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Human rights fight against cancer

Written By Nicholas Steer

The rights assigned to every person on the planet important in the battle against cancer

When thinking of human rights, it’s hard to connect them with cancer. How can the basic rights of every person on this planet impact on the fight against the spread of this disease? The answer lies in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in the South African Constitution.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights there are three issues which are of utmost relevance when it comes to the prevention of cancer: health and well-being, food, and education. These rights are included in the South African Constitution, one of the most progressive in the world.

“When considering cancer prevention, we can look at how the Constitution provides for the right of access to healthcare, sufficient food and water, and social security,” explains Cherese Thakur, an Associate at Cox Yeats Attorneys who has a special interest in Constitutional Law and Human Rights. “It also provides that everyone has a right to basic education and the right to an environment which is not harmful to health or well-being. Further, human dignity is protected as both a right and an underlying value of the Constitution.”

Dr Langenhoven, one of Cancercare’s oncologists at the Panorama Oncology Centre in Cape Town adds; “I do believe that the South African government is coming to the party, but I also believe there is a need to constantly raise awareness about the disparities and human rights issues that impact on cancer care and prevention in this country.”

A closer look at the right of access to sufficient food and water is the first step in showing how human rights play a role in preventing cancer. Many people in the lower income groups cannot afford to buy healthy foods, often forced to use their meagre funds to purchase items that have high sugar contents or low nutritional value. Unfortunately, a healthy diet and plenty of water go a long way towards preventing obesity and reducing the risk of cancer.

“Our Constitution requires that government do what it can to make it possible for people to access food and, where they cannot provide for themselves, put policies and programmes in place to provide for them,” says Thakur. “Foods that promote health and are non-carcinogenic shouldn’t just be available to the wealthy. The state has an obligation, as far as its means allow, to ensure that healthy foods are affordable so everyone has access to nutritious meals.”

Walking hand-in-hand with a healthy diet is a healthy lifestyle when it comes to keeping cancer at bay. The more educated a person is, the more likely they are to eat the right foods, engage in physical activity, avoid obesity and pay attention to any of the warning signs of cancer. Education plays a significant role in cancer prevention, from state programs outwards, and government has a responsibility to provide people with information about the risk of cancer. In providing basic education,lessons should be included about the signs and symptoms of cancer, along with insight into the diet and lifestyle changes people need to make to prevent it.

“Smoking, obesity, alcohol – these are three of the biggest modifiable factors when it comes to preventing cancer and disease,” says Dr Langenhoven. “Also, early detection and access to care – both of these are fundamental human rights and can save so many lives. In South Africa, accessing a doctor at a day care hospital can take weeks – patients can’t just turn up and say they feel a lump, they have to wait months. And time means life when it comes to cancer.”

However, it is worth noting that the government only has limited resources so while these human rights are enshrined in the Constitution, the government isn’t obliged to provide them outright, but rather to have policies in place that can progressively realise them. It is also a space into which private bodies and members of industry must step to fulfil the duties the Constitution places on them.

“Private bodies, corporations and members of industry are obliged by the Constitution to not conduct activities harmful to the public’s health, which includes a responsibility to not release potential carcinogens into the atmosphere,” concludes Thakur. “Finally, it is worth remembering that each right comes with a responsibility. Each person should engage with educational materials about cancer prevention and do what they can to commit to healthy behaviours that can help prevent cancer.”