The number of cancer cases is expected to double in sub-Saharan Africa in the next fifteen years, as the population grows and people live longer. That was among the findings released at a meeting of African and European cancer experts in Cameroon this month. The continent has a higher than average fatality rate for many cancers as people often seek medical treatment late.
Joseph Baba applies freshly pulled bird feathers, along with various concoctions he prepares, to the chest of Helmine Agbor. She suffers from breast cancer.
Baba has been a popular traditional healer in the Manguier neighborhood of Yaounde for the past 22 years. He says he gets about 15 new cancer patients every month.
"It is God given. I treat cancer of the breast, even that of the uterus. I can cut it, then you press, you massage, you massage. I don't handle cases because I want to. I handle those that I am capable of. Those that I am specialized in. The payment is a foul and raffia [palm wine]," he said.
Agbor says she came to Baba because she could not raise the $12,000 to pay the surgeon.
"I found two lumps in my breasts. They should remove the two breasts. I prefer they remove the breast for me to live. I am a single parent, I can't wait for cancer. I don't know where I will take the money," said Agbor.
Cameroon Health Minister Andre Mama Fouda said only one in five Cameroonians visit hospitals when they have health problems.
He said 14,000 cases of cancer are officially registered each year but many more people suffer silently. And he says 70 percent of patients arrive in the hospitals when their cancers are already at advanced stages and that is why they die barely one year after they start treatment. He says people should go for regular medical checks.
Cancer survivor Rachel Chindo, 54, said early detection saved her life.
"I said God, just give me only five years. Let me bring these children up before going, but my nurse encouraged me and said no, you have 98 percent chances of living. The cancer is stage two, it has not yet spread to the other parts of the body. I gathered courage,” said Chindo.
She suffered from breast cancer. Her daughter in the U.S. sent her money to pay for her chemotherapy.
Cancer treatment is only offered in specialized hospitals in Cameroon’s two largest cities. It remains expensive, as much as $9000 per course of treatment. The three most common cancers they see are cervical cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer.
The government has made the HPV vaccine free for young girls. That shot can prevent cervical cancer.
But top killers like malaria and HIV remain the public health priorities.