Cancer is now Malaysia’s third biggest killer. It is estimated that there are about 90,000-100,000 people in the country living with cancer at any one time and that one in four Malaysians will develop the disease by the age of 75 . What these shocking statistics say is that most of our families will be affected by cancer in one form or another.
By Maxine Carr
Major advances in medical science now mean that cancer is not necessarily a death sentence. What’s more, the number of support services available is increasing; in Penang, hospitals such as the Adventist Hospital and Mount Miriam have specialist care available to treat those on low income.
There are also groups such as Among Friends who meet regularly to support those affected by cancer. Cancerlink Penang, for example, is actively involved in conducting cancer awareness talks and free medical check-ups by consultants, and arranging gatherings of ex-patients and their families. The Pure Lotus Hospice of Compassion was established in 2001 to provide inpatient care for sufferers of terminal cancer with limited financial means for medical treatment. The key message coming out of this surge in support groups is that although suffering with cancer is a uniquely personal experience, one need not suffer in silence.
Breaking down stigma
Yet, a stigma continues to surround cancer, preventing people from seeking treatment and/or support. Annual cancer awareness and fundraising campaign Relay for Life committee member Mui Siew Koon, who was diagnosed with – and later, beat – cancer over 40 years ago, explained that people then were not as aware of the severity of cancer as they are today, so her condition was largely ignored, even by those closest to her.
Advances have been made towards removing some of the misconceptions and myths about cancer, for example, that it can only mean a death sentence, or that it is contagious. Still it is not uncommon for cancer patients to find themselves marginalised by their family, friends or even community when they are diagnosed. At the launch of Relay for Life last March, one woman said that after she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer three times, she felt she had to battle alone, receiving little support from her husband or friends.
Eliminating the stigma around cancer is important to increase the likelihood that people will seek treatment. Moreover, governments are less likely to invest resources in cancer treatments and services if the community is reluctant to express their needs and concerns.
Early detection and proper treatment
Many cancers are treatable, but many people remain uninformed about possible treatments. Indeed, more than one-third of cancers can be prevented and another third are curable if detected early, but in low and middle income countries, about 70% of all cancer cases are diagnosed too late .
The National Cancer Registry of Malaysia records 21,773 Malaysians being diagnosed with cancer but estimates that almost 10,000 cases are unregistered every year . Although cancer is considered the leading cause of premature death in Malaysia, only 30%-40% of all deaths from cancer are medically certified, meaning it is difficult to gauge the actual number of deaths caused by cancer .
These figures are, in part, explained by poverty, location and lingering misconceptions about the disease. People particularly in the lower income bracket think twice about seeing a doctor because of the cost. Although the government provides some free services, such as mammogram checks and vaccines against the HPV virus which can lead to cervical cancer, the emphasis is still on treatment rather than preventative measures. For instance, according to the Resource Center of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, the smoking prevalence rate among men in Malaysia is just over 50% . The Tobacco Atlas study showed that 36.3% of Malaysian schoolboys smoked cigarettes, putting Malaysia among the top countries with the highest smoking rates amongst male teenagers .
Furthermore, those living in rural areas do not have the same access to even basic healthcare services, never mind more specialised cancer treatments. The National Cancer Society, Malaysia (NCSM) also advises cancer patients to seek proper treatment which must begin with the diagnosis of cancer. They claim that too many people fall for the promises of “miracle cures”, perhaps because not enough people are aware of how far medical science has come in treating cancer.
Further action needs to be taken by the government in removing cost barriers for those on low incomes, removing such misconceptions on a wider scale.
Relay for Life
The most recent initiative that the NCSM is taking part in is Relay for Life, which is now in its ninth consecutive year in Penang. It started in the US, under the American Cancer Society, and is now held in over 20 countries around the world. This year, Malaysia’s Relay for Life events will take place in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca.
For survivors like Mui, Relay for Life symbolises solidarity with those who have survived cancer and hope for those suffering with the disease.
Launched at the end of March, Relay for Life usually attracts 2,500-3,000 people. In Penang, this year’s event will take place overnight at Youth Park between June 15 and 16, beginning with a “Survivor Lap” walk to celebrate the lives of survivors, followed by a luminaire procession to remember those who have lost their lives to cancer. Between now and the event itself, people are encouraged to sign up, spread the word and fundraise. This year’s target is to raise RM250,000 which will go towards much needed services such as the NCSM’s Hospice at Home, which provides palliative care for those who are terminally ill.
Malaysia needs to recognise cancer as a major health issue and increase funding for cancer care. Not only does this mean getting education programmes and medical technologies to more people, particularly to those on lower incomes or those who live in rural areas, but this also means working on things like tobacco control. For now, we can all take part in challenging the myths of cancer and spreading positive messages in an effort to save peoples’ lives and help people cope with cancer. One way we can do this is by contributing our support to Relay for Life 2013. Hope to see you there!
Maxine Carr is a research analyst at the Penang Institute.