The Edition brings readers a dose of positive news over a cup of tea shared with inspirational folk doing all sorts of positive work in the Maldives.
There is no easy way to come to terms with a tragedy, in particular if it is a loved one’s … or your own.
Hussein Rasheed’s life was thrown off kilter when he was diagnosed with cancer in March of 2003. In the face of a shocking terminal illness, he found himself alone, undergoing treatment abroad by himself.
During those agonising days in the hospital, he found strength in the support of a friend.
“My friend in Bangkok became my Support Group”, recalled Hussein, his eyes heavy with memory and emotion.
“My friends in Male’ would also call me. Their support and prayers, along with the supplications they would recommend, gave me strength in the days after my surgery”.
His harrowing experience was what drove Hussein Rasheed to consider a forum for cancer awareness in the Maldives, determined to lessen the pain faced by others like him. Although he initially intended to work with the Diabetes and Cancer Society of Maldives, by then the association had narrowed its focus to only Diabetes.
Hussein found himself waiting for a promised cancer-centred organisation that never happened. Finally, taking matters into his own hands, he teamed up with locally renowned Dr Abdul Malik, and close friend Afiya Ali, and together, the trio founded the Cancer Society of Maldives (CSM) in October 2, 2012.
Since its formation, CSM has remained unwaveringly on its path to minimise the incidence and impact of cancer across the archipelago. The society is fueled by a resolute team, hailing from varying backgrounds who were brought together by a shared understanding of the harsh reality of cancer - for the patient, and for their loved ones as well.
“I have no background in the health sector,” Juwairiya Saeed, the Chairperson of CSM, shared with open frankness. “But I was nominated for Cancer Society’s board during our first Annual General Meeting.
“I wondered what someone like me could do ... but then I thought of my father, who passed away from cancer; and I remembered helping out a little boy and his grandfather one day at the hospital.
“Those memories made me realise there has to be something I can do. So I gave it a try”.
Nine years later, the fruit of CSM’s efforts is more than evident. With a strong volunteer basis as its backbone, the society has launched various prevention incentives, such as awareness campaigns and major screening programmes, not only in the capital city of Male’ but the atolls as well.
“We started screening programmes in Male’ and the atolls, supported by a team from Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital”, said Juwairiya.
“Over the past five years, we have covered 14 atolls. The programmes are three days long, and around 500-600 individuals are screened for oral and breast cancer”.
Although a daunting task, CSM’s screening team is always up for the challenge. With doctors, nurses, radiologists, members of CSM and volunteers on hand, a team of at least 11 brings the tests directly to the far reaches of Maldives, where proper resources and facilities are still lacking. As a result, 97 percent of the individuals screened are saved the trouble of travelling to the capital.
“Post investigation, only the suspected cases are advised to pursue further testing in Male’”.
CSM’s initiatives also include cancer awareness training programmes, which commenced six years ago, with the aim of building a Cancer Society Network connecting all the atolls. While two people from each atoll are trained under this programme, CSM further provides special training to health workers and counsellors in schools, particularly on how to provide psychological first aid for students diagnosed with cancer.
Psychosocial support, Juwairiya and Hussain both stressed, is just as vital as medical care.
On February 4, 2016, CSM unveiled its Cancer Support Group, ready to provide psychosocial care for cancer patients, survivors, and their families; an accomplishment that the organisation considers one of its greatest.
However, it started out slow with only a couple of people attending the biweekly meetings. The few who turned up were sceptical.
“They would ask what the point of a Support Group was…” said Juwairiya.
In time, both cancer patients, as well as their families, experienced the difference it makes to share their stories with people who could truly understand them; the strength gained in giving and receiving words of encouragement from those in the same boat; and the relief in knowing you are not alone.
Jovial, kind-eyed Nazeer Ahmed was one of them.
On meeting Nazeer, he appeared to be a healthy, happy man, but his cheery expression darkened as he recalled the fateful day: “When I was diagnosed, the doctors said I had only 6-12 months left. I was … devastated”.
His voice was thick with emotion as he reminisced the aftermath of his surgery and chemotherapy in India. “After I came back, I would just sit by myself in the sitting room … I grew detached from the world. I didn’t believe that my situation would get any better”.
Nazeer’s life turned around after his wife suggested that he look for help. He took her advice and found himself on the phone with Dr Malik. “There was a Support Group meeting that day and he invited me”.
