Cancer of the oesophagus or food pipe is quite common in Rift Valley, a pathology lab in Nairobi has noted.
‘‘When we get samples for cancer testing from Tenwek Mission Hospital, a majority turn positive for oesophagus cancer,’’ said Dr Shaheen Sayed, a consultant pathologist at Aga Khan University Hospital, adding that the food pipe cancer could be linked to volcanic soils, tobacco chewing or smoking and diet especially intake of traditional fermented milk (mursik) which contains ash.
The Aga Khan pathology lab also records high numbers of patients from Nairobi and its environs with gastric (stomach), colon, breast and cervix cancers.
Of concern, Dr Sayed said, is the large tumours sent to laboratories in Kenya for cancer testing, meaning that most patients delay seeking treatment.
‘‘It’s really sad. We are getting huge tumours, about 10 to 12 centimetres in size while in the West patients see doctors after noticing lumps measuring one or two centimetres,’’ she said.
Late diagnosis of new cancers and failure to promptly spot recurrences in those surviving the disease contribute to premature deaths in Kenya. The Health ministry estimates that about 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the cancers are diagnosed in late stages when the disease has burrowed through major body organs, making it incurable.
Oesophagus cancer is common in Kenya and Dr Sayed confirms findings from a research done years ago at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret and Tenwek Hospital in Bomet, which showed that it is affected most patients coming from Keiyo, Uasin Gishu and Nandi.
Early signs include difficulty in swallowing, having a feeling that something is stuck in the throat and weight loss.
Dr Miriam Mutebi, a consultant breast surgical oncologist singles out cancer stigma as one of the barriers to early diagnosis.
‘‘Things never go haywire overnight, but even very educated people suffer from stigma and come in late when there are few treatment options or when cost of treatment is too high,’’ she said.
She added that, for instance, cervical cancer (a top killer of Kenyan women) develops about 10 to 15 years after infection of the sexually-transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV).
Early symptoms include vaginal and after-sex bleeding while women whose disease has advanced suffer from lower back pains with blood in the urine or stool.
To boost chances of survival, Dr Sayed said there are simple tests that can detect many cancers early and increase the odds of successful surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy in treating the disease.
Also, top laboratories have invested in sophisticated technologies and they do tests that were previously sent abroad.
For instance, to check breast cancer sub-types whether they have HER2 protein, oestrogen and progesterone receptors costs about Sh15,200 at Pathologists Lancet Kenya. These tests help the oncologist know if hormonal treatment will work in taming the breast cancer or not. To check for thyroid cancer recurrences by testing for a protein known as thyroglobulin, patients had to send blood samples abroad but the test is available locally at about Sh23,000.
Kenya lacks accurate data to map cancer by ethnic groups and Dr Sayed said pathology labs should document and report tests to help the Health ministry know the common cancers found in different regions instead of relying on estimates.