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“Every Life is Worth Saving”: Inspiring Lessons from a Cancer Advocate

Those who know Dato’ Dr Saunthari Somasundaram, President and Medical Director of the National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM) might say being a vocal advocate for cancer patients is in her DNA. She shares her experiences with Diagram.

Growing up with her mother’s long — and successful — battle against the disease, and the experiences of her father, an oncologist who founded National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM), Dr Somasundaram had early and profound, insight into what cancer patients needed. She shares her story.

People-centric Cancer Care

When I started in this field, more than twenty years ago, whenever anybody talked about cancer, you would find the words “death”, “pain” and “suffering” creep into conversations.

There is a underlying fear associated with cancer. A fear that has persisted, despite the tremendous advancements that have been made in cancer diagnosis and treatment.

I have made it my life's mission to try to change that.

As a non-profit organisation, at NCSM, our aim is to focus on the people-centric aspect of cancer care. We still encounter those who are fearful and prefer to keep their diagnosis hidden, but there is greater understanding today that people can survive, even thrive, after cancer.

Dr Saunthari Somasundaram believes it is key to destimagtise cancer so that it can be approached with less fear.

Dr Saunthari Somasundaram believes it is key to destimagtise cancer so that it can be approached with less fear.

We Need to Take Fear out of the Equation

It has been the courage of many people who have been willing to come forward and talk about their own experiences with cancer that has made the difference.

One of them is my mother.

Nearly two decades ago, my mother was one of the few who publicly shared her experience as a cancer survivor.

If we can normalise cancer diagnosis — making it part of our everyday conversations — we can destigmatise this disease.

We have certainly made progress.

In terms of the cancer infrastructure, according to a recent report on cancer preparedness in Asia Pacific, Progress Towards Universal Cancer Control, released by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Malaysia ranks third in cancer preparedness after Australia and South Korea. But cancer survivor rates have been decreasing. Cancer is responsible for over 16 percent of deaths in Malaysia: the second leading cause of mortality1.

A woman in Malaysia undergoes chemotherapy. COVID-19 has led to challenges in diagnosing and treating cancer patients.

A woman in Malaysia undergoes chemotherapy. COVID-19 has led to challenges in diagnosing and treating cancer patients.

We Need to Better Prioritise Healthcare

No country has been immune to COVID-19. Of couse, we have seen delays in diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients in Malaysia, but the same holds true for countries around the world.

Trying to fight for more funding and resources is meaningless unless we make systemic changes. There will always be more patients and not enough doctors to treat them.

What we need is better prioritisation and allocation of available resources.

What changes should policy makers consider that have a widespread impact? Should we spend more on early interventions or late stage treatment? Both are important but have to be weighed within the context of the entire healthcare ecosystem.

Similarly, how do we actually change behaviour, and get people from simply being aware, to seeking care for cancer? I don't have an easy answer for that.

Creating an Equitable Healthcare System 

No disease is more important than another.

What we’ve seen in COVID-19 is that greater urgency was associated with treating infected patients, sometimes to the detriment of those facing non communicable and chronic diseases.  

We need to use this pandemic as an important reminder to change the mindset of health professionals and those in public health who will look at the systems, to make them realise we shouldn't be competing with each other in terms of resources.

Related read: cancer care in Indonesia.

Today, health systems are talking about restarting care for cancer patients and those suffering from other chronic diseases. Instead, our focus should be on continuing care even in the midst of a pandemic and other public health emergencies. Access to care has emerged as a must-have in the post-pandemic era.

We Must Ensure Continual Care for Patients

If this happens again, I do hope that there will be more linkages — that hospitals or the government will realise that organisations like ours can be the conduit within the community. When different parts of the ecosystem work together instead of in silos, we all collectively drive better outcomes for patients.

Dr Somasundaram has worked tirelessly to ensure continual care for patients.

Dr Somasundaram has worked tirelessly to ensure continual care for patients.

What I Find Most Enriching isn’t the Medical Aspect…

…it’s the human experience. The longer I work here, the more it’s about interacting with different individuals who walk through the doors of the National Cancer Society Malaysia.

My mother's story is just one among a million tales. And hers is a great story: she's 91 years old and still goes out with friends and family — she's recovered through six different cancers. It's uplifting in that sense, but there are not many people with that same journey: and that is a realisation that makes me even more determined.

Every life is worth saving.

Read more inspirational medical stories.

References

1Economist Intelligence Unit (2020). Cancer preparedness in Asia-Pacific: Progress towards Universal Cancer Control. Retrieved from https://worldcancerinitiative.economist.com/pdf/Roche-cancer-preparedness-in-asia/Roche_Cancer_White_paper.pdf

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