• In West Africa, six women out of eight with breast cancer will die in five years. In the West, those numbers are reversed
• New study in Ghana confirms that black women are more likely to suffer from a rare form of breast cancer called triple-negative, which attacks women younger, is more aggressive and is harder to treat.
In Ghana: Cancer Ward, two of Africa’s top journalists team up to investigate why breast cancer is killing so many women in sub-Saharan Africa, despite being treatable if detected early. The 24-minute documentary premiered last night on Al Jazeera English as part of the third season of the award-winning Africa Investigates.
“Africa is unprepared for cancer,” says Nigerian journalist Chika Oduah, the 2014 recipient of the Trust Women Journalist Award from the Thomson Reuters Foundation; a winner of the 2015 African Story Challenge; and a 2015 finalist for a Livingston Award. “Many African languages don’t even have a word for the disease. Of those who have breast cancer in West Africa, six women out of eight will die in five years. In the West, those numbers are reversed. Six women out of eight will live.”
Oduah and Anas Aremeyaw Anas, Ghana’s leading undercover journalist, travel to Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region. They discover that women there often seek the help of alternative healers such as priests, herbalists or spiritual healers first, which dangerously delays when they receive medical help.
For example, Oduah meets Naomi Nyarkoh, who sells her homemade herbal cures for cancer at $2 a time, and Anas’ team films Pastor OP, who claims to heal cancer with prayer and a mystery oil, for $50.
They also speak to Dr Beatrice Wiafe-Addai, a breast cancer specialist, who explains the cultural stigmas in the region. “We are in a society where breast cancer is surrounded by myths and misconceptions. People think when you remove her breast, she is not a complete woman.” She explains that many women with breast cancer are divorced or driven from their matrimonial homes, rather than supported at their time of need.
Anas and his team also go undercover at The Peace and Love Hospital, where they discover that patients are being over-medicated even before they’re diagnosed, and where they find a case where patient files were alarmingly mixed up.
As if this combination of late-stage presentation, social stigmas and poor medical care weren’t already a perfect storm, Oduah and Anas discover there may be even more devastating news for cancer sufferers in the region.
The doctors at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi are working with the University of Michigan in America on a new study. Its initial findings confirm that black women are more likely to suffer from a rare form of breast cancer called triple-negative, which attacks women younger, is more aggressive and is harder to treat. Oduah is also told that chemotherapy treatment has historically been developed and tested on white people, which may contribute to its disappointing results in West Africa.
Dr Baffour Awuah, medical director of Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, says, “It all started with the fact that in the United States, stage for stage, the black Americans are doing worse than the white… For now at least it’s become obvious that the biology of the tumours between blacks, black Americans and white Americans are not the same.”
While Awuah says this may contribute to why cancer is deadlier for women of African descent, he says the primary challenge remains late stage presentation.
“Unless patients can be convinced to go to the hospital earlier, then even the development of the best drugs in the world won’t help,” says Oduah.
Africa Investigates is a groundbreaking Al Jazeera series that gives some of Africa’s best journalists the opportunity to pursue high-level investigative targets across the continent – using their unique perspective and local knowledge to put corruption, exploitation and abuse under the spotlight. Previous documentaries in the series have won One World Media and Mohamed Amin Africa Media awards.