For most of the year, the new Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has dominated global conversation when it comes to health care matters.
From its initial impact on the Wuhan Province in China in December 2019, to its eventual spread all over the world, infecting people of all ages and even some world leaders, this virus has now caused some 900 000 deaths, and efforts to combat it have changed all aspects of life as we knew it. Suddenly, we were faced with new concepts such as lockdown and social distancing and had to go about our daily routines wearing face masks, sanitising and washing our hands more than ever before, and subjecting ourselves to temperature checks every time we enter a building.
Today, scientists are busy working on vaccines and other measures to prevent its recurrence or further spread, while countries are reopening their borders for business but erring on the side of caution as they have been forced to face a new normal.
In the midst of all this, however, we cannot forget the presence of another disease that has been around for much longer and for which a cure has yet to be found. Yes, we are speaking of cancer, which in its various forms has long been one of the top three causes of death in Barbados.
Colorectal cancer has recently taken the spotlight internationally with the death of the African American actor, Chadwick Boseman, best known for his role in the 2018 epic movie Black Panther, who was diagnosed with stage three colorectal cancer in 2016, and underwent several surgeries and chemotherapy to treat his condition.
To underscore the seriousness of that cancer in Barbados, the American Institute for Cancer Research says that Barbados has the eighth highest rate of colorectal cancer per 100 000 globally, among both sexes, and the sixth highest rate among men.
Graham Bannister, a member of Cancer Support Services who successfully overcame colorectal cancer himself after being diagnosed with it at the age of 55, has advised Barbadians to pay closer attention to what they consume and other aspects of their lifestyles, and to get their colonoscopies done. He said while most people waited until 45 or 50 to have their first one, that age limit was no longer relevant and he also advised them that if they were putting it off because they considered it expensive, they should consider the costs of actually having to treat a disease like cancer.
Early detection has always been cited as a key step in the battle against cancer, in that when the condition is caught early it is easier to treat and can be eradicated completely. Otherwise, it can go into remission and lie dormant for a while, a process which sometimes lasts for years. Boseman’s case has also brought home the fact that cancer, even in the absence of hereditary influence, can no longer be seen as a disease that only affects people when they get past 45 or 50 years of age. Boseman would have been 39 when he was first diagnosed, and there are patients as young as 18 years old with breast cancer, just to cite two examples. Brain tumors are also becoming more common among younger people, and in some cases this has been attributed to the increased use of those miniature computers we cannot live without called smartphones.
Bannister said he wanted to start a colon cancer foundation, which would help educate Barbadians on the condition as well as provide them with financial and other support if they contract it. He also suggested the establishment of a task force to do research and build a database on the patients in Barbados. We already have such a register in place for Type 1 diabetics, and the George Alleyne Chronic Disease Research Centre has done a study on asthma. Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation also has cancer research as part of its mandate, so ideally it should not be too difficult to get such a venture going through these agencies and others dealing specifically with cancer.
Those who may have been diagnosed with this condition or any other life-threatening illness can also learn from Boseman’s example. That diagnosis would have come at a time when he was working on Black Panther, and that would have been an extremely intense project. So, from that we can learn not to give up in the face of adversity, to fight through whatever discomfort we may be experiencing, either as a result of the disease or the treatment process, and work towards overcoming it with all of our strength.