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Cancer fear - Most J'cans are more concerned about cancer than HIV

Published:Friday | November 18, 2016 | 12:00 AMSherine Williams
Yulit Gordon, executive director of Jamaica Cancer Society.

Today, she talks freely about her battle with cancer. "When I realised I had breast cancer, I said, 'OK, Christine, what do you choose? Is it life or cancer?'" said Christine King.

"My choice was life, so whatever it took to get the cancer out of my body, I said I would do it. I would bury it and move on with my life. If I get sad, I'm going to get sicker - mentally, physically, and spiritually."

King is remarkably open about her fight against cancer. A new survey has revealed that it is the most feared type of sickness among Jamaicans.

A Gleaner-commissioned Bill Johnson survey conducted in September to gauge public perceptions on health-care issues revealed that Jamaicans are more than twice as likely to be fearful of cancer (47 per cent) than of HIV/AIDS (23 per cent), and the Zika virus, despite the latter's recently heightened profile in the media.

The survey showed that 52 per cent of women and 43 per cent of men say that cancer is the disease they are most worried about getting someday, with the fear peaking (59 per cent) among Jamaicans in the 35-44 age group. That concern slips to 50 per cent among those between 45 and 54 years old.

The angst is still very much apparent among younger people in the 18-24 age range (41 per cent), who would normally be considered at the peak of their fitness. For 48 per cent of those between 25 and 34, cancer is their biggest health fear.

Yet, based on national health data, Jamaicans are more likely to die from a number of other diseases. For instance, between 2011 and 2015, the latest period for which comparative data are available, fewer than 7,100 Jamaicans died from the cancers most frequently reported here. That was 1,953, or approximately 28 per cent fewer than those who died from cerebrovascular diseases such as strokes.

At the same time, diabetes caused 20 per cent more deaths (8,494), while heart conditions also claimed more lives, although at a lower (three per cent) rate.

Yulit Gordon, the executive director of the Jamaica Cancer Society (JCS), is hardly surprised by the fear of cancer. She said it is often shaped by people having witnessed a loved one suffer or die from some form of cancer. This situation sometimes triggers a negative cognitive association with the services offered by organisations such as the JCS. People shy away from them.




"The psychological barrier of fear is a real one," she said. "It has prevented many from accessing the available screening services and from participating in the many public education fora staged across the island."

There is another factor that Gordon said may drive this kind of behaviour: economics. "Many Jamaicans do not have health insurance to access cancer care, and this has added to the fear as many families have had their savings wiped out treating the disease," she explained.

The Bill Johnson survey, done with the support of the National Health Fund, found that the fear factor for cancer was lowest among older Jamaicans; at 27 per cent among those 65 and over; and 42 per cent for those between 55 and 64 - the age cohort to which Christine King belongs. This, in part, may explain why she is so open about her condition.

Then again, King, who was the managing editor of the Sunday Herald newspaper, was always an outgoing, vivacious person. Having lost close friends who were not very open about their cancer diagnoses, she was willing to disclose her own to close friends, and, now, to speak publicly about it.

King was her normal happy self when The Gleaner spoke with her recently. Cancer has been no match for her personality.

"I have had my breasts for 60-odd years," she said. "I have two wonderful daughters. I have four beautiful grandchildren. My breast has served its purpose. It doesn't define who I am."

Thankfully, King said that she discovered the tumour at stage one, which is why she has been able to avoid more aggressive treatment like chemotherapy. She is now on Arimidex, a hormone treatment.

Gordon explained that the disease is not a death sentence, especially if detected early.

"The leading cancers in Jamaica continue to be cancer of the prostate, breast, colon, and cervix," she said. "All these cancers can be prevented, but you have to avail yourself of the screening services."




- According to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN), there were 2,525 prostate cancer deaths over the period 2011-2015, making it the third leading cause of death from diseases among Jamaican males after cerebrovascular conditions and diabetes.

- Jamaicans were twice as likely to get prostate cancer than cancers related to the throat, from which there were more than 1,200 deaths over the same period.

- During the period 2011-2015, there were just over 1,300 deaths among women from breast cancer and fewer than 700 from cancer of the cervix, compared to more than 5,000 deaths from diabetes.