To mark World Cancer Day on 4 February, nutritionist and early childhood development specialist Shameera Somani highlights the efforts being made by the Aga Khan Health Board (AKHB) in India to educate the Jamat about cancer through its various awareness and screening programmes.

Cancer can affect any part of the body. In cancer, there is a rapid formation of abnormal cells that grow beyond their usual boundaries, which can then attack adjoining parts of the body and spread to other organs.

According to WHO, one in five men and one in six women worldwide develop cancer during their lifetime, and one in eight men and one in 11 women die from the disease. Cancer is the second most common cause of death in India, with cardiovascular disease being the first. Breast, cervical, oral cavity, lung, and colorectal are the five most frequent cancers in Indian men and women.

In a speech at the initiation ceremony of the Aga Khan University Hospital in Kampala, Uganda, in December 2015, Mawlana Hazar Imam remarked on the healthcare challenges of the future.

“We are more and more confronted in modern society by non-communicable disease and therefore in the decades ahead we will be concentrating through the Aga Khan Health Network and other medical institutions in dealing with non-communicable diseases. And I refer to diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, mental and neurological illness, cancer and others. These are the areas where we must concentrate properly, to serve future generations of society.”

In India, one-third of deaths from cancer are due to the five leading behavioural and dietary risks: tobacco use, alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity, low intake of fruits and vegetables, and high BMI (body mass index). Carcinogenic infections, exposure to harmful radiation, and air pollution are also linked to cancer. 

Dr Sulaiman Ladhani, chairman of the Aga Khan Health Board of India said, “With increasing life expectancy and availability of modern technology, the prevalence of cancer is on the rise. Breast cancer and oral cancer are being increasingly detected in our Jamat. Tobacco consumption is a big factor in causing oral cancer. AKHB organises various programmes for the Jamat, and especially for the children and youth to inculcate healthy habits.” 

Cancer also strains both the individual and the family not just physically and emotionally, but also financially.

“Cancer treatment is expensive. We therefore advocate getting adequate health insurance to prevent a financial crisis and at the same time seeking quality health care at the best institutes,” emphasised Dr Ladhani.

Speaking on the recently-organised session by leading oncologist Dr Sultan Pradhan at Dahisar Jamatkhana, which was attended by 1,200 Jamati members, Chairman Ladhani said, “Dr Pradhan’s session was well received by the Jamat. In layman’s terms, he explained the disease and answered their queries.” 

Sakina Nazar Momin from Dahisar said of the session “After attending Dr Sultan Pradhan’s cancer awareness session I underwent screening at a hospital... A lump was detected in my breast, post which I consulted Dr Pradhan who arranged a mastectomy. I am thankful to the Health Board for organising this session. Early detection saved my life and gave me the strength to fight the disease.” 

Recognising the warning signs of cancer early on is half the battle won. According to the Indian Cancer Society, there are seven warning signs of cancer:

  • Change in bowel or bladder habits
  • A sore that does not heal
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge
  • Thickening or lump in the breast or elsewhere
  • Indigestion or difficulty in swallowing
  • Obvious change in wart or mole
  • A persistent cough or hoarseness

“With newer advances in treatment, if detected early, cancer can be treatable. AKHB has strived to create awareness on various types of cancer and encouraged screening for early detection. We facilitate tie ups with the best hospitals, to encourage more and more Jamati members to get themselves screened,” continued Dr Ladhani.


Shameera Somani is an award-winning nutritionist, early childhood specialist, and content writer. A former director of Aga Khan Health Service, India; she currently serves the Aga Khan Health Board for India.