Silent Killer Cancer Still a Taboo in Liberia

Monrovia – Months before her death, Massa Morris, 41 began to experience breast pains.

Massa died at the St. Joseph Catholic Hospital, in January 2021, after being diagnosed with Cancer at the John F Kennedy Memorial Hospital in December 2020.

Her fiancé Mohammed Kanneh recalls that as far back as 2020, Massa would feel cold and feverish during evening hours. “I had no idea it was Cancer. She imagined it to have been some African Sickness (voodoo) that someone might have thrown on her because of the competitive Oil business she was involved with in the Duala Market,’ Mohammed lamented to a journalist recently. 

Mohammed says because of this, his wife chose to go out of town to seek herbal treatments. But as her condition worsened, it became clear that perhaps it was something more.

Massa returned to Monrovia and begun unspecified treatment at the same time taking herbs as remedies.

“She began losing weight and appetite, she could only drink, juices and soft foods. Her Stomach begun to swell, until we went to the John F. Kennedy Medical Center,” Mohammed recalls.

After the diagnosis at JFK, Massa was given some medication and the Doctor sent her Home. “They felt her condition was already worse. The Doctor at the Hospital advised that a Mastectomy surgery (removal of the breast) be performed on her,” says Mohammed.

But some family members reportedly rejected the idea.

Mohammed explained that when Massa returned from the hospital, she began taking treatment, but unfortunately, her condition got terrible until one night when she was rushed to the Catholic Hospital where she was pronounced dead a few days later.

In order to help create the necessary awareness to avoid reoccurrence of what happened to his late partner, Mohammed has dedicated his time to observe the Cancer awareness Month which is held October of each year.

Christine E. Brooks-Jarrett, Executive director of the Liberia Cancer Resource Initiative (LCRL) Inc. which focuses on Breast and Cervical Cancer awareness and some specific interventions, explains that the essence of the month is to help educate Liberians about the dangers of breast cancer.  “This awareness is important”.

This year, a Walk slated for October 30th will focus on calling attention to the incidents of breast cancers in Liberia and also to raise funds toward the implementation of the activities lined up for the annual breast cancer awareness, which include assisting with testing fees.

Madam Brooks-Jarrett says there are different types of Cancers that affect the human body, but she and her team are concerned on interventions in the areas of breast and Cervical Cancer in terms of diagnosis, the streaming and the ultrasound stages.

She believes that the earlier the diagnosis the better is for the patient.

According to her, most Women might not go to hospital for checkup due to the exorbitant fees of US$50 at some Health Facilities, and this is where her organization comes in to partly assist some Women in getting tested or screened. 

 “You can do the self-breast exams which is without cost, but if you choose to do the single mammogram, you have to pay US$50 dollars. “While some may be able to afford the U$50.00, to just go to the hospital and have their mammogram done, not many can afford,” she says.

Brooks-Jarrett identifies the Hope for Women Hospital as being helpful in help to deal with the disease. “They help do testing for minimum cost, even with all that, some might not still afford it. So, we make intervention where we can, and we’re hoping that very soon there will be other locations that might probably affect the cost. We may be able to do tests for $US10 or $15 dollars, but still, some may not also be able to afford it but that will be a significant drop when you compared to the $50.00 US”. She added

Cancer a taboo

From her own observation and community engagements, Brooks-Jarrett laments that’s Cancer is not something that is easily talked about in Liberia. Many people we interacted with, see the discussion of cancer as a taboo and never want to speak about it.

Brooks-Jarrett says many Liberians still consider it a taboo to discuss Cancer. “There are people who are even afraid to say cancer, oh the Big C. And sometimes when you even mention that somebody should do mammogram, breast test, they are like God forbid; I am not going to catch cancer.”

In a bid to beat the taboo, Brooks-Jarrett and her team want to be more robust in their approach to the awareness on Breast Cancer, rather than just in the month of October.

For the foreseeable future, they want to have this as a routine activity, such as collaboration and constant engagement with the communities. They also intend to decentralize to other counties, but the group is limited by the lack of funding which is a major concern. “We have had some amazing organizations and individuals who have supported us, and some have even reached out to be annual sponsors, but we want to be able to support different activities around persons living with cancer”.

Despite funding being one of the major challenges, she expressed gratitude to those who have made the work easier them, including some communities that have been receptive to the message. Even though, there are still challenges in accessing some of the communities, the team has realized the Leadership of those communities have not opened up to Cancer discussions.

To get funding, the team has to organized fund-raising activities including having a brunch where gifts are posted and a minimum of US$10 is expected for individuals who grace the occasion. The organization is also printing shirts and other accessories for a minimum charge, added to little contribution from philanthropists.

Dr. Benedict Kolee, a trained Pathologist, specialized with laboratory and medicine and assigned at the John F. Kennedy (JFK) Memorial Hospital, is one of the few Liberian Doctors who has had the opportunity to get an advance Cancer diagnosis and Research Training at the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, India for one Year.

Since his return in November 2020, he has been playing multiple roles at the JFK to fill in where needed.

Dr. Kolee laments that the workload is as tense as there are only two pathologists in the country responsible to do Cancer diagnosis, despite having a state-of-the-Art Laboratory.

Dr. Kolee stressed the need for more doctors especially Oncologists and Hematologists who specialize in cancer-related diagnoses and treatments.

Dr. Kolee says that cancer is not a new phenomenon, it’s just that there was inadequate awareness, as compared to present days.

He says that despite the awareness, more Doctors are needed. He warns that government needs to stop retiring doctors, and that other should be trained to provide expertise when needed.

According to Dr. Kolee, researchers are still finding out the main reasons for Cancer but some of the most common factors could be the Food human consumed. He also lamented that some People develop Cancer based on their high insulin hormone in the body. Cancer can also be genetically transferred through a family linage, especially Breast Cancer.

For Cervical Cancer, recent study has shown that this is caused by Human virus and transmitted through sex.

“There is no real cause of Cancer, as studies are still being conducted, but these are sometimes attributed to type of foods, the Hormone in the Women body, the estrogen and progesterone… For some women it can be generic factors which runs in the Family and there’s also a chance of other family members getting Cancer.

Treatment for Cancer

Dr. Kolee says the best treatment for breast Cancer is for women to regularly check their breast or ask their Partners to do it for them. “If any unusual occurrence in the breast, the patients is advised to seek early medical attention.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2020, there were 3,552 new cases recorded for both sexes in Liberia, but Female accounting for the highest number of 2,121. With 2,603 deaths for both sexes. The general breakdown, Cervix Cancer accounted for 18.5%, Breast cancer, 14.9%, liver Cancer,12.8%, Prostate Cancer,12.7%, non-Hodgkin lymphoma,3.9% and other Cancers accounted for 27.2%.

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