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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Cancer = death sentence?

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With Aisha Jallow

In the old days, cancer was equal to a death sentence in my country. There were no known treatments, and no ways to find out and treat the tumour before it had grown and spread in the human body. Cancer doesn’t leave anyone out, it doesn’t matter whether you have wealth, how old or young you are or where you live. Anyone can be affected and that is the hard truth. The even harder truth is that in The Gambia, cancer is still a death sentence for most people. With most people, I mean poor people, and we all know that most people are poor in The Gambia. There are no cures, no clinics, no doctors, no nurses specialised in treating cancer.

Breast cancer is a common cancer for women, but did you know that men can get breast cancer too? Men also have breasts, not the same size and with the same functions as for women, but still. There are recommendations to examine one’s breasts regularly, and that can be easily done in the safety of one’s home, out of sight from everyone. It is important to be aware of even small changes in one’s body. Not all changes are bad, but still it is better to keep an eye on things that feel a bit strange. Examining breasts is a life saver, it has nothing to do with sexual pleasure if that is what someone is afraid of.

The easiest way is to lay down on your back, and examine one breast at a time. It should feel smooth and have no hard lumps. The lumps can be small, the size of a pea, or larger. Sometimes there can be one kind of soft lumps, but as long as they are not painful, you shouldn’t worry too much.

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The problem is when you have noticed a hard lump that is painful to touch. This is when the even larger problems start, because as a citizen of The Gambia you are not worthy of a proper cancer treatment.

Did I make you jump a little? Good, because that was my intention.

People working for the government can afford to go abroad for cancer treatments. They can send their family members abroad for cancer treatments, and they don’t have to sell all their belongings and their land to be able to afford that. It is you who are paying for the treatment of the high and mighty, but don’t expect a thank you or anything else back. Your only function is to be the deposit in their piggy bank, as long as you are useful somehow, you count as a good member of the society. As long as you pay your taxes and never ask for anything back, all is good.

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It is embarrassing sometimes to speak about physical symptoms that are bothering you. If you are taught to ignore these symptoms, it is even worse. Perhaps you would like to speak freely about them, but you don’t know how to start and with whom to speak. Prejudice and old tradition can also hold you back. You prefer to use some herbal concoction, combined with some hocus pocus, instead of asking a medical professional. It is expensive to seek healthcare in The Gambia, and you don’t even know if you will get adequate help.

If a doctor writes a prescription for some kind of medication, you can’t trust the medicine will help you. Many companies manufacturing medicines use African people as guinea pigs. Just remember all the Gambian children who died some years ago because they had cough syrups manufactured by an Indian company. These syrups turned out to be toxic, so the children died in agony, leaving their crying and helpless mothers in grief for the rest of their lives. The Gambian doctors are aware of the problems with imported medicines. There is not much they can do about them, and I pray to God that none of them is involved in the large corruption that occurs in this business.

I have read about South American doctors who are highly paid by medical companies to prescribe certain medicines for the poor patients. These patients don’t have the knowledge, and perhaps the courage, to question what kind of medication the doctor prescribes. Many times they are also convinced that they must take that certain brand of medication. The doctor tells them that this is a new and efficient medication, and that they will have it for a better price because it is so new. It is not easy for a poor person to turn that offer down, they are as desperate for the healing as for keeping the costs down. If it turns out that the medication comes with fatal consequences, the companies know that these poor people will never be able to afford a legal process.

We have so many of our leaders in The Gambia who studied abroad for several years. Didn’t they learn anything while they were in those foreign countries? I mean, you don’t have to go abroad to learn about corruption. The best teachers in that area are already in the country. You can go to any institution in the country and you will find them there. What I mean by asking if our leaders didn’t learn anything, is that they could have learned a lot of useful things that could benefit the whole of The Gambia. They could have learned that you can actually seek a doctor in a clinic you can afford, and trust that the medication he or she prescribes will help you, instead of kill you.

They could also have learned that there are countries where the people pay their taxes and they get a lot back for their money. The taxes pay for the educational system, healthcare, public libraries, cultural institutions, potable water and sewage systems and the maintenance of public roads. Of course there are people who try their best to avoid paying taxes, but in many countries there is a system that controls the incomes of every citizen with a salary. In my case, for example, I don’t have to bother about paying taxes, because the salary I get every month has already had the taxes cut from it. We pay around 30 % in taxes for every amount we earn, but this money is used in solidarity to take care of the society and the people.

It is sad, shameful and beyond comprehension that you have no one who cares about your well-being! It is like your life is worth nothing for those who could actually have influenced it in a way that will lift some of the burdens off your shoulders.

A person who has cancer is recommended to travel abroad for treatment. How many of you can afford to go to Senegal or Turkiye for a medical treatment? Senegal is the more affordable option, but as long as you can’t prove that you have money on the table, the doctors will not lift a finger for you. It must be very frustrating for Gambian doctors to know that the only thing they can do for you is to send you abroad. The oath every doctor has to follow is to save lives.

Not easy to follow in The Gambia where a human life is worth so little.

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