15 Sep 2011
By: LEA WEE
When Mr Yue Keng Siang was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1999, he was 39 and his two children were one and three years old.
A physical education teacher who exercised regularly and neither smoked nor drank, he could barely comprehend the news.
Through the fog in his head, he heard the treatment: surgery and six cycles of chemotherapy.
Though he survived that painful decade, there were dark days which would have seemed less depressing if there was a group of survivors he could turn to. But there was not anything like that back then.
He said: “If I had had a support group, it would have been helpful. In times like that, knowing somebody who understands what you are going through can make a big difference.”
Now Mr Yue will himself be offering moral support to other liver cancer patients in a new support group, believed to be the first here for liver cancer patients.
It will be launched on Saturday in conjunction with other activities for Liver Cancer Awareness Month. Membership is free and it is open to all liver cancer patients in Singapore.
There is a need for such a support group because of the rising number of liver cancer patients here, said Dr Lee Ser Yee, an associate consultant at the department of surgical oncology of the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), who got the ball rolling to set up the group.
It is not clear why the number of liver cancer cases here is on the rise, he said. The same trend is happening in the United States and Asia.
One reason could be ignorance of the risks of getting the hepatitis B virus, which is spread through blood and body fluids, and is the major cause of the cancer.
Dr Lee said: “There could be more people engaging in high-risk behaviour such as having unprotected sex and sharing needles while abusing drugs.”
Another reason could be that more people are coming forward to be screened for liver cancer, he said.
A nationwide programme to vaccinate babies against hepatitis B has been in place since 1987. If it is successful, the incidence of liver cancer may come down as the children on the programme grow older, said Dr Lee.
The number of Singaporean men with liver cancer has grown from 1,600 between 2002 and 2006 to 1,800 cases between 2005 and 2009. The number of women with the condition is about 580 between 2002 and 2009.
The Singapore Cancer Registry shows that liver cancer is the third most fatal cancer among men here, killing about 1,580 men between 2005 and 2009. It is the fifth most fatal cancer among women here, killing about 580 in the same period.
Liver cancer remains “much misunderstood”, something the support group hopes to change, said Dr Lee. For instance, many older people view liver cancer as invariably fatal.
But that is not the case, based on the experience of NCCS and Singapore General Hospital (SGH). Over the last nine years, more than 50 per cent of almost 500 liver cancer patients survive more than five years after surgery to remove the tumour. Some survive more than 10 years.
A support group can help to dispel misconceptions and provide moral support.
More treatments are also now available for liver cancer. These include new chemotherapy drugs which can be injected into the artery of the liver and radiofrequency ablation, which directs high- frequency electrical currents to destroy the tumour.
Dr Lee said: “Newly diagnosed patients can get confused, especially in their worried state, about which treatment to go for.”
The support group, which will have doctors from NCCS and SGH as members, lets the doctors and liver cancer survivors spend time answering questions that the patients may have.
This is important as patients and their families may get the wrong information from the Internet or other sources and end up depriving themselves or their relatives of the proper treatment.
There are plans to set up an e-mail account and hotline to let patients ask questions.
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