IN MY CATCH-UP READING of stories in PNG Attitude after being debilitated for more than a month, I came across the heart-moving story about the battle against cancer of our wonderful friend and mentor of PNG writers, Barbara Short.
This is a remarkable story of faith and courage. Barbara is a champion. God bless all her beautiful guardian angels. From now on I will share Barbara's story of boldness, faith and miracles to encourage people to be prayerful and courageous in their battle against the morass.
For the last 10 years, I have lived and interacted with all kinds of cancer patients and I know very well the experiences that they go through.
I live in Ward 2 of the Dr Jan Jaworski Wing Two at Sir Joseph Nombri Memorial Hospital in Kundiawa and this is where cancer patients live, are operated on and treated with chemotherapy.
Every year new cancer patients come in; the hospital receiving an average of two patients a month. I interact with them almost every day and I share the pain, trauma and depression brought on by this terrible illness.
One thing I know to be the worst enemy of cancer patients is self defeat: feelings of hopelessness and surrender. Once they are told by the doctors that they have cancer, they take it as a death sentence and are mentally devastated. Their spirit departs from them.
As a result, subsequent treatments like operations and chemotherapy don’t seem to help much. They get weak and debilitated and pass on early.
A counselling program based on God’s word was started several years ago by Jean Kupo, a Christian nurse who was in-charge of the ward. It was very helpful.
From time to time, I joined her and over a soup of noodles, garlic and onion, we would chat with the patients one at a time or in group. Sometimes Jean would play the guitar and we would sing hymns and forget about the cancer and its pain.
In 2006, Jean and I organised a decent burial for a mouth cancer patient, Kaupa Kali, a single male late in his 50s from Salt Nomane.
His relatives had abandoned him when he was diagnosed with cancer. They never visited him in the hospital. Jean used to provide him with small personal items like soap and toilet tissue.
The evening of the night that he passed on, he called us over and said; “I am ready to go home. Don’t send this old house back to Salt Nomane. You know my people rejected it. Dump it somewhere in Kundiawa”.
We felt very sorry for him and assured him that all was going to be fine.
To honour his wish, Jean and I got the police coroner’s approval to bury Kaupa at Ega Lutheran Cemetery in Kundiawa.
Jean organised some boys from her village at Yuwai to dig the grave. I organised the hospital workshop, just a few metres away from the ward, to construct a coffin. Then Jean washed and dressed him. Finally we laid Kaupa to rest at Ega.
The evening after the burial, we held a small feast of lamb flaps, bananas, sweet potato and vegetables with other patients in the ward in what we called rausim haus krai.
It was sad but fun too. To this day, none of Kaupa’s relatives have had the courtesy to say thank you to us. We didn’t mind. We did what we did on humanitarian grounds.
In 2011, when Jean was transferred to a new role as a counsellor in the family violence support service unit, the cancer patients counselling program departed with her. There is no more counselling. But I still interact with the patients.
I often share with them the personal battle I am fighting and I encourage them to be strong in the mind and always be positive.
The other thing that I have observed, and it is a major concern to the doctors, is the very late diagnosis of cancer. The patients think the early tumour is a normal boil or swelling and expect it to go away naturally.
They don’t go to the nearest health centre or hospital for proper medical examination. Even worse, they try to treat themselves with drugs like amoxicillin from the stores and streets. By the time they come to the hospital, the tumour has already advanced into malignancy.
The problem is further compounded by the prolonged delay in the arrival of the biopsy results. Papua New Guinea has only one public histopathology laboratory which is located at the Port Moresby General Hospital.
When biopsy specimens are sent to Port Moresby for testing, it takes a long time - like 6 to 12 months or more - for the results to arrive. Sometimes the results don’t come before the patients die.
There were patients who could have been alive if they had they been operated on at an early stage. The cancer advances while they await biopsy results and they eventually succumb. About four years ago, a 21 year old Grade 11 student died while waiting for the biopsy result of a tumour in his rectum. It was very sad.
As I write this story, four patients are undergoing chemotherapy. Three completed their last set of chemo last Friday and were discharged. About a month ago, three terminal cases including a young girl in her early 20s were discharged to go home and prepare for their passing on.
Cancer is very serious in Papua New Guinea. So many people are dying every year. The PNG and Australian governments are putting too much emphasis on HIV and AIDS and give very little attention to cancer but cancer is killing just as many people as AIDS in PNG.
There is a serious need for more histopathology labs in the country. Two more labs, one for the New Guinea Islands and the other for the Highlands and Momase regions could help save a lot of lives.
I really think AusAID should look into such high profile long term nationwide life-saving infrastructure instead of funding outdated textbooks and the like for PNG.