As we observe World Cancer Day this year, we are reminded of the impacts of cancer on families throughout St Lucia. We fear cancer because more often than not, we associate cancer with prolonged suffering and death.
The World Health Organizations’ International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC); has indicated that in 2020, an estimated ten million deaths worldwide were attributed to cancer. Of these, 70% occurred in low-and-middle-income countries such as St. Lucia.
The 2020 data from the National Epidemiology Unit within the Ministry of Health, Wellness and Elderly Affairs indicates that cancers are the leading cause of death among women and men. In men, cancers of the prostate and in women cancers of the breast, cervix, endometrium and ovary were the leading causes. In addition, cancers of the colon, lung, and stomach continue to affect the Saint Lucian population. The data also shows that between 2018 to 2020, approximately 1500 females and 2170 males were diagnosed with various types of cancers in St. Lucia.
While it may not be possible to determine the cause of cancer for everyone who may develop it, centuries of research point to some common risk factors, some preventable and others not preventable. These preventable risk factors include habits such as not engaging in enough physical activity, tobacco use, intake of alcohol above recommended limits, unhealthy diets high in saturated fats, added sugars and processed meats, inadequate sleep, high levels of stress and unsafe sexual practices. Additionally, neglecting early detection through recommended cancer screening; and not taking recommended vaccines that prevent certain cancers can also increase cancer risk.
The 2020 Behavioural Risk factor survey results for a representative sample of St Lucians, aged 18-69 years, highlight the presence of these preventable risk factors within our population. The percentage of respondents who were current tobacco smokers was 8.5%, those who engaged in heavy drinking was 19.1%, current alcohol drinkers, 61.9%, consumption of less than 5 servings of fruits and/or vegetables a day, 83.2% and those overweight or obese, 65%. The percentage of women who had never had a breast exam was 19.3%.
St. Lucians, we must work together to improve our ability to fight cancer. Cancer is not a death sentence. Awareness and early detection can make a difference. The Ministry of Health, Wellness and Elderly Affairs has implemented various initiatives such as;
the St Lucia Moves Initiative and the Stanford Chronic Disease Self-Management programme in an effort to increase the awareness and adoption of healthier habits in the population on a national level.
Additionally, the Ministry continues to strengthen access to quality health care within the various wellness centres and health institutions on the island to ensure that all St Lucians, male and female, have access to early detection through appropriate screening. The Ministry continues to engage private entities, NGOs, and overseas hospitals as we work towards ensuring affordable, continued and consistent cancer diagnosis and treatment for St. Lucians.
In observance of World Cancer Day 2024, the Ministry adopts the national theme: “St. Lucia Moves to Conquer Cancer”. The focus under this theme is to encourage people to take actionable steps to reduce their risk for cancers, to access available cancer screening and treatment services and to provide assistance to cancer support agencies.
In an effort to aid in closing the care gap, throughout the month of February, the citizenry will be encouraged, via the #Plege5Challenge to adopt or improve 5 healthy habits; uplift 5 people; donate at least $5 to a local cancer support agency; walk for at least 5 kilometres anywhere on the island; then upload the walk to social media and tag 5 friends to do the challenge.
The Ministry of Health, Wellness and Elderly Affairs will heighten the social media campaigns, health education training, screenings and call to action initiatives on cancer as part of the observance. Links will continue to be strengthened with private organizations and NGOs to engender a culture of cancer advocacy and general health seeking behaviours among St. Lucians.
The Ministry of Health, Wellness and Elderly Affairs endorses the Cancer Society’s “Relay for Life” initiative which will be held on World Cancer Day Sunday 4th February, 2024 at the Vigie field and will be actively involved in this activity.
The Ministry intends to continue to bring greater visibility to the reality of living with cancer and encourage open dialogue between the public and health care providers. These interventions will contribute to a more supportive environment and promote better quality of life as persons are informed, educated and empowered to make decisions for early utilization of cancer screening, diagnostic and treatment services.