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Cancer of food pipe now Kenya’s top killer

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Oesophagus cancer is the top killer in Kenya, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) cancer research agency said on Wednesday.

In its Globocan report that analyses new cases and deaths among men and women, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said oesophagus cancer kills 4,354 Kenyans every year, overtaking cervix, breast, stomach and prostate cancers.

Dr Andrew Odhiambo, an oncologist at Kenyatta National Hospital and Nairobi Radiotherapy and Cancer Centre said the food pipe cancer could be linked to volcanic soils, alcohol and tobacco chewing or smoking.

“This is not a surprise. We are seeing more patients with oesophagus and stomach cancers than before and most come after many months or years of misdiagnosis, when the disease has advanced. Clinicians in rural hospitals miss it because it has similar symptoms with acid reflux, typhoid, amoeba or H.pylori,’’ he said.

Oesophagus and stomach cancers patients have trouble swallowing, experience upper stomach pain, heartburns, bloating and lose of weight fast.

“If a patient goes to hospital with these symptoms they are given antacids as the cancer continues to spread. A few years ago, most doctors used to see three to four oesophagus and stomach cancer cases a week, but now the number is more than double especially at Kenyatta National Hospital,’’ said Dr Odhiambo. The WHO findings are backed by previous studies from Tenwek Mission Hospital, which linked the disease to intake of traditional fermented milk (mursik).

The Tenwek survey painted a grim picture, indicating that new cases and deaths are rising, even among teenagers.

Dr Odhiambo said it was worrying that most Kenyans getting cancer are much younger than their counterparts in developed countries.

The Globocan 2018 findings show that 47,887 Kenyans get cancer every year as 32,987 die from the disease. The most common remains breast cancer with 5,985 women and men diagnosed every year compared to 2,864 prostate cases.

“These new figures highlight that much remains to be done to address the alarming rise in the cancer burden globally and that prevention has a key role to play,” said Dr Christopher Wild, IARC director.

Globally, most people die from lung cancer, which is linked to smoking, followed by colorectal, liver and breast types. However, low-income countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are bearing the biggest burden due to lack of awareness, misdiagnosis, late presentation to hospitals and high cost of treatment.

Professor Max Parkin, the coordinator of African Cancer Registry Network said, during a cancer meeting in Sweden in June, that low-income countries do not have to reinvent the wheel.

“Let’s ensure these countries get proper screening services, have access to vaccines such as HPV [human papilloma virus] and affordable cancer drugs,’’ he said.

He observed that the lack of mature cancer registries in Africa also makes it hard to know the exact figures, adding that Kenya statistics were mainly picked from Nairobi, Kijabe and Moi Teaching Referral Hospital registries.

“Africa needs accurate data for planning and prioritising resources,’’ he said.

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