By Sharon Atieno

Accounting for about three out of ten global cancer cases and nearly four in ten cancer-related deaths in 2018 alone, gastrointestinal (GI) (digestive tract) cancers continue to pose a huge health burden.

According to Dr. Violet Kayamba, gastroenterologist and internal medicine physician, low detection remains a significant challenge in these cancers which include oesophagus, stomach, colorectum, liver, and pancreas cancers.

She noted that being that the cancers are situated in areas of the body that cannot be seen, many of these cancers get diagnosed very late, and therefore are advanced by the time treatment is instituted.

Dr. Violet Kayamba Photo credits: The African Academy of Sciences

“In the early stages of the disease, these cancers do not produce any symptoms, therefore affected individuals usually do not know that they have the condition until it advances,” said Dr. Kayamba.

“At late stages, these affected patients would have weight loss, low blood levels, and might have swelling in the tummy. In addition, some patients might have persistent vomiting, and the vomitus could also contain blood. Treatment for these cancers is available, but it’s most effective in early and not late disease.”

According to her, the prevalence of these cancers in the African region is primarily unknown as the information on the occurrence of these cancers is very limited.

“There are very few countries in Africa that have population-based cancer registries, so in many cases numbers are just estimated.  My personal experience is that a lot of cases go undetected and therefore the problem is much bigger than it’s being reported,” she opined.

According to Dr. Kayamba, individuals with close relatives with GI cancers are at an increased risk of developing these diseases. Additionally, lifestyle factors such as consumption of processed meat, smoking, and excessive intake of alcohol also fuel these cancers.

Environmental factors including pollution can also increase the risk of GI cancers, she said, adding that biomass smoke produced by burning firewood or charcoal and industrial wastes that contain toxic chemicals such as benzene are risk factors.

Dr. Kayamba noted that some infections can also cause cancer. The most notable is a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) which affects the stomach and leads to gastric cancer, she said.

To prevent these cancers, Dr. Kayamba noted that awareness of the lifestyle factors that influence the development of these cancers is crucial. “Most importantly, people have to be aware of the danger signs: anaemia or low haemoglobin, excessive vomiting, persistent abdominal pain, unintentional weight loss, difficulties with swallowing, vomiting blood, passing black stools, and any swelling of the abdomen,” she said.

Dr. Violet Kayamba is a grantee of the African Research Initiative for Scientific Excellence (ARISE) programme. ARISE is implemented by the African Academy of Sciences with support from the European Commission and the African Union Commission.