‘Begging for treatment’: Afghans struggle to cope with cancer

Health services in low- and middle-income countries are not equipped to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, WHO says.

A patient suffering from cancer ready to be re-admitted to...
The WHO has warned that cancer cases would rise by 81 percent in low- and middle-income countries by 2040 [File: Alberto Buzzola/Getty]

Mohammed Sohail was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia, a type of cancer that starts in blood-forming cells of the bone marrow, in 2010.

He recalls the doctor at a private clinic in Afghanistan‘s capital city Kabul telling him there was no treatment available for him in the country.

At 16, he said, he felt helpless but started looking for treatment options across the border, in Pakistan. After being treated in the Hayatabad Medical Complex in Peshawar, for six months, the results turned out to be unfavourable.

“I was told to go to India for the treatment of my type of cancer. It was a tough choice because at the time we had no money to fund the trip, so we had to sell our land,” Sohail told Al Jazeera.

Sohail’s father used to take him to India every six months for at least 10 years, pushing the family of seven further into poverty in the war-ravaged country.

“There are people suffering from cancer here, I could manage to go abroad for treatment, but there are many in this country who cannot travel, and they end up dying from the disease,” Sohail said.

Cancer patients, particularly in poor countries, struggle to have access to affordable and quality health facilities.

‘Cancer cases may rise by 81 percent’

In a report released on Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that cancer cases would rise by 81 percent in low- and middle-income countries by 2040 because of a lack of investment in prevention and care.

Marking the annual World Cancer Day, the Geneva-based organisation said these countries focus on their limited resources on combating infectious diseases and improving maternal and child health instead of fighting cancer.


“This is a wake-up call to all of us to tackle the unacceptable inequalities between cancer services in rich and poor countries,” Ren Minghui, a WHO assistant director general, said in the report.

“If people have access to primary care and referral systems then cancer can be detected early, treated effectively and cured. Cancer should not be a death sentence for anyone, anywhere,” he said.

More than 90 percent of high-income countries reported that treatment services for cancer were available in their public health system in 2019 compared with less than 15 percent of low-income countries, the report said.

“At least seven million lives could be saved over the next decade by identifying the most appropriate science for each country situation, by basing strong cancer responses on universal health coverage, and by mobilising different stakeholders to work together,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, was quoted as saying.

Figures released last year by the Ministry of Public Health shows that 20,000 people are suffering from cancer diseases every year in Afghanistan. Of those cases, 15,000 have lost their lives, with breast cancer being the most common type of cancer among Afghans.

Radiation therapy centres

“I had to get a bone marrow transplant done after I was diagnosed with aplastic anaemia [a condition that occurs when your body stops producing enough new blood cells] in 2001 in Pakistan, but it was very expensive and we had to take loans and sell our lands,” Tariq Mujaddidi, 38, a sales officer in Kabul, told Al Jazeera.

Mujaddidi recalls how at blood banks in Kabul people used to “cry and beg for blood transfusion”.

“It was terrible because it was like begging for treatment and most of the time there was no blood available for the transfusion,” he said.


“We need good doctors and highly skilled laboratory staff, high-end laboratories, cancer hospitals and awareness to find it out in early stages and can be cured.”

Zabiullah Stanikzai, head of the detection of cancerous diseases department, Jamhuriat Hospital and Kabul Medical University, echoed his concerns saying there are not enough radiation therapy centres in Afghanistan.

“Their situation is very bad. Most of them can’t afford the treatment and just stop because of their poor finances,” he said, adding that the most common types of cancer in the country is breast and cervical in women and stomach, throat, lungs and blood cancer overall.

“I think chemo should be free for people here. We have a lot of cases where the patient stops his/her treatment because they cannot afford it.”

The WHO report pointed out that one in five people worldwide would face a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime.

World Cancer Day is observed annually on February 4 to raise awareness of the disease and its prevention, detection and treatment.

“Awareness about the disease is what we need in our country first and then option for its treatment, we need better hospitals and highly-skilled doctors to help those who need treatment in this country,” Sohail said.

Source: Al Jazeera