Professor Michael Kew, who the Cancer Association of SA (Cansa) funded and honoured for his discovering a vaccine against liver cancer.
Professor Michael Kew, who the Cancer Association of SA (Cansa) funded and honoured for his discovering a vaccine against liver cancer.

Fight to beat cancer goes on during Covid-19

By Duncan Guy Time of article published Jan 30, 2021

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Thursday will be World Cancer Day, which this year happens at a time when much of the world is focused on the coronavirus.

But hospices around South Africa continue to care for thousands of cancer patients.

The Hospice Palliative Care Association (HPCA) has 103 member hospices across South Africa that care for patients with life-threatening or terminal diseases, predominantly in the comfort of their own homes.

Much of the care provided to patients by the the Hospice Palliative Care Association (HPCA) is in their own homes.

The HPCA was founded in 1987 and supports organisations that provide hospice services to more than 120 000 people a year, the association told the Independent on Saturday.

A local person who has benefited is KZN resident Ashika Soorju, whose father was diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive type of bladder cancer last year.

“When you get a diagnosis, like my dad, he still felt fine and didn’t feel that he needed hospice,” she said.

“But people need to understand that the engagement should happen early on. Hospice staff have an element of humanity that is different to hospital environments. The detailed explanations of what my father’s body was undergoing gave him dignity and made it so much easier for us to understand and to appropriately assist.

“There is so much that the patient and the family don’t know or understand. In this current pandemic, with the lack of hospital beds, I had to assist my Dad with very physical things such as bladder irrigation and it’s so important to have support and a care team, who is literally on call.

“With a cancer diagnosis, so many patient choices are taken away and the ultimate dignity was to be able to offer him choices; led by the extremely experienced hospice team. I am so grateful because 90% of the time my father was pain-free. What hospices do cannot be explained, it has to be experienced. They are an organisation that you want to support and be a part of.”

The Cancer Association of SA (Cansa) has been around longer and has been notably active in KZN, in recent years working with the SA Human Rights Council during the oncology crisis in the province.

On the national stage it has helped fund research such as that of Professor Michael Kew, who discovered a vaccine against liver cancer; launched educational and awareness drives such as the Shavathon and established centres for sufferers and their families.

It also recently successfully lobbied for the National Department of Affordable Medicines to provide substantial and quality sunscreen to people with albinism, and for cancer to be declared a registrable disease as part of the National Health Act.

But back to 1931.

The association began as the National Cancer Association, born out of the first national cancer conference in South Africa. Its immediate agenda was to establish a cancer register and cancer centres, or clinics, in large hospitals where the causes, optimal treatment and better diagnostic methods would be investigated.

After slowing down its work during World War II, the 1950s saw the National Cancer Association introduce educational programmes to inform the public about the importance of detecting cancer early and living healthily.

Durban came into the spotlight when clinical facilities for early detection of uterine cancer were established and a laboratory in the city started to perform about 70 000 pap smears every year.

Towards the end of that decade, Dr George Oettle became the first cancer researcher to receive a grant from the association. This initiated a research programme into cancer in SA.

Then, in the 1960s, it established the first interim home in Pretoria, followed by others in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Durban, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Today these are known as Cansa Care Homes.

The 1970s saw the innovative educational and fundraising initiative known as Toktokkie, or Taptap, launched across SA. In academia, research grants continued to be sponsored at major universities and research institutions. This research, of an international calibre, enabled South Africa to continuously improve levels of therapy to patients.

Community services were expanded and a total care programme was developed to assist cancer patients and their families, from diagnosis to the terminal and bereavement phases, where necessary.

Doctors, nurses, social workers, ministers of religion and volunteers have all been involved in these initiatives.

Programmes include “I Can Cope”, which is designed to help patients and their families cope with a cancer diagnosis. Then there’s “Reach For Recovery” for breast cancer patients and survivors.

More movement followed in SA during the 1980s, with the association hosting the Union of International Cancer Control’s executive committee meeting in Johannesburg as well as an international conference on oesophageal cancer in Cape Town. There was also movement on the ground with care facilities opening in Soweto; Langa in the Western Cape and Bloemfontein to provide a variety of services.

The Hospicare Programme also provided numerous services ranging from home nursing to pain control. The Karl Bremer Hospitium was opened, followed by the Theunis Fichardt hospitium.

The 1990s, a decade of much change in SA, saw the association change its name from the National Cancer Association to the Cancer Association of SA – well known as simply Cansa. Its mission – fighting cancer and its consequences countrywide for the benefit of all South Africans in co-operation with the community by supporting research, health education, information, care and support services.

The association broadened its message, including Parliament and on golf courses.

Mobile health clinics were introduced to the Free State. Cansa played a major role in the anti-tobacco legislation of 1999 to ban advertising and sponsorship activities of tobacco products. The Sanlam Cancer Challenge was launched in 1993, drawing more than 40 000 golf players to more than 800 golf competitions.

In the 2000s, Cansa modernised its image, adopting a new logo and corporate message, “Striving for a Cancer Smart SA”, in line with its mission to “sustainably reduce the impact of cancer by promoting health in all communities within SA through advocacy and the sustainable facilitation of research, prevention, early detection and care”.

It also introduced its three-tiered service of research, advocacy and health programmes to the public.

Then came the Shavathon. Thousands of people South Africans, including those affected by cancer, shaved off, dyed and cut their hair in solidarity with sufferers. The campaign gained momentum and is now a big national fundraising event.

Cansa took a stand on the environment as well as taking its advocacy role to a new level by launching the “Cansa Seal of Recognition”, endorsing products proven to help prevent cancer with “Smart Choice” and “SunSmart” labels.

The year 2005 saw the introduction of the global movement Relay For Life to honour and salute more than 5 500 survivors. Each year 4 500 teams have participated. Then, in 2009 the introduction of the lymphoedema programme was introduced during the inaugural Women’s Health launch.

Cansa has continued to strive to keep the fight against cancer a top priority for policy makers. It promoted correct food labelling on products, especially trans fat products, based on scientific findings. It called on the government to protect children against harmful chemicals such as BPA in toys and baby bottles.

The 2010s also saw lodges open for parents and guardians of children undergoing cancer treatment in Pretoria, Durban and Polokwane and support rooms in Kimberley and Polokwane.

Advocacy work continued as a member of the Cancer Alliance and founder of the SA Non-Communicable Diseases Alliance.

In 2013, another world meeting came to SA, with Cansa the host, when international decision makers came to the World Cancer Leaders’ Summit in Cape Town.

In 2015 Cansa honoured Kew with a lifetime achievement award to recognise his contribution, knowledge and understanding of primary liver cancer. Thanks to his work, a link between Hepatitis B and liver cancer was discovered, followed by a vaccine that is saving lives. Cansa had funded his research for 30 years.

In April 2018, Cansa partnered with the University of KwaZulu-Natal and KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health to promote awareness of cervical cancer and increase screening, achieving a Guinness World Record number for the most Pap smears in a day.

The Independent on Saturday

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