I'm a survivor! Living with cancer in Guyana By Angela Osborne
Stabroek News
June 20, 2004

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Last Sunday Cancer Survivors' Day was celebrated around the world. In Guyana, a group of cancer survivors and their families got together at the Guyana Cancer Society and spoke about their lives, treatment, what is available, how they deal with their illnesses and what they would like to see happen in Guyana. Today Sunday Stabroek features six survivors:

Annette Kendall- two years a survivor
Annette Kendall has cervical cancer and has been fortunate to receive treatment and benefits. She is a mother of seven children and receives 80% reimbursement of her medical bills from the National Insurance Scheme (NIS). She said she has received tremendous support from her family and feels that something should be done to help the many people who are suffering from the same condition as her, especially Amerindian women.

"The government is not doing enough for them, and many cannot afford the treatment. It costs US$4,700.
Cancer survivors and supporters participate in a walk.

"It [being diagnosed] has taught me a great lesson; women need to take care of themselves, and their partners need to be aware of what they are doing." Kendall has undertaken to advise younger women to get pap smears regularly and most of all, to be careful.

Kemo Tanner- three years a survivor
Kemo Tanner was diagnosed at the age of eight months with cancer of the kidney. He is now three years old and has already had one year of chemotherapy. He is now undergoing a process of seven treatments, which he is receiving at the Georgetown Public Hospital every three weeks. Speaking on his behalf, his grandmother said he recently had an ultra sound done which revealed that the tumour is still there. She said his doctor had recommended that he seek further treatment in Barbados.

Savitri Warnauth- five years a survivor
Savitri Warnauth was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1999. She underwent surgery for it and said she suffered tremendously afterwards. Warnauth said the doctors never believed she would recover. She then had a relapse in 2000 and began treatment again.

She said she has had every treatment available for this kind of cancer, including 12 chemotherapy treatments.

But Warnauth said she has received a lot of support from the Cancer Society, her family and a family in Trinidad. She too believes that young women should be careful and have regular pap smears.

Selena Ramnarine- nine years a survivor
Selena Ramnarine, 50, has Hodgkins lymphoma. She was able to receive the much-needed treatment last year in Trinidad, when the Cancer Society helped to raise part of the funds and the government through the Ministry of Health provided the remainder. She also received treatment at the Georgetown Hospital.

In all she has had six months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiology. Ramnarine was supposed to go back for more treatment last month but she cannot afford the air fare and so she's stuck here. She said before she received any treatment the pain was too much, she was on liquids only, but now she's able to eat. She said she is eternally thankful to the general public for their help and support.

Esme Chung- five years a survivor
Esme Chung has breast cancer and feels that people should not be afraid to talk about their illness with their friends and family. She said that once a person had been diagnosed with cancer they should join the Guyana Cancer Society, because it was the link to the Ministry of Health and the help they may need. She went on to say, "The treatment in Guyana is a big joke and the government is doing nothing to help."

Kristy Ann Woon-A-Tai- five years a survivor
Kristy Ann Woon-A-Tai is 12 years old and was diagnosed with medulla blastoma (cancer of the back of the brain) in March 1999. Woon-A-Tai began to get headaches when she was seven; after one of those headaches got severe her parents took her to the hospital where a Computerised Axial Tomography Scan (CAT Scan) was done.

She had surgery soon after in the United States and radiation for six weeks. Since then, every year she does a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to see whether the cancer is coming back or spreading to other areas. For now, she is alright.

There are at least 32 different types of cancer known to researchers. The Guyana Cancer Society has on record 1,085 people diagnosed with cancer within the period January 2000 to June 2003. The highest in terms of numbers is breast cancer, which sees the most fatalities in women. The second highest is prostate cancer.

Survivors noted that from the moment you are diagnosed until you die you are a survivor. One parent of a cancer survivor indicated that persons living with cancer need not die, all they need is the treatment and in order to get the treatment they need contacts. She went on to say that there are organisations and hospitals which are willing to help the Cancer Society but in order to do so, they need the government's intervention to pave the way.

People who need treatment overseas must go through the Ministry of Health and the women lamented that the process at the ministry is too slow. Because of the lack of cooperation extended to the Cancer Society, the members said they are now feeling frustrated and are not as active as they would like to be.

The women also said they are still awaiting the arrival of the promised oncologist in Guyana as they hope this will allow for more treatments to be undertaken here.

Contacted on the claims made by the cancer patients that nothing is being done, Chief Medical Officer, Dr Rudolph Cummings said the ministry is now working with a broker in Trinidad to ensure that cancer patients get treatment expeditiously. "When patients provide the documentation from their doctor, within a matter of days a treatment is outlined and the opportunity for travel is arranged."

Dr Cummings said that cabinet is required to approve treatments over a certain cost and in these cases it would take a little over a week as cabinet only meets once a week. He said that once diagnosed with cancer, patients expect to be treated almost immediately. He added that the ministry is doing its best to ensure they receive treatment in a timely manner. He said prior to two years ago, patients might have been given dates six months after they were first diagnosed to get treatment overseas, but this has now changed.

With regard to the promised oncologist, Dr Cummings said approaches were made to friendly governments and they were awaiting responses.

The survivors said treatments and tests are far too expensive in the United States. They gave as an example the cost of an MRI, which is US$4,000 in that country. But they said that because of a discount given in Trinidad one can get this test done for US$1,600.

Dr Cummings confirmed this and also noted that treatment in Trinidad takes less than two weeks for a response, while in the United States it would take at least six weeks.