21 March 2017

Preventing cancer is a human rights issue

The South African Constitution gives protection to the rights involved in cancer prevention. On Human Rights Day we take a closer look.

When we think of human rights, food, water and housing are probably the first things that come to mind. But, did you know, our human rights should also include cancer prevention?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has three issues that are relevant when it comes to cancer prevention: health and wellbeing, food, and education. And these rights are also included in the South African Constitution. 

“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 wellbeing. Further, human dignity is protected as both a right and an underlying value of the Constitution.”

Dr Lizanne Langenhoven, an oncologist at the Panorama Oncology Centre in Cape Town, adds: “I 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.”

Human rights

The right of having access to sufficient food and clean water is the first step in showing how human rights play a role in preventing cancer. 

Many people in the lower income groups can’t afford to buy healthy foods. This often forces them to buy foods that have high sugar content or low nutritional value. A healthy diet and plenty of water go a long way towards preventing obesity, helping to reduce the risk of cancer.

“Our Constitution requires that government does 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, ensuring that healthy foods are affordable so everyone has access to nutritious meals.”

Education is key

Education plays a significant role in cancer prevention, from state programmes outwards. Our government has a responsibility to provide people with information about the risk of cancer. 

The more educated a person is, the more likely they are to eat the right foods, exercise, maintain a healthy weight and be aware  of the warning signs of cancer. 

“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.”

Limited resources

Unfortunately the government has limited resources, so while these human rights are protected in the Constitution, government isn’t obliged to provide 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.”

Read more:

3 lifestyle changes to help prevent breast cancer

Preventing cancer

10 ways to prevent cancer


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CANSA’s purpose is to lead the fight against cancer in South Africa. Its mission is to be the preferred non-profit organisation that enables research, educates the public and provides support to all people affected by cancer. Questions are answered by CANSA’s Head of Health Professor Michael Herbst. For more information, visit

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