These frontliners help cancer patients beat the odds

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Malaysian women. At Cancer Research Malaysia, we found that half of breast cancer deaths in the country could be prevented by helping underprivileged breast cancer patients get diagnosed and treated on time.

But it’s not so simple for low- or no-income patients who are already struggling to make ends meet. That’s where our Patient Navigation Programme (PNP) comes in. Our navigators work together with doctors, nurses, and community partners to help cancer patients overcome barriers and stick to treatment, which could save hundreds of lives every year.

Based in hospitals in Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Sarawak and Sabah, they share what’s happening behind the scenes in the fight against breast cancer.

How do navigators help patients beat the big C?

“We interview new patients to identify barriers that could cause them to drop out of treatment later on. We also follow up with existing patients, or they call us if they need help.” – Masita Tan

“We help patients coordinate hospital appointments, provide counselling support, especially health counselling during COVID-19. We also help patients with their financial aid applications.” – France Olovia

“Our role is unique and challenging. We work with patients who mostly come from the B40 group, we identify resources or community partners who can support their changing needs throughout treatment. We also visit patients at home.” – Kavitha Muniandy

Very importantly…

“Our navigators are also researchers. They use data to implement interventions that will optimise patient care. So what we do and how we do it, is a result of research.” – Maheswari Jaganathan, PNP manager

Our navigators in action!

What barriers have you seen patients face?

“For a cancer patient, time is very precious. But women from more challenging backgrounds sometimes postpone treatment because they’re struggling with other issues in their lives. Some patients have no one to help with meals and chores, some live in overcrowded homes, some have family members losing jobs, or are waiting for welfare.” – Mallika Muniandy

“Some breast cancer patients are single mums who don’t have enough support. Some patients are afraid to go to the hospital during this pandemic and MCO.” – Nur Silmi Sabturani

“Many patients live in rural areas so it’s very hard for them to go to the hospital for treatment. Sometimes it takes 3 – 6 hours to reach Kuching.” – Shirly Dendang

“When COVID-19 first broke out, masks were hard to get, so we had to send PPE to patients by poslaju. Logistics is tough, most patients depend on others for transport to the hospital. Some use public transport or taxis, but there is a fear of infection because of COVID-19.” – Hani Zainal

It takes an army! The Patient Navigation Programme is a collaboration between Cancer Research Malaysia and Ministry of Health hospitals.

What positive impact have you seen in patients’ lives?

“I’ve come across wonderful people and good community partners – some ‘foster’ poor patients and their families; there’s even a group of youngsters helping a single mum with cancer to get welfare. They are doing what they can from where they are with what they have.” – Mallika Muniandy

“Even just a phone call gives patients so much strength, they feel there’s someone out there supporting them, and that makes a lot of difference in their cancer journey.” – Kavitha Muniandy

“We helped enhance their quality of life during MCO by engaging community partners to help support patients’ needs like groceries and food, as well as applying for financial assistance by the government.” – Hani Zainal

“B40 patients can complete treatment without worrying about their financial situation. The number of patients who drop out of treatment has decreased and this shows that PNP really helps them in their journey to fight cancer.” – Norfaezah Sedi

In the past, 1 in 7 patients would drop out of treatment. PNP has seen up to 95% of patients in the programme completing treatment. We have expanded to 4 states, and, together with the Ministry of Health, hope to improve cancer survival rates across Malaysia.

Note: Some photos in this article were taken before MCO

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