Early Monday, July 1, the Chairman of Safaricom PLC’s Board of Directors, Mr. Richard Ng’ang’a, informed the Kenyan nation of the passing of company CEO Robert William Collymore. The Chief Executive’s demise came following a two year protracted battle with a form of cancer known as Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
Bob as he was fondly known by many, will be remembered for his exemplary leadership contribution to the telecommunications industry and to financial technology through Safaricom’s MPESA platform that has empowered millions of individuals and thousands of businesses across the country.
But perhaps Bob’s most significant contribution to Kenyan society will be the awareness he raised on the conversation around cancer through his open and honest discourse about his own personal battle with the disease.
No doubt the lasting impact of his candid, tell-all interview with Citizen Television’s Jeff Koinange will be felt especially within the medical fraternity as a challenge to try harder and to do better.
What exactly is AML?
Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) starts in the bone marrow (the soft inner part of certain bones, where new blood cells are made), but most often it quickly moves into the blood, as well.
It can sometimes spread to other parts of the body including the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), and testicles. Patients with the disease present with symptoms resulting from bone marrow failure, symptoms resulting from organ infiltration or both.
These signs include but are not limited to weight loss, fatigue, fever, night sweats or loss of appetite.
Others include bone or joint pain, abdominal swelling and bleeding problems. Bob spoke openly about his own experience and how difficult it was to narrow down on what exactly was causing these symptoms for him because of how common they are for a variety of other illnesses.
What increases my risk of getting AML?
A risk factor is something that affects your chance of getting a disease, such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed.
Others, like a person’s age or family history, can’t be changed. But having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not always mean that a person will get the disease, and many people get cancer without having any known risk factors.
AML can occur at any age, but it becomes more common as people get older. It is also more common in males than in females. The reason for this is not clear. The only proven lifestyle-related risk factor for AML is smoking. The risk of AML may further be increased if you have been exposed to certain chemicals such as benzene for long periods of time.
Benzene is a solvent used in the rubber industry, oil refineries, chemical plants, shoe manufacturing, and petroleum-related industries, and is also found in cigarette smoke, motor vehicle exhaust, and some glues, cleaning products, detergents, art supplies, and paints.
Patients with cancer who are treated with certain chemotherapy (chemo) drugs are more likely to develop AML in the years following treatment.
Radiation treatment for cancer has also been linked to an increased risk of AML. The risk varies based on the amount of radiation given and what area is treated.
Finally, some syndromes that are caused by genetic mutations (abnormal changes) such as Downs’ Syndrome present at birth seem to raise the risk of AML.
From the outset, it is important to note that the five-year survival rate for AML is below ten per cent. Few AML patients live beyond three years in our African context due to a number of reasons. This offers a bleak prognosis even for those with access to premier health facilities.
The fact that Bob chose to return to work after his initial course of treatment and kept working until his last moments is a testament to his bravery and his courageous outlook on life. Those around him during his last months speak of a man at peace with his time on earth and positive to the very end.
How can we honour Bob’s memory?
There is an imperative and urgent need to declare cancer a national disaster by Parliament. Such action will provide the National and County Governments with the legislative basis to allow allocation of appropriate financial and human resources towards education, early detection and appropriate intervention.
These three pillars hold the key to unlocking a long term strategy that can turn the rising tide of the disease in our society. Population education will ensure individuals presenting with suggestive symptoms are able to seek medical advice in good time; early detection will allow for meaningful medical intervention within the window of effectiveness, and appropriate intervention means that there will be trained personnel in sufficient number and with the right resources to effective treatment with good outcomes.
At MedLux International, we are working day and night to lay the foundation to do our part, once we open doors in November, to provide cure and comfort to Kenyans in the fight against cancer.
“In memory of Robert William Collymore – may his story change the lives of others!”
Dr Noah Alaka -M.D Founder and Chief Executive Officer, MedLux International.