadership of Professor Carol-Ann Benn. The centre was recently reaccredited by the American College of Surgeons’ NAPBC which is one of only three facilities outside the USA to be recognised in this way, emphasising robust clinical oversight in steering evidence-based and data-driven approaches to cancer care.
Within the field of cardiovascular medicine, cardio-oncology is a rapidly establishing discipline that seeks to limit the potential for adverse effects of cancer therapies on the heart and vascular system.
Clinically, these challenges are best addressed by a multidisciplinary approach, in which cardiovascular specialists work closely with oncologists, before, during, and after cancer therapy. The first Cardio-Oncology Centre of Excellence in Africa, led by cardiologist and cardio-oncologist, Dr YT (Trishun) Singh at Netcare uMhlanga Hospital, is leading the way as the first and only International Cardio-Oncology Society (IC-OS) certified centre on the continent.
The most commonly diagnosed cancers in South African women are breast, cervical, colorectal and non-melanoma* skin cancers, while in men prostate, colorectal, lung and non-melanoma* skin cancers are the most prevalent. These are broadly categorised as solid tumour cancers, as distinct from haematological cancers which are cancers of the blood that require their own specialised treatments.
The specialised haematology units at Netcare uMhlanga, Netcare Kuils River, Netcare Garden City, Netcare Pretoria East and Netcare Olivedale hospitals – which together represent the highest concentration of such units in private healthcare in the country – are also aligned to the multidisciplinary team approach for the best possible outcomes for each patient.
As we know, early diagnosis and treatment often tend to support better outcomes. Many people are only diagnosed with cancer when they start to notice symptoms, or it is identified through investigating another health concern.
Be proactive about your health. Very often, people don’t suspect they could have cancer because they feel “generally healthy” – and therefore don’t feel the need to discuss cancer screenings regularly with a doctor. If this sounds familiar to you, it is time for a reality check.
The power is in your hands. It may be a minor inconvenience to go for a mammogram or prostate cancer screening in your busy week, but it puts your mind at rest and could save you considerable stress in years to come. It could even potentially save your life.
Discuss your individual risk with your healthcare practitioner and investigate your options for routine health checks, as many of the screenings are covered by medical aid or are available in the public sector.
The advances in cancer treatments are proceeding at an astonishing pace, with highly targeted radiation therapy and chemotherapy, as well as hormone therapies, cryoablation and even robotic-assisted surgery, becoming increasingly accessible and effective in treating cancer.
While most cancers cannot be prevented, there are some steps we can all take to help minimise our personal risk or assist in the road to recovery. Awareness of the factors that contribute to cancer, such as dietary choices, physical inactivity and exposure to carcinogens such as tobacco, can help us make more informed choices.
Talk to the people you love and value about cancer awareness and don’t neglect the health checks that could save your life. Cancer consciousness can help to improve support for people with cancer and promote earlier diagnosis for better outcomes. Together, we can work towards a future where cancer is no longer a leading cause of suffering and loss and where compassion is enhanced with greater understanding.
By Dr Cindy Aitton, head of Netcare’s Cancer Care Division