Changing the face of cancer in Africa

Cancer kills more people in low- and middle-income countries than HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria combined. Cancer has already surpassed infectious disease as the leading cause of death in many countries. In East Africa, cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for women, followed by breast cancer. Today, 70% of all cancer deaths occur in LMICs, yet 1/3 of these cancers are preventable and an additional third can be detected and treated.*

High mortality rates have been attributed to a lack of awareness regarding the benefits of early detection and early treatment, late stage diagnosis and limited access to care. Education and awareness-building are essential to reducing stigma, down staging disease and improving access to treatment and supportive care. Committed and informed survivor advocates are key to both changing societies’ perceptions and moving governments to provide accessible services. The impact of cancer survivors cannot be underestimated. The Women’s Empowerment Cancer Advocacy Network (WE CAN) believes in supporting and arming advocates with the knowledge and skills to change the face of cancer in their communities.

This April more than 80 cancer survivors, advocates, clinicians and policy makers from 10 African countries gathered in Nairobi, Kenya for the 3rd Annual East Africa WE CAN Breast and Cervical Cancer Education, Advocacy and Outreach Summit. They came together to highlight the importance of improving access to cancer care and share their efforts to educate, support and empower women in their communities. Their willingness to speak publicly and spread the message that cancer is survivable if detected early and treated effectively, is key to changing beliefs, combatting myths and reducing stigma.

This year’s meeting focused on metastatic and locally advanced disease as over 75% of breast cancer cases in the region are diagnosed at stages III and IV, and advocates indicated that they had limited understanding and knowledge of metastatic disease – or what defined metastatic cancer. After hearing from clinicians, policy makers and cancer survivors, the advocates had opportunities to network and discuss barriers to engaging in cancer advocacy. On the second day, they worked in groups to develop action plans for advancing their efforts and tackling the challenges they face. Over the coming year WE CAN will follow up with the participants and facilitate discussions on their actions plans.

The 2016 WE CAN Summit was hosted by local partners Reach for Recovery Kenya, Kenya Cancer Association (KENCASA), Kenya Network of Cancer Organisations (KENCO), Faraja Cancer Support and Women 4 Cancer based in Nairobi, Kenya. In addition to sharing experiences, participants heard from clinicians, advocates and policy makers from the Ministry of Health of Kenya, Aga Khan University Hospital, AIC Kijabe Hospital, US National Cancer Institute, University of Washington and others. The meeting aimed to improve knowledge of breast and cervical cancer prevention, detection and treatment; raise awareness about the importance of advocating for policies and services appropriate to the available resources; foster discussion on metastatic disease; link advocates with clinicians and policy makers; foster capacity building and development of coalitions and alliances; and promote sharing of “lessons learned” in cancer advocacy and survivor support.

Headquartered at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, WE CAN is an advocate organisation for women’s cancers connecting patients, advocates, medical professionals and policy makers to change the face of women’s cancers around world. Since 2003, 14 WE CAN summits have been held in 12 countries throughout Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Africa and Latin America.

More information is available at 



Ferlay J, Soerjomataram I, Ervik M, Dikshit R, Eser S, Mathers C, Rebelo M, Parkin DM, Forman D, Bray,

F. GLOBOCAN 2012 v1.0, Cancer Incidence and Mortality Worldwide: IARC CancerBase No. 11 [Internet].

Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2013.

Written by Allison Dvaladze.

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