Look­ing Into The Other Faces Of Can­cer

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT - By Nel­cia Charle­magne

We all know that we should ‘think pink’ and ‘feel for bumps’ to ‘save your lumps’ dur­ing the month of Oc­to­ber. There is no doubt that the ob­ser­vance of breast can­cer is widely cel­e­brated in Saint Lu­cia, and the abun­dance of pink cloth­ing, dec­o­ra­tions, pins and rib­bons at schools and busi­nesses ce­ments this state­ment. This is no sur­prise given that over 250,000 women and up­wards of 2,400 men would be di­ag­nosed in the US with breast can­cer for the on­go­ing year. With an es­ti­mated 41,070 per­sons (as per Can­cer. net) in the US to die from breast can­cer in just one year, it is nec­es­sary to honour the lives of those suf­fer­ing, and those who have passed. But what about Novem­ber through to Septem­ber? Is breast can­cer the only one worth go­ing all out for?

Forgive me if I may come across as jeal­ous or want­ing, but I do long for an in­clu­sive so­ci­ety where we so grandly remember those suf­fer­ing from the dozens of other can­cers – from colon can­cer to cer­vi­cal can­cer and lung can­cer. It is safe to say that ev­ery­one knows about the ex­is­tence of other types of can­cers but how many of us know that blue is worn to com­mem­o­rate colon can­cer in March? I cer­tainly did not. Nei­ther did I know that Fe­bru­ary 4th is ob­served as Can­cer Day ev­ery year. Per­haps my thirst for knowl­edge on the is­sue at hand comes only be­cause I have suf­fered a great loss be­cause of can­cer, and that’s okay – we all know at least one per­son who has fought this tir­ing bat­tle.

When my best friend was di­ag­nosed with leukaemia in 2012, I had no idea that it was even a type of can­cer. Ad­mit­tedly I was only 13, and my knowl­edge on a lot of poignant is­sues was not as broad as it is now. I know now that leukaemia is a can­cer of the blood or bone mar­row, where the pa­tient’s body pro­duces too many white blood cells. Al­though leukaemia is one of the most com­mon child­hood can­cers, the di­ag­no­sis of my sickly best friend took years.

Late di­ag­no­sis usu­ally means that can­cers have de­vel­oped into larger tu­mours and that the per­son is likely to suc­cumb sooner rather than later. Yet it also means that the pa­tient has lived for years with their ill­ness, which is a feat in it­self. In Saint Lu­cia late di­ag­no­sis is usu­ally due to the in­ep­ti­tude of our med­i­cal ser­vices and the fail­ure of per­sons to make con­certed ef­forts to check on the sta­tus of their health. The for­mer, sadly, leaves per­sons with no op­tions other than to travel over­seas for med­i­cal at­ten­tion. My best friend’s fam­ily had to pool their own money to travel to Bar­ba­dos to see a doc­tor there. They had to scrape up their own funds, and even fundraise, to have her con­di­tion treated in Mar­tinique.

The prox­im­ity of health in­sti­tu­tions in Mar­tinique makes it a won­der­ful al­ter­na­tive to the lack of ameni­ties in our lo­cal hos­pi­tals. The Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal of Mar­tinique’s Can­cer Cen­tre pro­vides can­cer treat­ment ser­vices in­clud­ing surg­eries, chemo­ther­apy and ra­di­a­tion ther­apy. It was the home of my best friend for a while, un­til her sit­u­a­tion be­came too dire to han­dle and she was sub­se­quently trans­ferred to a hos­pi­tal in Paris.

I could only imag­ine how fright­en­ing it must have been to be 13 years old, away from your fam­ily in a for­eign coun­try, with con­stant med­i­cal pro­ce­dures be­ing car­ried out on you. I may never understand the pain of be­ing probed in the spine in the ef­forts to carry out bone mar­row trans­plants or the greater pain her fam­ily bore when she was never healthy enough to ac­tu­ally go through with the trans­plant. I did understand, how­ever, the sheer dis­ap­point­ment when she was sent back to Mar­tinique, and sub­se­quently to Saint Lu­cia, all be­cause it was too late to treat her suc­cess­fully.

Af­ter she died on March 2nd, 2013 we still only wore pink in Oc­to­ber. We did not com­mem­o­rate leukaemia with or­ange in Septem­ber at school. We sim­ply put up a framed photo in the re­source room, and that was the end of it.

