By Tessa Stewart, 5th year SSC and clinical student
Having not previously attended the biennial ‘cancer in Africa’ conference, I was intrigued to see how a conference would marry disciplines as diverse as cancer biology and psychological implications for sufferers, across all cancer types for the whole of Africa. It was a bold undertaking!
We were greeted to a hot and humid Kigali, the capital of a country that is affectionately known as ‘the land of a thousand hills and a thousand smiles’. Having grown up in South Africa, I clearly remember the 1994 Rwandan genocide with the murdering of over 1 million Tutsis in only 100 days. This was the same year as the official end of the South African Apartheid and the birth of our new Constitution, yet South Africa is still struggling with the scars of its past. I didn’t know what to expect in post-genocide Rwanda – how does a nation ever recover from such an atrocity? To my astonishment, the Rwandan people know how. Their impeccably clean, friendly country with virtually no crime, a strong sense of community (and the best coffee!) is testament to this, and made for the perfect backdrop for the AORTIC 2017 conference.
One of the many highlights included the keynote address by the incoming, and first female, AORTIC President Prof Cristina Stefan. She posed the question “Is cancer in Africa an African problem?” and suggested that managing the burden of cancer within Africa should be home-grown, in collaboration with international partners. She also spoke about the importance of advocacy and survivor groups in educating and providing support to local communities, with a focus on improved education at all levels being key to tackling cancer in Africa.
Education, or lack thereof, was raised on numerous occasions as being vital to addressing the current and future state of cancer in Africa. A lack of pathologists and the problems that ensue in diagnosing and staging cancers was a common sentiment among almost all delegates. This has far-reaching negative repercussions for patients, and hinders research and any progress due to a paucity of data. On many occasions I found myself feeling incredibly guilty for the plethora of resources at our disposal in the UK: human, infrastructure and consumable. How do you accurately diagnose patients and manage a cancer unit without a pathologist? How do you provide adequate end-of-life care to cancer patients if you are unable to obtain morphine? Or how do you treat site-specific cancers without a radiotherapy unit? These are the daily challenges faced by the majority of hospitals on the continent. The innovation and ingenuity that takes place in order to remedy or overcome this scarcity was quite inspirational. Some examples include ‘tele-mentoring’ and the creation of knowledge-sharing networks within and between countries.
I am very grateful to the Primary Care Unit, particularly Fiona Walter of the Cancer Group and General Practice Education Group, for fostering the research and enabling me to attend AORTIC 2017 to present my poster “Risk factors for late-stage presentation of cervical cancer in sub-Saharan Africa”. It was an enriching experience, and wonderful to meet new researchers from many backgrounds and disciplines, as well as reuniting with old colleagues from the University of Cape Town. AORTIC 2017 successfully provided a diverse mix of all things relating to cancer within Africa and I come away with much food for thought and some exciting new connections.