MUINDI: That loose tooth, chronic heartburn, abdominal pain could be a sign of cancer

By Muindi Muoki On Tue, 30 Jul, 2019 10:06 | 4 mins read
In the fight against cancer, we all have a role to play. PHOTO | FILE
In the fight against cancer, we all have a role to play. PHOTO | FILE
Editor's Review

    It's your responsibility to examine each and every visible part of your body and seek professional help if something abnormal is seen.

This is a Black July — black in the sense that three giants have gone down because of this common denominator: cancer.

Bob Collymore started, Ken Okoth followed. Then now, Joyce Laboso has followed suit.

The above victims are the who-is-who, so I’m imagining how many people have succumbed silently in the villages.

Cancer is nondiscriminatory when it comes to hitting hard, it has no respect for social status.

A poor person will die because the tumor has mauled him undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, diagnosed and untreated or mistreated.

A rich person will be killed by the tumor itself plus the toxic chemotherapy medications, desiccating radiotherapy or decapitating operation.

This destructive synergy between the tumor, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and maiming surgical interventions explains why the late stages of cancer have very poor prognosis, meaning that early detection and diagnosis, not forgetting prevention will go a long way in the fight against cancer.

Like the hummingbird that was determined to extinguish bush fire using a drop of water in her beak, each one has a role to play in this fight.

The public

It is everyone’s responsibility to conserve the environment, live healthy, avoid or break habits that have been shown to increase the risk of cancer such as cigarette smoking, alcoholism, betel nut chewing etc.

Basic science and biology teaches us the normal shape of the body parts as well as healthy feeling.

A lump, an ulcer or unexplained change in complexion anywhere in the body is not a normal anatomical feature.

It is one’s responsibility to examine each and every visible part of the body and seek professional help if something abnormal is seen.

Even if the dent may not be painful, it does not mean that it’s healthy.

The internal organs have a way of sending a signal that something is not right.

Progressive difficulty in swallowing, loose teeth, unexplained sudden weight loss, fatigue, painful joints and bones, recurrent heartburn, yellow eyes, abdominal pains and unusual frequency in urination are some of the ominous signals. 

It’s unfortunate that most times when these signals become apparent, the damage could be irreversible.

This underscores the need for a health-seeking behaviour like annual medical check-ups even in the absence of pain so that any health problem is nipped in the bud.

Healthcare workers

A report released by the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board in December 2017 blamed over reliance on technology as a leading cause of misdiagnosis.

It’s not uncommon to walk into a doctor’s consultation room with a headache then aspirin is prescribed in less than a minute plus a cocktail of investigations most of which hit off target.

You go again five days later with the same symptoms and a folder of negative results from previous lab or radiology requests and the same drug is prescribed again — of what value were these investigations?

When neurological problems set in a few months down the line, it is then discovered that whatever had been dismissed as a mere headache was a tiny brain tumour that was given time to grow and misbehave by daktari.

If only some more time was dedicated to patients for a proper history, examination and relevant investigations, we would not have lost some of our patients to cancer.

If your drug regimen is not making a significant impact in a patient’s complaints, it would be very wise to refer to a colleague for a second opinion.

The government 

It’s every governments responsibility to ensure that all citizens get quality healthcare.

At this rate of cancer mortality, the government should do mass public sensitisation about cancer, warning signs and the need for regular screening.

The government should ensure that all levels of hospitals are adequately staffed and equipped to ensure easy access to affordable and quality healthcare, especially at the grassroots where patients present first.

A clear referral policy should also be made to ensure that most ailments and conditions are diagnosed and managed at the grassroots, leaving the higher level hospitals for complicated cases.

This will cut on the waiting time before commencement of treatment.

Research into cancer patterns in the country should be adequately funded so that relevant professionals are trained and posted where they are needed the most.

Regulation of the medical profession to weed out quacks who delay the diagnosis of cancer is also paramount. 

The government should also up its game in public health inspectorate policy to ensure that whatever food citizens take is safe, the water does not contain toxic effluents from industries, residential houses are not put up near, for instance, cement factories which predisposes people to cancer — just to mention but a few.

Psychological management 

The role of psychological and clinical counsellors in this fight cannot be ignored.

Breaking the news to the patient and the relatives professionally helps to manage expectations and conditions people to accept the worst outcome.

It hurts less to start palliative care for patients with stage IV tumors instead of living in denial and false optimism of cure in hospitals, most times abroad leaving crippling financial bills and psychological torture.

Therefore, if the public adopted a health seeking behaviour, the healthcare workers became more keen in persistent symptoms, the government made quality healthcare affordable and accessible at the grassroots and professional counsellors created a softer landing in end stage tumors, this fight would be lighter.

Dr Muoki Muindi is a dental surgeon at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi.