With only two public wards specialising in cancer care for both sexes, a cancer diagnosis for some living in the Kingdom can be tantamount to a death sentence.
Out of a population of 15 million plus, just 14,000 new cancer patients are being diagnosed each year, a figure that would likely be higher if proper diagnostics were within reach of the average citizen, according to Dr Eav Sokha, head of oncology at Calmette Hospital.
“My dream is to develop a national cancer treatment centre in Cambodia with high quality of care and diagnosis before I retire,” Sokha said.
That dream could be arriving faster than expected. On January 13, a groundbreaking ceremony will mark the start of construction on the Kingdom’s first National Cancer Centre.
“What makes this new National Cancer Centre special is the difference in the level of technology available; everything will be new and on par with equipment used in developed Western countries,” Sokha explained.
The new centre – set to eventually replace Calmette’s current Oncology Services building – will feature four state-of-the-art radiotherapy machines, a PET-CT scanner capable of creating images of cell activity, and a Spectre Gamma Camera, all slated to be installed in 2016.
Medical technology capable of diagnosing cancer, let alone treating it, is in scant supply in the Kingdom, professor Kouy Samnang, chief of oncology services at Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, said.
“We used to have two radiology machines but one broke in 2012 and the other is need of an upgrade. The operational one is used on 40-50 patients a day,” Samnang said, adding that in the first six months of 2013, the hospital diagnosed 637 patients with cancer. While Calmette has operating radiology machines and scanning technology capable of spotting a tumour, everything is in desperate need of an upgrade, according to Sokha.
Calmette’s current cancer ward and Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital are the two primary national hospitals operating with established oncology services, said Dr Khim Sam Ath, a technical officer specialising in non-communicable diseases for the World Health Organization’s Cambodia offices.
However, any numbers on how many Cambodians are afflicted with cancer are sparse. According to Sam Ath, the most up-to-date data on cancer in the Kingdom was last collected in 2008, despite non-communicable diseases being ranked among the Kingdom’s top four health priorities in the health strategic plan for 2008 to 2012.
In the 2008, there were 12,900 new cases of cancer in Cambodia, according to a report conducted by the government and the WHO. With so many patients and so few opportunities for quality treatment, it is unsurprising that those diagnosed often believe the disease to be untreatable.
Van Saroeun, 53, a cancer patient receiving care in Phnom Penh, was told that the pain spreading through her lungs would end after six treatments.
But, she said, she had little hope for recovery.
“I was panicked when they told me I had cancer. I know now that my life will not be long with this illness.”