Since then, he has not looked back. Breaking out in a smile, Nazeer spoke of his experiences within the Support Group; he gained useful information on active lifestyles, healthy eating and exercise from the meetings; he met people with whom he could open up about his illness; and, with their support, he successfully weaned off of the morphine prescribed to him for the pain.
“Today I’m living like a normal person. Look at me, no one who sees me now would think I’m ill,” he said with a grin. “I am so grateful to the Support Group; they helped someone like me step back into society”.
Such sentiments resonate deep and true among the members of CSM, even for Hussein and Juwairiya.
“The Support Group is one of our greatest strengths. It’s thanks to them that even I’m able to speak of my own experience,” said Hussein, recalling how difficult it had first been to talk to his own family.
Juwairiya nodded in agreement. “It is never an easy topic … It was very difficult for me as well after my father passed away. But sharing with others helps.
“It gives us a lot of strength and hope, and many patients and survivors have experienced this”.
Cancer Society’s Support Group has come a long way since its bleak beginnings. It has grown into a “unique family” with 15-20 people attending every meeting, which has upped frequency to once a week. Meanwhile, the number of people helping out each other online, via CSM’s Viber Group, has exceeded 100 members.
Hussein and Juwairiya also emphasised the role their volunteers played, in both the support and prevention programmes.
“It is our volunteers that have brought us this far”.
The year 2016 also marked a number of other milestones for CSM. The organisation became a member of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), the global organisation that supports health associations worldwide in the fight against cancer.
With pride, Hussein highlighted that UICC had expedited CSM’s membership, after seeing Cancer Society’s efforts and the situation in Maldives.
CSM also became the first foreign organisation to join Cancer Care India (CACI), the apex non-profit association of cancer support groups in the neighbouring country.
With access to greater resources via UICC and CACI, Cancer Society is now looking to expanding its services, reach and impact, starting with the establishment of its own headquarters in Male’.
CSM’s visions for the future include a care programme, in conjunction with treatment centres, to provide greater access to medical treatment, psychosocial support, rehabilitation, and palliative care for patients directly in Maldives.
The organisation is also working to establish screening mechanisms with state-of-the-art facilities in every atoll. Their outreach plans include forming Support Groups outside of Male’, to cater for the patients hailing from other regions.
Cancer Society additionally noted that cancer awareness is still a prevailing issue among the majority of Maldivians.
“We plan to use various social media platforms to spread awareness”, said Juwairiya. “We want the message to reach each and every Maldivian that cancer can be treated if diagnosed early enough”.
Lack of awareness also feeds the social stigma surrounding cancer, she noted.
“Diagnosis comes with shock and fear. People don’t want to talk about it, but that can lead to emotional turmoil and even depression. Our purpose is to speak up and show that there are survivors, like our very own Hussein, so as to give patients strength and remove the stigma”.
After gaining UICC membership, Cancer Society was the first to officially celebrate World Cancer Day in the Maldives. On February 4 this year, CSM is again geared up to combat cancer across the country.
“UICC’s theme for World Cancer Day for the next three years is ‘I am and I will’, which means there is something that every individual can do to lessen the burden and impact of cancer”, said Juwairiya.
As part of its contributions, CSM is gifting toolkits to schools, government offices, companies and health centres in every atoll. The kits are curated to provide information on what can be done - individually, and as an institution - to prevent cancer.
This year, CSM is also teaming up with NCD Alliance to launch an active workplace concept. The campaign promotes regular exercise, healthy eating, and active lifestyles, which are crucial to preventing noncommunicable diseases such as cancer.
Moreover, the society will launch fundraisers for its operations, inviting sponsorships, donations and help of every kind.
“Cancer affects not only the patient but their entire family”, said Hussein. “It is also a financially large disease, so we need all the help we can get. Donations, no matter how small, are welcome, as are volunteers from every field!”
In that vein, Hussein and Juwairiya expressed their heartfelt gratitude to each and every individual that has ever played a role in the fight against cancer.
“Our volunteer doctors, nurses, technical team, dieticians, psychologists, psychiatrists, Support Group members, donators and anonymous benefactors - they are our strength. We thank every one of you”.
As CSM’s Cancer Support Group celebrates its 3rd anniversary on World Cancer Day 2019, the society invites the close-knit community of Maldives to unite together stronger than ever. Let us all embrace ‘I am and I will’ and do our part to help raise awareness, achieve earlier diagnosis and prevent cancer incidence across our nation. Whether it is a click on social media to spread awareness, a donation large or small at https://cancer.org.mv, or volunteering our own time, there is no such thing as a trivial effort in caring for cancer patients and cancer survivors.