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The Agony of Cancers

May 13 2019 - by Dr. Audrey Gittens, Lecturer in the Caribbean School of Nursing, University of Technology, Jamaica and an Alumna of CLP's Leadership Development Programme

When I made the decision to write about cancers, I decided that the content will be about breast cancer because of its prevalence, and then I felt that I should change this focus to uterine cancer. I had not settled with that thought before prostate cancer surfaced and my mind began to race like someone who suffers from a flight of ideas.  The reason for my conundrum is the equally devastating impact of cancers, regardless of its anatomical location.  This was further compounded by the fact that as a health care professional, I have witnessed firsthand the physiological and psychological impact of cancers, not only on the patient but on relatives and friends.


Key statistics released by the Pan American Health Organization (2014) informed that there were 2.8 million new cases and 1.3 million deaths from cancer in 2013.  This report is dated; however, the projection for 2020 is that the number of deaths due to cancers will increase from 1.3 million to 2.1 million in the Americas.  This projection is not comforting especially when the facts show that the rate for cervical cancer is three times higher in Latin America and the Caribbean than in North America.  A number of factors are responsible for this, particularly those relating to disparities in conditions relating to health and the socioeconomic status of the people of the region.

Risk Factors

Prevalence of


Tobacco smokers


Adolescent tobacco smokers


Fruit and vegetable intake


Alcohol consumption within the past 12 months


Low physical activity in adults

33. 9



HPV (Human Papillomavirus) prevalence


Source: PAHO, 2013


Based on the risk factors, the preventative measure which should be undertaken by each individual is clear.  A lifestyle change has proven to be the best preventative tool to protect and preserve life.  A significant reduction in alcohol consumption, diet and exercise, cessation of smoking and screening are the most effective strategies. Lifestyle change is easier said than done.  It requires total commitment to healthy living and a desire to live a long, healthy and productive life.  The HPV vaccine prevents against cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, penis and the throat and is offered at no or minimal costs in the Caribbean region to girls who have not been exposed to the virus. The least mentioned as a preventative measure is a sound mental state. Emotional stability aids in a person’s wellbeing.  It is, therefore, for people to minimize stress and seek help early when stress becomes overwhelming.  The mind is as powerful as any measures taken.

What I’ve witnessed

Powerful men and women who suffer from cancer are often reduced to the shell of their former self, not just in physical stature, but helpless and hopeless, drained emotionally and praying for the end of life.  The agony of their imminent destiny with death reaches the breaking point and their prayer is for the end.  Families spend their last finances and even borrow as a last resort, hoping for a cure or at least, remission. Health care practitioners demonstrate utmost professionalism as they keep a straight face and deliver care based on what we are taught; aid in peaceful death. If the truth is to be told, health care workers agonize over these patients.  Behind the scenes, some weep, feeling equally hopeless as the patients.  The expectation is that, while we empathize, there must be no display of sympathy; never shed a tear in the presence of the patient.  If only they know the pain that we too endure. It is doubly painful when the patient is someone we are familiar with; a coworker, a neighbor, a friend.  It is a perfect example of “the agony of defeat”.

In conclusion, when encouraged to take charge of their health, some persons remark “something has to kill us”, that is, until something is really killing them.  Illnesses generally reach home to our consciousness when we are affected, whether directly or indirectly. There are no guarantees that even if a healthy lifestyle is practiced, a person will not be affected. Prevention minimizes ones chances of developing cancers or any other illness.  Taking charge of one’s health, therefore, should not be optional.