I helplessly watched as she moved and swayed uncontrollably on her hospital bed. The glow that had characterised her beautiful face had since vanished and she looked deathly pale.
Overcome by intense pain, she could not even open her eyes to see how troubled her beloved ones were because of her illness, let alone speak anything to them.
Her room was pregnant with grief, each one swimming in thoughts of what could have been.
Our hearts appeared to have been suddenly wrenched open and began dripping with blood.
I fought back tears after reality sank in. My sweet niece was never going to make it.
Hours after that hospital visit on my birthday, a late night phone call confirmed my worst fears.
She had lost the seemingly unending battle against leukaemia, a cancer which starts in the blood-forming tissue, usually the bone marrow and leads to the over-production of abnormal white blood cells, the part of the immune system which defends the body against infection.
Accompanying her to her final resting place in Goromonzi, a small town in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland east province, I realised the ruthlessness of cancer.
It is not a respecter of persons, affecting everyone– the young and old, the rich and poor, men, women and children representing a tremendous burden on patients, families and societies.
Responsible for 8.8 million deaths in 2015, cancer is the second leading cause of death globally with nearly 1 in 6 deaths being attributed to it.
Cancer is defined by the World Health Organisation as: “A generic term for a large group of diseases that can affect any part of the body whose defining feature is the rapid creation of abnormal cells that grow beyond their usual boundaries which can then invade adjoining parts of the body and spread to other organs, the latter process is referred to as metastasizing.”
Metastases are a major cause of death from cancer.
Considering that research by the Global Initiative for Cancer Registry Development, an International Agency for Research on cancer reported that only one in five low- and middle-income countries have the necessary data to drive cancer policy, it is mandatory that people do their best to avoid contracting the disease.
This is because many cancers can be prevented by avoiding exposure to common risk factors, such as tobacco smoke, alcohol use, unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity which are the major cancer risk factors worldwide and are also the four shared risk factors for other no communicable diseases.
A healthy lifestyle has also been lauded as a panacea to the prevention of cancer.
Research by WHO revealed that tobacco use is the most important risk factor for cancer and is responsible for approximately 22 percent of cancer deaths.
Chemicals in cigarette smoke enter our blood stream and can then affect the entire body. This is why smoking causes so many diseases, including at least 14 types of cancers including cancers of the mouth, pharynx (upper throat), nose and sinuses, larynx (voice box), oesophagus (gullet or food pipe), liver, pancreas, stomach, kidney, bowel, ovary, bladder, cervix, and some types of leukaemia, heart disease and various lung diseases.
Cigarette smoke mainly cause cancer by damaging our DNA, including key genes that protect us against cancer.
Countless chemicals like benzene, polonium-210, benzo (a) pyrene and nitrosamines found in cigarettes have been shown to cause significant DNA damage.
The situation is compounded by other chemicals in cigarettes like chromium which makes poisons like benzo (a) pyrene stick more strongly to DNA, increasing the chances of serious damage. And chemicals like arsenic and nickel interfere with pathways for repairing damaged DNA.
This makes it even more likely that damaged cells will eventually turn cancerous.
These chemicals also make it harder for smokers to neutralise or remove toxins, and can make their immune systems less effective too.
The UK cancer research website clearly points out that the less alcohol one takes, the lower the risk of contracting cancer.
It is not about the type of alcohol one takes it is the alcohol itself that leads to the damage, regardless of whether it is in wine, beer or spirits.
Adding smoking to alcohol uptake further puts one at more significant risk.
The conversion of alcohol (ethanol) in our bodies to a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde can cause cancer by damaging DNA and discontinuing cells from repairing this damage.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified acetaldehyde made as a result of drinking alcohol as being a source of cancer, together with alcohol itself.
Acetaldehyde is known to cause the rapid growth of liver cells which are more likely to pick up changes in their genes that could lead to cancer.
In addition, alcohol can increase the level of hormones such as oestrogen, thereby increasing breast cancer risk, and increase the risk of liver cancer by causing cirrhosis of the liver, increased oxidative stress, altered methylation and reduced levels of retinoic acid.
Estimates suggest that less than 30% of a person’s lifetime risk of getting cancer results from uncontrollable factors. The rest you have the power to change, including your diet.
One of the biggest risk factors for cancer is being overweight or obese. Eating food that is high in fat or sugar can make you gain weight, and there is strong evidence that being overweight or obese increases the risk of 11 cancers.
However, diets that are high in plant foods – such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, less red and processed meat and salt can help you stay healthy and may also protect you against certain cancers.
Physical inactivity, which has progressively increased over the past several decades, significantly increases the risk of numerous diseases/disorders, including several forms of cancer, diabetes, hypertension, coronary and cerebrovascular diseases.
Research by the US National Library of Medicine reported that participation in physical activity has emerged as a potent rehabilitative modality for cancer survivors in the past 20 years.
Physical activity has numerous documented health-benefits among cancer survivors, including improved disease-free survival, muscular strength, aerobic capacity, and quality of life.
It has been known to indirectly reduce the risk of reducing obesity related cancers because of its role in helping to maintain a healthy weight.
Exercise is believed to reduce cancer by improving energy metabolism and reducing circulating concentrations of estrogen, insulin and insulin like growth factors.
Experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise a week.