Last week I attended a funeral for a friend who recently passed away in Melbourne. He died of liver cancer. While driving to the cemetery, I started thinking why so many of the people I have known over the last 20 years in Australia from an African background, have died of cancer.
Three weeks ago, I attended another funeral of a very young girl from my local church who also succumbed to cancer . She was only 10 years old. A young angel who departed too soon.
As I kept cruising on the freeway, on the long way to the burial site, I started reminiscing of many of the funerals I have attended over the years in Melbourne. I thought of old friends who have departed and many other African acquaintances who passed away in the vast network of communities and church groups that I am connected to in Melbourne and other cities in Australia.
Regular visits to your local doctor could prolong your life
My reflection led me to the gruesome realisation that, with a very few exceptions, most of my African friends and acquaintances that I could think of and who died in this country, including people that I just heard of their passing from friends and family, almost all of those people were victims of some form of cancer. I did the math and concluded that at least 80% of the deaths I could recall, in my own experience, were caused by cancer.
This realisation should normally not be a surprise , given that cancer is the second cause of mortality in Australia, after heart diseases, and this seems to be the case in many other western countries. However, in the context of the African-Australian communities, there is a need to pause and think.
Many Africans have long held the belief that “cancer is a disease of white people and that Africans don’t die of it”. This includes to me too. I can recall that for many years in the past, somewhere at the back of my mind, I used to believe that cancer is for white people, not blacks. My thinking started to change with age and experience in the community and now I realise that it is just another myth.
The friend whose funeral I attended last week was also quite strong in his belief that he would recover from cancer. He was also very spiritual and refused chemotherapy, armed with his biblical conviction that God had the power to heal him if that was his will. Such attitudes are not uncommon in the broad African-Australian community, where personal, traditional and spiritual beliefs intermingle in people’s minds and affect how they deal with cancer and other diseases. For some, the story ends well with recovery, because positive attitudes can contribute to healing, but for many others the story ends tragically, because without early diagnosis and aggressive treatment, the chances of surviving cancer are very slim.
In the US black women die of cervical cancer at an alarming rate.
I also recall a conversation I held a while ago with the widow of an old friend who passed away in Melbourne about two years ago. The lady is an Anglo Australian and she was telling me that when her husband was initially diagnosed with cancer and admitted to St Vincent’s hospital in Melbourne, he could not believe that he had cancer. He was surprised and he even told the doctors that “Africans don’t have cancer and they don’t die of cancer”. After fighting the decease for a long time, he eventually succumbed.
Approximately three years ago I lost my elder brother who was living in the US. He died of pancreatic cancer. He too entertained the belief Africans don’t get cancer. “Unlike white people, Africans have quite a strong immune system, they grow up on organic food and they don’t die of cancer”, he said to me once. He had very little chance of survival in his situation, because at the time of the diagnosis he was already quite weak as he was dealing with other health issues, following an incident where he was shot at a local library in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
A quick search on google reveals that in Africa most people die of HIV/AIDs, respiratory infections, diarrhoea and malaria, according to World Health Organisation. Although Cancer diagnosis is on the rise in Africa, but it still ranks quite low on the list of the biggest killers in the continent. So, the question is, if cancer doesn’t kill many Africans in the mother continent, why is it killing most Africans in Australia?
I am not a health expert and I am not familiar with the facts, statistics, issues and complexities related to cancer mortality. My experience is also nothing more than anecdotal evidence and shouldn’t be generalised. But the question certainly needs to be asked. Perhaps the reason why cancer doesn’t appear to kill many Africans in the mother continent could be related to misdiagnosis or simply lack of diagnostic tools and resources in the health infrastructure, which is quite common in many parts of the continent.
Seek help when you need it
But, on the other hand, there may be many other reasons why Africans in Australia and perhaps in many other western countries tend to die of cancer in an increasingly alarming rate. Could the disease, in its various forms, be linked to the food, the life style, the weather? Or may be a combination of all the above? These are questions for competent scholars in this field who may need to look into it further and perhaps one day we will have sufficient scientific clarity. However, in the meantime, African-Australians need to examine themselves and be more health conscious, especially when getting older. Those who still think that Africans don’t get cancer or don’t die of cancer, may need to think again.
Cancer is killing African-Australians from all diverse backgrounds, men, women and children included. There is a need for more education in our communities to raise awareness of this situation and equip people to better take care of themselves and develop healthy habits that can potentially minimise the chances for them being diagnosed with and succumbing to cancer. We must watch the food we eat, do more physical exercise, increase our vitamin D intake, limit our exposure to harmful chemicals and take regular trips to the doctors to do check ups. Although many forms of cancer can be hereditary, leading a more health conscious lifestyle can go a long way towards improving and prolonging life in this beautiful and generous land of Australia.