Pinktober and breast cancer's hidden injustice

By The Editorial Board 04 October 2021, 12:23AM

Pinktober as the official month for holding initiatives raising awareness about breast cancer has become known, officially launched this weekend.

A ceremony was held at the ANZ Bank, at which Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa attended as the guest of honour.

Befitting an initiative in the name of raising awareness, the mood was a festive one, marked by ribbon cuttings, balloons, pink outfits and cake. 

We extend our congratulations and gratitude to ANZ and its regional head Bernie Poort, for an event that achieved exactly what it set out to do: raise the profile of the scourge of breast cancer; an essential component of lowering the disease’s mortality rate. 

The bank has long recognised that this is a task not solely for the Government to achieve but one that must be aided by the other significant institutions in our society, in the private sector and civil society. 

But behind this atmosphere and dedication to awareness raising there lies a more chilling and untold story about breast cancer in Samoa. Conquering it will require more than community campaigning.

Cancer, globally, is rising, for reasons which scientists do not fully comprehend.

And Samoa is bearing the brunt of this malicious trend. 

The statistics make for sobering reading. A recently released analysis found that in 2007 just over 28 people per 100,000 in Samoa had cancer. By 2016 this figure had reached 54 for every 100,000; an almost doubling of disease numbers within a decade. 

Not only was Samoa hit with a substantial increase in the number of people stricken by cancer, breast cancer itself is significantly higher here than the world average. 

According to World Health Organisation data released last year, nearly 33 per cent, or one-third, of new cancers diagnosed in women in Samoa were breast cancer. That compares to a global average of just under 25 per cent, or one-quarter.

But what is more worrying than the simple rising rates of cancer in Samoa, is the rate at which the disease is claiming women’s lives.

When detected early, breast cancer patients have a relatively good chance of surviving the disease, when compared with other kinds of cancer. (This is what makes community-based programmes such as ANZ’s so critical.)

But in Samoa the rate at which breast cancer claims women’s lives is horribly skewed against us. 

The same data shows that just over 13 per cent of women who contract breast cancer worldwide lose their lives to it.

In a terrible injustice that compares to more than 25 per cent of Samoan women; again a near doubling. 

These harrowing statistics put the importance of Pinktober in its proper context. 

But they also tell us that a community-driven campaign can only be expected to go so far when it comes to cutting down on the more than 200 Samoans we lose each year to cancer.

Analysis of the recently handed down national budget showed a marginal national increase in funding allocations to the Ministry of Health, which remained under 14 per cent, an amount similar to that recorded by the previous Government in its budget the year prior.

When expressed as a fraction of our economy’s total Gross Domestic Product about 5.5 per cent goes towards health funding.

Given the increasing rates of not only cancer but so many other chronic conditions ranging from obesity to kidney disease to diabetes we believe that there is a good case to be made for increasing this towards the average of more than 10 per cent allocated by wealthier nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Samoa currently has no public operational cancer units, medical oncologists, publicly available radiotherapy services, or radiation oncologists.

But the issue goes deeper than a lack of resources. 

There is also a high degree of inequality, not just in access to health resources but access to public campaigns such as Pinktober between people who reside close to Apia and those on the outer edges of Upolu and especially Savai’i.

Reaching these Samoans is crucial to increasing the rate at which Samoan women survive from cancer and doing so will require a new approach - and new funding - for public health outreach campaigns. 

Today’s edition reveals that Samoa has been in receipt of record-breaking amounts of grants from overseas donors. 

It has become typical for Governments to spend such grants on infrastructure; the hallmarks of economic development and progress. But we believe that the hidden injustice of our nation’s cancer epidemic should be given greater priority. 

By The Editorial Board 04 October 2021, 12:23AM

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