I’ve recently been to pay my respects to my aunt and uncle as the niece they took under their care had just died of cancer in South Africa. She was just 21 years old, full of life according to her folks and a regular university student. I could see the sadness and incomprehension on the faces of her family members. Although I didn’t know her personally, I can’t help but look at her picture and feel a rush of sadness.
She had blood cancer, more commonly known as leukaemia. Now cancer is still very much a mystery. We don’t really know for sure why some types of cancer appear or why some have it while others do not. Breast cancer or leukaemia, for instance, are not necessarily types of cancer on which you can pinpoint a culprit. DNA has something to do with it, as it is believed that breast cancer can run in the family, especially on the mother’s side.
On the other hand, there are some types of cancer one can try to prevent or reduce the chances of getting them. Once again, like most chronic diseases, societal behaviours have a lot to do with it. The way we live, the habits we adopt and the environment we live in are all components of what may or may not reduce your chances of getting certain types of cancer.
For example, we know that smoking can in fact kill. Of course, you won’t die the following day of having smoked a cigarette, but you have to know that each pack of cigarettes, reduces 28 min off your life expectancy. More than that, smoking can be a major factor in causing cancer. It increases the risks of having lung cancer, throat cancer, and so on.
I have spent a lot of time in the West (i.e. England, Belgium, USA), so I have come across a lot of ads and campaigns talking about the dangers of cigarettes. On the other hand, in the 18 years I spent in D. R. Congo, growing up, I have scarcely-if never- seen those graphic ads that stay with you for a long time. I am now back in Congo and I’m shocked by the nonchalance towards cigarettes. People in Sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly dying of the types of cancer smoking enhances. But somehow, I still don’t see the urgency in campaigning and raising awareness of the dangers of that nicotine packed tube.
Waiting around for the death numbers to go up in order to react is not the solution. A friend of mine reminded me that chronic diseases are the slow moving train of Africa. I’d described that train as slow, but the bad habits fuelling that train are full on existent in everyday life in Africa.
It is saddening that promoting a healthy lifestyle is still not on the agenda. Every person can contribute in raising awareness. Whether it is to try and make your partner, child, sister, etc quit smoking or whether it is to go to your local health centre and try to get information, leaflet to distribute, everyone could raise awareness at different, but equally important, levels.
I, for one, am determined to keep spreading the word. Cigarettes are not cool, never have been, never will be. When you smoke, you’re not only putting yourself at risks, but the people around you as well. I’m tired of ignorance being a fatal cause, so it’s time to try and fight this dangerous and selfish habit.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Engage Africa Foundation's Staff.
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