New hope for state cancer patients

New hope for state cancer patients
Radiation oncologist Dr Sudeshen Naidoo

The cancer crisis in South Africa is becoming insurmountable,  where access to cancer treatment and care is disproportionately associated with socio-economic  status, access to health insurance, and geographic location. With high costs, many standard-of-care  treatments are unaffordable for partially insured or uninsured patients. The situation is made worse by  long waiting lists, inadequate human resources and infrastructure weaknesses. 

Radiation oncologist Dr Sudeshen Naidoo, who practises at the Sandton Oncology Centre, aims to  address these disparities. As founder of the Johnson Rose Cancer Foundation – named after his  father and aunt – he is tackling this human rights crisis via an ambitious multi-pronged approach.  

“One of the objectives of the foundation is increase the number of oncologists in South Africa by  funding doctors to specialise in the field and to try and retain them in the state sector,” he says.  “Secondly, we aim to provide equitable access to cancer care for partially insured and uninsured  people of this country. By directly funding treatment with curative intent, we can prevent many  avoidable deaths. The third objective of the Johnson Rose Cancer Foundation is to support families  and communities that have been affected by cancer through access to counselling and other support  services.” 

Dr Naidoo is no stranger to the tragedy of cancer. “My first experience was in childhood, when my  beloved aunt Rosie was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and passed away within a few weeks of her  diagnosis,” he says. “This shattered our family – and her death solidified my later career decision to  specialise as an oncologist.”  

In 2019, his father, Dr Johnson Naidoo, was diagnosed with an aggressive stomach cancer. “Although  he had a successful surgical resection, he could not complete his chemotherapy and radiation  treatment due to the side effects and his age,” Dr Naidoo explains. “He’d always been a superhero to  me – a juggernaut in his field who helped shape Occupational Medicine in Kwa-Zulu Natal. As an  oncologist I felt helpless and an inner rage to see him deteriorate so quickly. Just a year after his  initial diagnosis, he succumbed to the illness in August 2020.”

After graduating, Dr Naidoo joined the largest private radiation oncology group practice in South  Africa. “But more importantly, I was also given the opportunity to serve my country as the radiation  oncology advisor to the Ministry of Health in South Africa from 2017 to 2020,” he explains.  

“During my time as the minister’s advisor I co-authored guidelines and contributed to the National  Strategic Cancer Plan in SA 2017-2022. I also authored Radiation Oncology crisis in South Africa  which led to some public private partnerships. This tenure equipped me to understand the  complexities involved in South Africa in enabling access to treatment and has shaped the purpose of  the Foundation.”  

Dr Naidoo says that the cancer crisis in South Africa will be ongoing for one simple reason. “Eighty  five percent (85%) of the population are serviced by only 15% of the oncologists in the state sector,  while 85% of the oncologists are currently in the private sector, servicing only 15% of the population  

who are insured,” he says. This inevitably causes bottlenecks in the state sector because there simply  aren’t enough oncologists.  

“We know the current public healthcare system is under immense pressure and in crisis. However,  cancer is a time sensitive disease, the sooner a patient receives evidence-based treatment the better  the outcome for them. Unfortunately, in some geographical areas a fair number of cancer patients  need to wait months for treatment to start. Even if they receive surgery and chemotherapy, the waiting  lists at radiation oncology units are months-long.”  

“As an oncologist, I must ask what was the point of that chemotherapy and surgery? Radiation must  occur within a certain window period, which is either two to four weeks after chemotherapy, or four to  seven weeks after surgery depending on the stage of disease. So, all those patients are waiting to be  treated, to be saved, but unfortunately, they’re waiting too long and are at risk of the disease  returning,” says Dr Naidoo.  

This impacts families negatively. Cancer, and its treatment, result in the loss of economic resources  and opportunities for patients, their families, communities, and society overall. Children are at  particular risk of dropping out of school especially when the sole bread winner is sick.  

The foundation understands these complexities and will take a multi-disciplinary approach that  integrates services to focus on the patient, and their families. The aim is to partner with government,  other NGOs and organisations and refer patients and their families for additional services when  required. This includes support services for transport and accommodation to access treatment and  care and referral to services in community including palliative care and counselling. 

The Johnson- Rose Cancer Foundation is led by a team of dedicated cancer care professionals,  which includes co-founders Dr Keo Tabane and Dr Omondi Ogude. Its Board of Directors is a  collaboration of experts from the South African oncology community and includes, oncologists, 

business and managed healthcare professionals, patient advocates and social workers. Importantly  the Foundation is also convening an Academic Advisory Committee which is open to all government  oncology heads of department, to advise on policy and process.  

The registered NPC is the first of its kind in Southern Africa providing much-needed funding and  assistance to state patients and families afflicted by cancer. But as Dr Naidoo says, “we can only  close the gap in cancer care, if we have your support and your investment in the people with no voice  who need our help.” 

To learn more about the foundation and how you can help uninsured South Africans to receive cancer  treatment and care visit www.johnsonrosecancer.org.