By Erica Lee
With the six months of COVID-related restrictions and given their reduced services, the Fiji Cancer Society (the Society) believes that there could be a surge in late-stage detection and presentation of cases now that COVID-restrictions have lifted.
After two possible scares with COVID transmission at their clinic and during the heightened restrictions, the Society had to suspend clinical services (from April – October) such as cancer screening and home visits to patients. Instead, the Society had to redirect the public to alternative service providers and where possible they assisted with advice on lifestyle, diet and counselling for their mental state of mind especially for those that were presenting anxiety.
According to the Society Chief Executive Officer Belinda Chan, this is a concern as already annually around 1,600 Fijians are diagnosed with cancer and many are already in the late-stage and can only be offered palliative care support. Reproductive cancers are among the top five causes of death in women around Fiji.
“Many women were scared to go to clinics for fear of getting COVID and some could not afford the cost of undergoing screening at a private medical facility. We will need to do mass screening and vigorous awareness to try to address this in the coming months and not just during October and November,”.
She added especially during the pandemic, women were not prioritising their health and self-care.
“This year has been rather difficult to fundraise and provide the much-needed services that we offer. We are so glad that with national vaccination numbers being achieved, restrictions have eased allowing us to push ahead with our Pink October and Movember fundraising campaigns,” said Ms. Chan.
Despite their reduced fundraising capacity, FCS was able to secure a Resilience Grant from Women’s Fund Fiji of FJD 10,000 in June which helped to provide 186 grocery packs, 200 COVID kits (containing soap, masks and sanitizers), 30 vegetable packs and 98 home deliveries of medication to cancer patients and their families especially those on a reduced income.
May to August was particularly difficult months for cancer patients in Fiji given a shortage of pain management medicines like morphine, chemotherapy and medical consumables like colostomy bags (a plastic bag that collects fecal matter from the digestive tract through an opening in the abdominal wall) which sells for up to FJD 27 at pharmacies in Fiji. The Society worked with organisations like Fiji Pharmaceuticals and Biomedical Services and Rotary Clubs in Fiji and New Zealand to assist patients with medical consumables and personal protective gear.
“These shortages pushed many women to seek herbal remedies which did not help with pain management. While we do not stop patients from using herbal medicines, we have reminded them that their efficacy has not been medically proven and we encourage them to continue to access professional medical treatment. We have advised them that they can do both treatments side by side if they wish to.”
Ms. Chan speaking on the issue of consumables shortages said that some patients were fortunate enough to have family members overseas who could send them supplies but many resorted to using makeshift stoma bags such as containers, gauze and diapers which put them at risk of infection.
The FCS also ran a blanket and diaper drive asking the public for donations of these much-needed items. From the drive, the Society collected 61 blankets, 20 sanitary packs, 145 packs of diapers, and 4 packs of wipes. These items were donated to patients to ease some of their burdens during COVID-restrictions and for patients who had been unprepared with personal hygiene items when hospitalised.
“In our line of work, we care about the comfort of our patients and we want to ensure that they do not fight cancer alone. In the past, we have provided items such as groceries, mattresses, primuses for cooking, blankets and medication,” said Ms. Chan.
Ms. Chan also highlighted that partnerships have been one of the biggest coping mechanisms the Society employed. She credited Medical Services Pacific, the Foundation for Rural Integration Enterprise Development (FRIEND Fiji) and Building Innate Resilience Through Hearts (BIRTH Fiji) for supporting their patients since April. The Society has also signed a new partnership with Sai Prema Foundation on cancer awareness activities.