Deal­ing with can­cer is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. Not­with­stand­ing the phys­i­cal and emo­tional tur­moil, the cost of treat­ing can­cer eas­ily beats the price of tu­ition at an Ivy League univer­sity. In Saint Lu­cia med­i­cal in­surance is – in some sorts –seen as a luxury, and isn’t a priv­i­lege af­ford­able to ev­ery­one. Can­cer, how­ever, doesn’t ex­er­cise the de­cency of plight­ing only those who can af­ford to pay for costly treat­ment. Con­se­quently we are used to be­ing in­vited to bar­be­cues, dances, bingo, among other events, just to raise funds to cover med­i­cal costs. It is hardly un­com­mon to see per­sons pac­ing side­walks with pic­tures of the ill, armed with do­na­tion sheets, seek­ing as­sis­tance from the wider pub­lic.

It would be un­fair to say that pa­tients and their fam­i­lies are alone in this bat­tle. Al­though few, NGOs do ex­ist to of­fer some as­sis­tance – mon­e­tary or oth­er­wise – to those most in need. To make a do­na­tion to a can­cer pa­tient, the Na­tional Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion only re­quires the pro­vi­sion of a med­i­cal report and a pro forma in­voice of the ex­pected costs be­fore the case is brought be­fore the med­i­cal board.

As of 2009, Faces of Can­cer be­came a house­hold name in Saint Lu­cia. The or­gan­i­sa­tion of­fers sup­port to newly di­ag­nosed can­cer pa­tients, pa­tients in treat­ment, sur­vivors, the ter­mi­nally ill and their fam­i­lies. Al­though there are fi­nan­cial lim­i­ta­tions to the kind of aid it can pro­vide to pa­tients, the or­gan­i­sa­tion seeks to pro­vide emo­tional sup­port, which is just as im­por­tant. The toll that can­cer takes on the psy­che of not just the pa­tients, but per­sons close to them, is de­serv­ing of con­stant phys­i­o­log­i­cal aid.

Equally im­por­tant is its man­date to ed­u­cate cit­i­zens of Saint Lu­cia on can­cer on the whole – to dis­pel myths and to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion on the many other types of can­cer that af­fect us, apart from breast can­cer. In fact, Faces of Can­cer St Lu­cia lists prostate, col­orec­tal, lung and metas­ta­sized can­cer be­fore breast can­cer as the main types af­fect­ing Saint Lu­cians. It fre­quently hosts ed­u­ca­tional fairs at schools and other pub­lic outreach ini­tia­tives, all the while en­sur­ing its brochures and bi-an­nual newslet­ter are read­ily avail­able to de­bunk any mis­con­cep­tions. Free health fairs, where breast, prostate and cer­vi­cal screen­ings are of­fered, cre­ate the op­por­tu­nity for early di­ag­no­sis – some­thing that can save a per­son’s life.

In a coun­try where 160 deaths per year are caused by can­cer, with 65% be­ing male, di­a­logue on can­cer needs to be more open. It is only by do­ing so that we will re­ally be able to rally fi­nan­cial sup­port, ei­ther from our own gov­ern­ment or out­side bod­ies, to fund the in­stal­la­tion of key pieces of equip­ment at hos­pi­tals to aid in can­cer di­ag­no­sis. In or­der to un­dergo ra­di­a­tion ther­apy, a pa­tient would have to travel to Mar­tinique, Trinidad or Bar­ba­dos – all ex­pen­sive op­tions. For a breast MRI a pa­tient would have to hand over even more money to re­ceive the ser­vice in the United States.

In­deed, if you ask any per­son on the street if they know some­one who has dealt with breast can­cer, the an­swer may be yes. How­ever, the fact that one form of can­cer di­rectly af­fects our lives is no ex­cuse to be ig­no­rant of the 100-plus forms of the ill­ness.

Ad­mit­tedly, I mostly have qualms with the sta­tus quo in terms of com­mem­o­rat­ing forms of can­cer be­cause I felt like no recog­ni­tion was given to the plight of my best friend. To learn from the mis­takes of oth­ers – in this case, my own – is one of the best ways to pre­vent a re­cur­ring cy­cle of ig­no­rance.

It is im­por­tant that we all look into the other ‘faces of can­cer’ – not just breast can­cer.

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