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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.

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Julie Meeks - Reply

Dr Gittens is right on the mark with describing the effects of cancers, both on patients and their families.  It is heartbreaking that preventable cancers are not being prevented when it is easy to do so.  As a trained nutritionist, I am particularly alarmed at the misinformation about diet and foods whereby even people committed to eating healthily are misled and spend large sums on supplements, for example, with limited if any benefits.  I urge our community to focus on addressing the actions we know are beneficial: adequate exercise, eliminate smoking, careful but not fad diets, limiting alcohol, sufficient sleep, managing stress.  

Arlene McComie - Reply

Excellent article and I am sure timely for many.

I agree fully with the conclusions.  If only we can get younger persons acknowledge the perspective and accept responsibility for their health and well-being, that will be a great battle won.  I believe that there are many natural healing properties in plants 🌱 and the foods we have growing naturally in the Caribbean.  And they are readily available and “Plantable”.  

This is Message needs to be spread more widely, maybe with real life stories and strategies used by survivors.

Ryan Cumberbatch - Reply

I watched my mom battle breast cancer. She had a mastectomy to save her live. A few years later she had a hysterectomy as a preventative measure. Lifestyle is definitely a main contributing factor. My mom has since adapted a dietary lifestyle that includes frequent use of steamed vegetables and fruits and whole wheat products. For me the biggest toll was the emotional one. Support is absolutely required and a survival mindset was required by all involved not just those affected. My mother has been cancer free for about 12 years now. As a result of witnessing her situation, i have completely changed my lifestyle habits...especially when it comes to dietary choices.

Based on my research as a result of my experiences, I believe persons need to cut out processed foods and try to eat as naturally as is possible. Persons must arrive at a mindset where their food is consumed as medicine (even if there is an occasional indulgence). Most times what we put in is what we will get out.

Esther Inniss - Reply

Battling and surviving cancer is a REAL and continuing challenge ... but one that can be overcome. Never doubt the power of God's favour and His deep and abiding love.

His graciousness and faithfullness creates strength and provides courage through the journey and beyond, not just for the cancer patients, but for us, the supporting loved ones.  

I recently walked through this journey with my husband who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer (NET) last July. We caught it at Stage 4; the only hope we had was God. Mobilised prayer and much support was both needed and provided; he is cancer free (in remission) - 4 months now.

We thank God for his goodness and his mercy for there is no way that this happenned without Him.

But ... how do we manage our health BEFORE we reach to that stage? How do we manage our health AFTER that stage?

Remaining cancer free requires work and commitment and yes, sometimes policing. My husband calls me the food police☺. But I am ok with that ... if it means we get to spend many more years together. We must all take responsibility for our health and our lives. Let's pay attention, police ourselves AND our loved ones and make wise choices. Be blessed!

Owen - Reply

Let us fight breast cancer!!!