In recent years, stakeholders in Tanzania have come up with various initiatives to raise awareness on cancer prevention and treatment. However, concerns have been raised about the sustainability of such campaigns. To know what it takes to run the campaigns, The Citizen's Reporter John Namkwahe interviewed the Managing Director of the Tanzanian Cancer Society (Tacaso), Mr Franklin Mtei.
For how long have you been running awareness campaigns against cancer, and, are your efforts paying off?
We have been doing it since August 2014. To a great extent, our efforts are paying off. At least now, almost every other person, especially the youth, know a thing or two about cancer, thanks to our campaigns on social media.
Do you think there is a need to step up the campaigns? If yes, why?
Most definitely! At least people in urban areas know a thing or two about this disease and a great emphasis has to be made to reach the majority who are in rural areas.
These people have limited access to popular media and they are the ones who, for centuries, believed cancer is incurable and that it's some kind of a curse. Their belief about cancer is awfully wrong.
We have great approaches at our disposal on how to reach them, building up from what we have been doing so far with an online audience. We only call upon donors to support our programs/projects.
About lifestyle and cancer. How should people live a life that keeps them away from cancer?
Simple! Eat and drink right, rest right, be active and work out right! Get regular checkups. They should learn the truth about cancer and its association with lifestyle. By doing this, they will know the risk factors and how to avoid them, as well as get to know what type of cancers are in their bloodline and whether they are inheritable or not.
What mainly causes people to die of cancer in Tanzania? What can be done to prevent this?
As it is worldwide known that there is no clear single cause of cancer rather than a number of risk factors, I can't really pin point one reason.
However, lifestyle as well as infectious diseases, poverty and lack of cancer education play a major role. Most people I have come across as well as in researches have had no right information about cancer.
As a result therefore, they went to traditional healers for the cure that did not materialise, not realising that the disease kept progressing.
About 80 per cent of cancer patients come at very advanced stages. The survival rate for this is very low.
Poverty is a culprit in this, in which not only do most poor are not educated, but also when they get diseases, they hardly go to hospital on time.
The food preferences of many Tanzanians are said to be among the risk factors for cancer. What feeding habits need to change?
People should stop buying processed and canned foods. Too much chemicals in these products could be harmful, they should stick to our natural foods. Fast foods are a disaster.
As an expert in radiotherapy, what are the commonest challenges--in terms of awareness, social and socio-economic life, that you have seen among cancer patients seeking care at your facility?
Most people are poor, and they had no prior knowledge of the disease. Some refuse radiotherapy treatment because they were told they would die of it. This is the greatest misconception about this cancer treatment modality.
So the only thing the family members remember is, after the irradiation [process by which a cancer patient is exposed to radiation as a treatment option], their relative passed on in a week, a month or several months later.
But in fact, we only do that as the last option available that would improve their quality of life for the little time they were left with to live. Cancer patients need psychosocial support.
If you give them an ear, you will be very sympathetic and wished you could do something to assure them. Almost everyone, regardless of the stage of their disease, think they are going to die.
How do you help them to deal with the challenges?
The government is doing very great at ensuring all cancer patients are treated without paying. I don't know of any other country that offers free cancer treatment to their citizens!
However, I saw a gap in other aspects of the fight against this disease along with complications resulting from it.
So, to compliment the efforts done by the government, I registered an NGO with a vision to create the world where every person in Tanzania will have access to the best possible cancer services.
We found out that a cancer information centre was missing. So we started gathering cancer information and posted them on our website www.saratani.info
About health-seeking behaviour. Quite often, we see more women seeking cancer care, compared to men. What do you think holds the men back?
This is somewhat hard to answer with certainty. But women, for their nature, aren't afraid to seek for medical advice unlike men who resort to such services after quite a long time of pondering.
Thousands of women have died of cervical and breast cancer in the country and worldwide. Campaigns to fight these diseases have been successful. Plus symptoms for most of their disease are obvious due to their physiology.
Most cancers associated with men come later in life, and the myth on how to test for prostate cancer makes it worse. But in recent times, we campaign to reduce these by demystifying the misconceptions.
But, there are more awareness campaigns targeting cancer in women than men. Do you think this has an impact on how men perceive cancer?
I don't know the main reason for this, but like I said above, signs and symptoms of cancers associated with women like cervical are obvious and worrisome, and well campaigned. So it's natural that they'd seek medical advice.
Men on the other hand, ignore some signs, as in prostate cancer. Most go to hospitals when the signs are severely advanced.
And the prostate cancer target those with 50 years old and more. A fraction of the male population. But generally, the campaigns we lead, target both genders and children.