Hannah (real name withheld for privacy) was only in her mid-twenties when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When she broke the news to her family and some of her closest friends, she had expected them to share in her grief and to offer her financial and emotional support which she so desperately needed to pull through that difficult period.
While they initially responded with encouraging words, Hannah soon noticed that they gradually started to distance themselves from her. A few friends voiced their frustrations that ‘she wasn’t the girl she used to be; she wasn’t partying with them as frequently as she used to’. Her family, on the other hand treated her illness as the elephant in the room, hardly ever broaching the subject unless she brought it up. Her family and friends may have reacted the way they did because they wanted to respect her privacy or were too overwhelmed with grief and fear to do anything or perhaps, they didn’t have the finances to help her cover her treatment. But whatever their reasons were, their actions left her feeling lonelier than ever.
Cancer can indeed be a lonely journey for many patients. As if the loneliness is not enough, they are faced with pressing questions like ‘How do I know which treatment option is best for me?’, ‘Will I ever get better?’ and especially, ‘Can I afford my medical bills?’ But it does not have to be this way. One’s journey with cancer does not have to be frustrating, fearful and solitary. Consultant medical oncologist Dr Christina Ng emphasises, “People need to know that cancer isn’t a death sentence. There is hope even if you think there isn’t.” And it was for this very reason that she founded EMPOWERED, the Cancer Advocacy Society of Malaysia, back in 2009.
One of a kind
Some may wonder, ‘Why the need for EMPOWERED when there are already a number of cancer non-profits in Malaysia?’ Dr Ng explains, “Currently, Malaysia has 11 non-profits that are directly involved in cancer support and education. Six of these specialise in one type of cancer, namely breast cancer. The 7th organisation is the Cancer Research Initiatives Foundation (CARIF) which conducts cancer research. The remaining 4 are national foundations and organisations with the mission to support and educate. Although these non-profits offer financial aid or aid referral services, they don’t directly target the poor and aren’t aggressively involved in advocacy addressing cancer beginning from awareness to screening to treatment. EMPOWERED, on the other hand does that.”
“My goal for EMPOWERED is to be a personal friend of the poor who are afflicted with cancer – hence, our tagline ‘Because living is fighting, we are your friend, always there all the time’. We are committed to helping them cope with both cancer and life through our many structured and personalised programmes, and we even bring these programmes right into their homes.”
An example of these programmes takes the form of colorectal cancer awareness workshops. Why colorectal cancer in particular? Dr Ng says, “Colorectal cancer is now the most common cancer affecting men and the 2nd most common cancer among women in Malaysia. Whilst its exact cause is still unknown, this disease can be detected early, upping the individual’s chance of a successful recovery. Our awareness workshops take on a fun, interactive approach to colorectal cancer education as we believe positive conditioning is crucial in helping the public learn about colorectal cancer prevalence and the importance of a healthy lifestyle.”
What about cost, then? She assures, “All costs are borne by EMPOWERED. Our beneficiaries’ well-being is our utmost priority – hence, they will be taken care of as part of our Patient Support programme, which sees our trained volunteers offering them companionship and psychological support as well as an accurate road map towards obtaining optimal medical intervention. This is important as patients typically harbour many fears and uncertainties, especially when they are the breadwinner for their families.”
A friend in need
When asked what EMPOWERED has planned for the near future, Dr Ng says, “We’ve recently launched our 2016 CCASTP (which stands for Colorectal Cancer Awareness Screening Treatment Project) at PPR Desa Tun Razak, which marks the beginning of our CCASTP’s 2nd phase. Expected activities include workshops teaching beneficiaries [SR1] how to use FIT (fecal immunochemical test) kits and how to return used kits so they can be processed at our collaborating hospital laboratories.”
Delving into EMPOWERED’s screening programmes, she says, “Our screening programmes have been approved by the Ministry of Health. We collaborate with a team of specialists to ensure that tests such as colonoscopy and treatments are effectively administered. Via these programmes, numerous people have been diagnosed with pre-cancerous polyps and several with early-stage colorectal cancer.” As of now, EMPOWERED’s outreach programmes have reached approximately 100,000 people in areas including Sentul, Gombak, Cheras and Ampang.
“It’s very encouraging and heartwarming to see our beneficiaries come up to us, saying how they have benefited tremendously from our programmes. For instance, one of our beneficiaries, Madam Yeoh Wei Ling was diagnosed with pre-cancerous polyps during EMPOWERED’s 2014 CCASTP. She told us how overwhelmed she was when she was first informed that there was blood in her stools. Initially, she was assailed with fear thinking that she would surely die but thanks to EMPOWERED, her misconceptions were debunked. She was also touched by how our volunteers patiently waited with her for her medical appointments, how they helped her make sense of medical jargon and above all, how she didn’t have to pay a single cent for anything!” Like Madam Yeoh, many others have truly experienced what ‘a personal friend’ EMPOWERED is.
The team behind empowered
With its many patient-focused community projects, one would think that the EMPOWERED team comprises many members but it is in fact, the contrary. “We’re a small but strong workforce comprising big-hearted student and professional volunteers. We may be from various universities, hospitals, and government and private institutions but we all share a common vision and mission to make a difference in the lives of the underprivileged whom we help.”
Dr Ng encourages members of the public and corporate organisations alike to do their bit for the underprivileged. “EMPOWERED is committed to saving lives, preventing cancer and eliminating suffering amongst the poor. I urge everyone to support our initiatives. In order for more underprivileged people to benefit from our programmes, I urge donors to step forward and pledge their support. For parties interested in volunteering or contributing funds, please write to us at email@example.com.”
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