Be that one! August 28 2019, 0 Comments

On a flight, in a Jumbo, you look around and notice the plane is full.  The first thoughts that cross your mind are about the sheer weight of 400 people.  Then suddenly you realise that cancer affects one in four South Africans and the plane could get a whole lot lighter if 100 people were missing.  25% is a high incidence for any medical condition and particularly worrying when it is cancer.

If the passengers were all men, prostate cancer would be the most prevalent; if they were women, then it would be cancer of the breast.  These are among the ten most common cancers found humans but that is not where it ends.   In excess of 200 types and sub-types of cancer have been described, making treatment choices complex.

So, where, then, does one start in treating this scourge?  It starts with you because early detection is the first step on the road to a good treatment result.  And a high awareness of the disease is essential for early diagnosis. 

Before we look inwards, let’s look backwards for a while - about 3600 years, Egypt.  Some of the earliest descriptions of bone cancer are to be found in early manuscripts and in the remains of mummies.  The world’s earliest recorded case of breast cancer was found in 1500 BC, also in Egypt.  Although there was some attempt at surgery it was clearly palliative and the patient would have most likely not survived.

Fast forward to the middle of the nineteenth century, the dawn of general anaesthesia and the beginning of the golden age of surgery.  For the first time in known history, operations could be performed on unconscious patients.   This was more than encouraging for patients who otherwise would not have presented themselves for radical treatment.  Nevertheless, the crude surgical methods often lead to serious complications and the life expectancy of a cancer sufferer was not improved with surgery alone.

In 1895, we hear, for the first time of those very powerful yet invisible beams, imaginatively labelled X-rays.  And barely a year later, the use of radiation therapy in cancer is being pioneered by a medical student on the basis that radiation kills cells.  Perhaps with surgery and radiation combined, we would see an improvement in the outcome, it was hoped?

Not so fast.  Radiation’s deathly rays killed both cancerous and normal tissue at the same time.  It had to be carefully administered to avoid excess harm.  It was discovered in some cases, when not properly controlled, it would cause tumours.  Tragically, this was further borne out by the death of the medical student, Emil Grubbe, as a result of multiple tumours.

During World War I, Nitrogen Mustard gas was used as a lethal weapon against the entrenched soldiers.  Those who survived needed regular blood transfusions to replace white blood cells, destroyed by the gas.  Paradoxically, this poisonous gas piqued the interest of medical researchers who surmised that any poison that could selectively destroy one type of cell could be useful in the treatment of cancer that targeted that cell.   In this case, the cancer was named Lymphoma.  The weapon, now renamed ‘Mustine’, became the first registered chemotherapeutic agent for cancer.   And with it, another major step forward as medical minds churned on the possibility of a viable, third treatment option for cancers.  Many other drugs appeared in rapid succession, some by design; other by serendipitous chance.

The goal of cancer treatment has changed over the years.  Initially, it was purely palliative, aimed at helping the patient get through the rest of their shortened life with minimal disfigurement or pain and hopefully with some dignity intact.  Subsequently, as treatment options increased, improving life expectancy became a reality.  Most exciting is the fact that some cancer sufferers survive over five years and more leading one to believe that we are seeing cures where before, cancer meant a hard fight for survival, frequently lost.  Surgery - much more refined than in the days when a barber took up the knife – radiation therapy and medicine have all helped to bring us to this point.

But there is another factor, neither so glamourous nor terribly heroic.  Like the X-ray, it is invisible but more powerful and completely harmless.  It is that word AWARENESS.

At the time when the word cancer caused a horrified hush at any dinner party, the very weapon that could rescue one in time was put aside.   The taboo that surrounded cancer was completely counter-productive in detecting cancer in time.  People were hesitant to say the word, rather referring euphemistically to the Big C.   Silence was killing people because silence meant low awareness and delays in detection and diagnosis.

Cancer as a dirty word had to be deleted from our culture and replaced with open conversations which could take place without shame or fear.

A new vocabulary was needed.  And what better than one without words at all.  Nothing culturally bound, risking further taboos; nothing complicated.   Something obvious but unobtrusive.  Simple but versatile.  Universal and accessible to all.  A symbol that begged a conversation!   Enter stage right, the humble ribbon.  Nothing offensive, nothing too brash about the ribbon.  But it is powerful and resilient and endures as long as you wear it.  It expands like spreading light, a beacon to all who do not know that cancer can be beaten.

Have you ever looked at someone and wondered if they could be the one in four and thought about what you could do?  Or have you been with someone who’s diagnosis was cancer and questioned, “What can I do to help?” and felt helpless?  Well, there is a huge amount you can do.  Let me explain.

You can wear a ribbon.  A coloured ribbon that speaks of your support and gets people wondering, talking and growing in awareness.  A sage once said that no raindrop believes it will be a flood.  At times, you might feel that the simple act of wearing a coloured ribbon is purely a raindrop in an ocean of need.  But one ribbon leads to two.  And two lead to four until there is a flood of ribbons urging people to open up the conversation to bring courage and hope. 

You may not be a surgeon, have discovered radiation or the magic bullet for cancer.  You will be one of the most important contributors to the lives of thousands because awareness means early detection, the single most important factor in the successful treatment of cancer to date.

Wear your ribbon with pride.  Keep the conversation alive.  Make a difference!

For a limited time, when you buy a cancer awareness ribbon from Prestige Awards, you’ll be contributing to CANSA and supporting the largest organization looking out for the one in four South Africans who will battle with this disease at some stage in their lives.

For every ribbon sold at R16.00 (inv VAT) Prestige will donate R2.00 to CANSA