Of care, friendship, and hope for cancer patients

This one is not a member of our support groups?

AT a recent workshop on cancer, medical scientists assured the participants that cancer is curable if it is detected at its early stage. The trouble is that some cancers are discovered when they are at an advanced stage.

There are success stories as well as sad ones. The important thing is that the sooner more cases are brought to the attention of the medical and health authorities, the better it is to find effective ways and means to combat the disease.

While the scientists in their labs and the doctors in their operating theatres are working hard on the most effective methods to detect and to cure it, the community must also do its part in disseminating correct information.

Easier to organise is the public campaign of awareness: if prevention is better than cure, then stop smoking near me! The campaign must be held regularly by support groups working hand in glove with the doctors and the relevant government agencies.

The volunteers

Here come the volunteers. We need a lot of them. I believe that there is no shortage of public spirited and concerned individuals in the community who are willing to lend a hand if they see that the cause is beneficial to the country.

Call on them and invite them to your meeting. At the recent Workshop on Cancer I saw a lot of new faces, mostly young ones. In the 1980s, there was only a handful of us working to form a Sarawak branch of the National Cancer Society. Now there are many new volunteers. A good sign.

The workshop held in Kuching on Jan 12 was organised by SCAN (Society for Cancer Advocacy and Awareness, Kuching – founded in 2017 by a group of cancer patients, survivors, caregivers, and concerned professionals in Kuching) in collaboration with SPOKE (Sarawak Patients Organisations Knowledge Exchange) for a number of other volunteer organisations devoted to the care and support of cancer patients and survivors of the disease.

I must congratulate the organisers for inviting lecturers from an agency like Socso and practising doctors from the general hospital and other health-related organisations from Peninsular Malaysia. All of them did full justice to the time allocated for their talks. I talked to Maheswari Jaganathan, coordinator at Cancer Research Malaysia, who is trying to replicate the model of the Breast Cancer Navigation Programme at a hospital in Kuching. If all goes well, we will learn more about this project in the near future.

I always learn something new at each seminar or workshop that I am invited to. For instance, from the answer to my question directed at the panel speakers – on why there is reluctance on the part of cancer sufferers from seeing doctors immediately – I got the answer that revealed some hidden factors. Female sufferers, for example, would give many excuses for not seeing doctors: lack of time, baby or sick in-law, husband not cooperating, distance from home to clinic, and, of course, lack of money for an overnight stay in town where clinics are normally found. Specialist hospitals are in Kuching.

While the last two are valid reasons, the lack of time or the husband’s attitude is not acceptable. The unsaid reason is simply the stigma attached to the disease – the malu factor, or karma (fate) – blame it on the Almighty!

It is this mental attitude that often inhibits the sufferer from going to see the doctor on the first sign of a lesion on the breast or a lump on the body. This is the sort of social and cultural problem; the caregivers and the medical doctors find it difficult to be of real help. We need more doctors cum social scientists. Scientific and technical explanation with long words is not enough. This is where the volunteers, many of whom are former nurses and medical workers, can come in to help. Their role is important. The public should appreciate that.

Over the years, many non-governmental organisations dedicated to help cancer sufferers have been formed in Sarawak. Organisations like NCSM Swak (National Cancer Society of Malaysia, the oldest organisation in the country) started its branch in Kuching; SBCSG (Sarawak Breast Cancer Support Group -1993); Kuching Life Care Society – 1996; Sarawak Hospice Society -1998; Palliative Care Association of Miri – 2005; Pink Ribbon Support Group Sarawak – 2012; Hope Place Kuching – 2013; Two Tree Lodge Hospice Kuching – 2014; Prostate Cancer Society East Malaysia – 2015; Pink and Teal EmpowHer – 2018 – have been run by volunteers working with the government and its agencies related to medical and health matters.

For today’s topic, it’s the cancer societies, more appropriately, I think, anti-cancer non-governmental organisations. Most of these support groups are based in Kuching and are run by volunteers who are mostly ladies and a handful of men drawn from various walks of life and professions. Among them are retired doctors. I was happy to see Dr Lau, a fellow member and chairman of the National Cancer Society Kuching chapter, and other concerned individuals, all keen to help the less fortunate members of the community. I also met a couple, Kapitan Stephen Yeo and his wife, Alice, family friends of many years now actively involved in charitable work in the city.

They will work with the relevant government institutions such as the hospitals and other related agencies and meet with each other regularly in order to update themselves with the latest information on the disease; they must collaborate in terms of sharing resources and sending the message that cancer is preventable and curable.

Another problem – serious illness is expensive! We do have some provision, like Socso, but to be able to take full advantage of such schemes, the relationship between a doctor and the patient is crucial. Socso in fulfilling its obligation to the patient as its contributor must listen to the doctor’s professional advice as regards the medical status of the patient. This three-in-one relationship is vital – good for the doctor, good for Socso, and good for the patient or his relatives.  Unfortunately, however, housewives are practically never covered by Socso.

One NGO under Dr Abigail Jerip of the Pink and Teal has an outreach programme: free Breast and Cervical Cancer screening for women outside Kuching city. It is hoped that other anti-cancer organisations and support groups will also spread their activities to the other areas in Sarawak. Miri has a Palliative Care Association formed in 2005. Two ladies from this association attended the workshop. Upon their return, they may like to suggest to others to form more local anti-cancer support groups there. Then the idea will spread to Baram, Lawas, and so on.

Support the anti-smoking law!

At the workshop a statement was presented by the organisers, supporting implementation of the anti-smoking laws. It was unanimously supported by the meeting; we hope it’s a strong message that the Sarawak government will read.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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