Cancer patients dying in South African hospitals due to non-treatment

Public hospitals are the lifeline of most South Africans, with 41 million people dependent on the public health system. Of the 50 million people in South Africa , only about eight million are covered by medical insurance . Yet poor service delivery due to easily rectifiable issues has led to the demise of many patients. Considering that South Africa has the largest health budget in Africa , this is deplorable!

Lack of access to medication, broken machinery and rescheduling has made receiving life-saving cancer treatment very difficult to access for many patients. One of the common reasons that suppliers of these specialised cancer machines have refused to fix them is because the Gauteng Department of Health hasn’t paid outstanding bills. Other issues experienced by patients include problems accessing medication and dealing with poor hospital administration. These are recurring issues which seem to only ever receive temporary solutions from government and hospital CEOs.

“This is unacceptable! Quality healthcare, which includes timely diagnosis and treatment, is a basic human right for all,” says Salom� Meyer, member of the Executive Council of the Cancer Alliance

Due to the Gauteng Department of Health’s slow reactions to these complaints, the Cancer Alliance supports and encourages Campaigning for Cancer (C4C), and other cancer alliance advocacy NGOs, to fight on behalf of patients. Many patients have approached Campaigning for Cancer as their last hope, while others are waiting for the system to correct itself, as they are unaware of an alternative or are afraid of recrimination.

“Patient treatment is severely compromised due to the unavailability of equipment. Even just one month of delay can change the outcome of treatment – this is the difference between life and death for many patients,” says Joel Perry, a Cancer Alliance member.

Veronica Holman is one of the patients that has been struggling to get treatment. Veronica is a lung cancer survivor who went to Charlotte Maxeke Hospital for a check-up in April of this year. She was informed that her tumour had grown and would need to receive chemotherapy. Her first chemotherapy treatment was successful, but things went downhill from there on out.

Veronica’s second chemotherapy was due on 2 May, but when she arrived at the hospital, she was told she couldn’t receive her treatment because the drug shipment had not arrived. For two weeks, she kept phoning the hospital to find out when the drug would become available.

After hitting a brick wall, Veronica contacted Campaigning for Cancer to assist her with getting access to her treatment. It was only after they contacted with Department of Health with an official letter of complaint on 17 May that Veronica finally received her treatment.

“Chemotherapy and radiation therapy cannot be interrupted; each patient requires full cycles of chemotherapy and radiation, within protocoled timeframes, for their treatment to be effective. This is putting patient’s lives at stake and will have poor outcomes for each one of them,” says, Devan Moodley, Oncologist.

Theresa Alberts, another cancer survivor, battled with rescheduling and equipment problems. Theresa had a scan confirmed for 9 February at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, but on 31 January, she received a phone call from the hospital to tell her that her appointment had been rescheduled for 23 February. But on 9 February the hospital contacted her again and told her that her appointment for the 23rd had been cancelled until further notice due to the fact that the machines were out of order.

“The last scan was very important as it would determine how much chemo and radiation I would need. I was very unhappy about this as I did not know how far the cancer had spread and how the delay of the treatment would affect my outcome,” says Theresa.

She was told that the situation was unfortunate, but there was nothing they could do about it. Her situation finally resolved itself, and in March 2012 she started receiving treatment again. In late March her treatment was interrupted again, because of more equipment issues. Luckily, things seem to be on track again.

“Cancer treatment is not like any other disease treatment. When treatment is not available, cancer patients begin to feel powerless, and it shatters the hope of patients and their families,” says oncology social worker Linda Greeff, a Cancer Alliance Member.

Roland Murphy, a prostate cancer patient at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, was affected severely by this problem. In 2010, Roland’s cancer returned and he was put on Casodex. But in March of this year, he was told that he had become hormone resistant to the medication and would need to triple his dose.

When his granddaughter, Vicky Churchill, went to the hospital pharmacy to collect the medication, she was told they don’t have it in stock. On 8 June, Roland went back to the hospital and notified his doctor that there was no stock of his medication. His doctor gave him a new script for the same drug, saying there is now a steady supply, but again, there was no medication in stock.

His doctor has reassured her that it’s not urgent, but “the fact remains that cancer spreads and without the right treatment how far and how quickly will it spread through his bones?”

If Healthcare is a basic human right, the question must be asked: why aren’t South Africans getting it?

About the Cancer Alliance

The Cancer Alliance is a collective group of cancer control non-profit organisations and cancer advocates brought together under a common mandate as result of the May 2011 Voice of Cancer Survivor Forum, a platform which allowed cancer survivors to express their needs regarding access to quality of care, attitudes, practices, policies of cancer control and services in South Africa

The Alliance seeks to provide a platform of collaboration for cancer civil society to speak with one voice and be a powerful tool to effect change for all South Africans affected by cancer. The Alliance will act as a watchful eye on strategies and policies that ensure the significant reduction of South Africa’s cancer burden and improved access to care for all cancer patients.

The Cancer Alliance will achieve this through the publication of position statements/papers and baseline papers as well as public messaging relating to such publications. This will be strengthened with focused advocacy and lobbying activities with relevant stakeholders regarding issues faced by all South Africa’s Cancer patients.

The members of the Cancer Alliance include; amabele Belles, African Organisation for Research and Training in Cancer (ORTIC), Brain Tumor Foundation SA, Breast Health Foundation, Campaigning for Cancer, Can-Sir, CANSA, CHOC, Cancer Buddies, Hospice Palliative Care Association SA, IGAZI Foundation, Journey of Hope, Look Good Feel Better, National Council Against Smoking, National Kidney Foundation of South Africa, People Living With Cancer, Pink Drive, Reach for Recovery, The Sunflower Fund, The Vrede Foundation and individual advocates.

Issued on behalf of the Cancer Alliance