After 5,000 miles on the road and a flat tire in Lexington, Kentucky; I was ready to put all that residency interview travel behind me and head to Kampala for a much deserved break. Not even the unexpected travel drama like changing from Newark to JFK within three hours of the departure time or an 18 hr layover in Dubai would dampen my spirits. I was going home to my family, friends, sunshine, laughter, love, a wedding, deep fried tilapia by the lake and all the jackfruit I could eat. I was going home for twelve days of sun and fun. Period. Or so I thought.
When we finally touched down in Kampala, I hurriedly left my expectations of order and pothole- free rides on the same belt that spat out my luggage. I was excited to make every day under the Kampala sun a great one. That plan was going really well until I went to visit with my old man. My mzee looked weak. When we hugged to greet, it was quickly apparent to me that he had overly downplayed his condition in all our conversations since I had last seen him. As I sat listening to him describe textbook symptoms of colon cancer, my heart sank with each word he said. I knew that at 71, he was 21 yrs late for his first colonoscopy.
Two days later, I took my mzee for his first colonoscopy. The camera used in colonoscopies is about the size of a thumb and it wouldn’t go past the tumor in my mzee’s colon. From the difficult conversation with the surgeon after my mzee woke up, we learnt that angry looking collection of rogue cells in my old man’s colon was now about the size of a tennis ball and it could have been steadily growing over the last ten years. See, this 71yr old man who taught me my multiplication tables had never been sick a day in his life. Like my old man, most people only go to their doctor when they are sick or if their self prescribed medication doesn’t improve their symptoms. Regular checkups and preventive medicine still aren’t a part of our culture(if I may extrapolate from Uganda to sub-Saharan Africa) and this is an expensive oversight.
In my many conversations with friends after I came back to NY, I learnt that preventive health screening and regular health checkups aren't on the radar of most of my fellow Africans in the diaspora either. This observation was made from a sample of my friends and acquaintances, most of whom are educated and have health insurance. Cost isn’t the issue here because preventive health screens are now free under the Affordable Care Act. It is about a lack of awareness. A regular health checkup is necessary because unlike cars, our “check engine” lights can be as subtle as headaches in people with undiagnosed high blood pressure, increased thirst, unexpected weight loss or weight gain, heat or cold intolerance or yellowing skin and eyes.
Take colorectal cancer for an example. This is the third most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) estimates that timely screening for colorectal cancer could save 18,800 lives per year. Unfortunately, the incidence and mortality of colon cancer shows a disproportionate burden in minority populations. If you have access to a primary care doctor, please schedule a regular visit. Your primary care doctor will advise you on what preventive health screening is applicable to you. If they don’t bring it up, be proactive and ask what preventive screening is applicable to you. According to the USPSTF, you should get a colonoscopy when you turn 50 and every 10 years after that until you are 75. If you have a family history of colon cancer, or another gastrointestinal disease, please see your doctor for a screening schedule that is adjusted for your risk.