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Oncologist to drive cancer landscape

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Dr Eav Sokha poses with a CT scanner at the Orange Cancer Clinic, which is due to open on November 30, in northeastern Phnom Penh. SUPPLIED

Oncologist to drive cancer landscape

Armed with many years of oncology and haematology studies in Vietnam, France and the US, Dr Eav Sokha initiated and planned a National Cancer Centre, a cutting-edge facility at Calmette Hospital.

Public hospitals Calmette and Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital are the two primary institutions operating with established oncology services, both of which are located in Phnom Penh.

After serving in the civil service for nearly three decades and witnessing the number of new cancer cases in Cambodia climb each year as the reach and range of services offered at the two hospitals remained limited, Dr Sokha resigned and committed his time and resources to found the Orange Cancer Clinic, which is scheduled to open on November 30.

Located on National Road 6 in northeastern Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar district, the clinic specialises in oncology and haematology, and brings the latest technology from Europe and the US, aiming to treat patients who are unable to seek medical attention abroad.

Oncology is the science that deals with tumours and cancers, and haematology is the study of blood, blood-forming organs and associated disorders.

Dr Sokha, whose name means “health” or “wellbeing” in the Khmer language, reveals his plans and visions for the future of the provision of cancer- and blood-related services in Cambodia, in an exclusive interview with The Post’s May Kunmakara.

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What’s behind your decision to establish the clinic?

I became the first oncologist in Cambodia, after liberation (from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime) on January 7, 1979, and I entered the field because I like and enjoy learning and understanding difficult things and modern technology.

Although we have the two public hospitals providing oncology care, it’s woefully inadequate, we cannot yet match up to the needs of patients. People seeking treatment today could wait as long as two or three months before receiving care.

And some of them are in so much pain, I’ve seen it with my own eyes as a doctor, leading me to ponder what I should do to assist the government in providing treatment to those in need and help as much as possible – even if we can’t reach them all. That’s why I quit my job as a public doctor, which I’d held verging on 30 years.

When I took time off from work at government hospitals, I provided treatment at home as much as I could, although I was getting older. But day by day I was seeing more and more patients.

Obtaining medical services abroad is a costly affair and encounters many obstacles related to language communication.

Witnessing cancer patients’ struggles, I was motivated to set up this clinic in order to join the Royal Government to expand the capacity to alleviate these hardships.

Could you provide a brief overview of the cancer situation in Cambodia?

Overall, cancer is not a problem exclusive to Cambodia, it’s a public health issue around the world. There had been a lot of concern when cancer death rates eclipsed those from heart disease, hypertension and strokes, according to a 2010 World Health Organisation (WHO) study.

Another WHO study found that in 2018 the number of new cancer cases in Cambodia reached 15,362, and cancer-related deaths clocked in at 75.75 per cent of that, or 11,636.

As a doctor, these statistics are very shocking, and that’s why I stand resolved to do my best for the benefit of our people.

And these figures are unlikely to come down anytime soon – the WHO projects that by 2040, the number of annual new cases will double to 30,000. The question is, why is that?

Cancer is a non-communicable disease that tends to occur in older people. Although this does not mean that young people cannot develop it, the incidence rate is just lower.

This suggests that peaceful countries with a better quality of life, food security and higher life expectancy could be associated with an increased incidence rate of cancer.

This premise is backed by the fact that the longer we live, the more developed our countries become, but this also increases the risk of cells developing genetic mutations linked to cancer.

And infections caused by pathogens associated with cancer are also common in Cambodia.

Liver, lung, breast, gastrointestinal and cervical cancer are, in order, the five most common types of cancer in the country.

What modern technologies will you bring to the table?

The global cancer treatment landscape is changing from year to year. In the past, we’d treat the condition with surgery, but the tech was not up-to-date, and chemotherapy was excruciating for patients, yielding a cure rate of a mere 10 per cent.

However, treatment has made substantial advancements going into 2021, registering encouraging gains in 10-year survival rates, counting patients that a few years back may well have died in just six months despite receiving care.

To further the goals of the clinic, we’ve imported the latest technology from Europe and the US to fulfil the needs of local patients – some of whom would have gone overseas for treatment otherwise – offering them a viable option close to home at very reasonable prices, compared to those abroad.

We’re bringing in the latest tech of 2021 – some just recently developed in Europe – and are equipped with state-of-the-art equipment that accurately detects cancer-causing genes, thus allowing us to better understand the early stages and design more effective therapies.

In addition, we’ll be working with professional medical specialists in the region and in Europe, allowing us to make clearer assessments.

Our clinic will also be the first in the Kingdom to diagnose cancer using a simple blood test, without the need for tissue biopsies.

We’ll use three types of cancer treatment: surgery; the latest in radiation therapy – widely used in Europe, the US and Singapore; and immunotherapy, which uses genetically engineered immune cells that do not compromise patients’ health along with drugs that boost immunity to fight cancer cells.

Why else should Cambodians seek medical services locally?

Calmette and Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital can only cover 3,000 new local cancer cases a year, or 20 per cent, according to statistics from the WHO and some of my medical friends in Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore who provide the figures. About 1,500 Cambodians, or 10 per cent, go overseas for treatment.

These add up to only 30 per cent, however. Some people may not know where to go for the right care even if they have the financial and physical means, but others simply don’t have the resources.

The clinic will provide additional access to more medical services locally, and alleviate the plight of patients.

Some key considerations for us as a local clinic are to set our standards at the European level, provide good services and clear and understandable communication in the Khmer language, and charge reasonable prices.

I’ve heard from friends who are doctors abroad about instances where linguistic communication between patients, doctors and interpreters was challenging, and seemingly diminished the effectiveness of treatment.

I’d also like to share that I have many foreign patients who are living here, some of whom flew in seeking treatment from me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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