Bandar Kuching MP: ‘No Cancer Reform Without Health Care Reform’

Bandar Kuching MP Kelvin Yii urges the government to increase accessibility and affordability of cancer treatment, including subsidies, and cancer facilities and financial assistance to cover long travel to the hospital in rural areas like Sarawak.

PETALING JAYA, March 9 – Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii Lee Wuen today called for “out-of-the-box” thinking to make cancer treatment more affordable and accessible for all Malaysians.

The second-term DAP MP, who serves as special advisor to Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa, said addressing the cancer gap in Malaysia requires a multifaceted approach, including tackling the high costs associated with cancer treatment, expanding the number of trained medical professionals and cancer care facilities, and increasing public awareness and education about cancer.

“It all comes together with health care reform. There is no cancer reform without reforming the whole ship,” Dr Yii said in his keynote address at the Oncology Summit 2023 organised by the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy and supported by Takeda Malaysia here today.

Dr Yii said high cancer treatment costs in Malaysia, which often includes surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, is a major barrier to accessing care for many Malaysians. As a result, patients may be left without the medical attention they need, which can lead to poorer health outcomes.

“For instance, 43.6 per cent of households in Sarawak earn below RM4,000 (USD955) per month and 10.7 per cent earn less than RM2,000. Over 40 per cent of patients in Sarawak interviewed in one study had a household income below RM3,000. Adding to the burden, the cost of some of the newer and better cancer treatments can be prohibitively high,” Dr Yii said.

“We must work to make cancer treatment more affordable and accessible for all Malaysians. This can be done by providing subsidies for cancer treatment, working with insurance companies to provide coverage for cancer treatment, and providing financial assistance to low-income Malaysians who cannot afford cancer treatment,” Dr Yii said.

Malaysia also faces a shortage of trained medical professionals and cancer care facilities, particularly in rural areas, that forces many Malaysians to travel long distances to access cancer treatment. 

Dr Yii said this can place a significant burden on patients and their families, who may have to endure the physical, emotional, and financial stresses of lengthy travel, in addition to dealing with cancer.

“In Sarawak, for instance, cancer health infrastructure is lacking. We have only one tertiary government hospital in the whole state of 2.8 million people, covering an area of 124,450 sq km, which is the sole provider of complete cancer care, including oncologists and radiation therapy. And there are only five oncologists at Sarawak General Hospital as of end of last year,” said the DAP lawmaker.

He also highlighted that the travel expenses associated with accessing cancer care in Malaysia often extend beyond the patient themselves. In many cases, at least one family member must accompany the patient to their appointments, further compounding the financial burden. 

“To access medical services, villagers have to travel for five to six hours, depending on weather conditions, on rough roads in four-wheel drives,” Dr Yii said.

Dr Yii shared the story of cancer patient Jessica Liaw from Lawas, a small town in Limbang, Sarawak. Liaw must travel for a month each time she attends a follow-up appointment, as the nearest hospital that can provide chemotherapy and radiotherapy is located 200km away in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Specialist hospitals in her home state of Sarawak are even further, with the nearest option located 1,200km away in Miri.

Liaw was diagnosed with stage four endometrial carcinoma, a form of cancer that begins in the uterus, in 2011. Despite undergoing treatment, the cancer has since spread to her lungs, abdomen, and liver. 

Dr Yii pointed to Liaw’s story as an example of the significant hardships that many Malaysians face when seeking cancer care, particularly in Sarawak where medical resources are scarce.

Apart from infrastructure, the government backbencher said there is also an ongoing need to educate and create awareness about cancer in Malaysia.

“Many Malaysians still believe that cancer is a death sentence, and they do not know how to prevent it or seek treatment if they are diagnosed. This lack of knowledge leads to delays in seeking treatment, which can greatly reduce a patient’s chances of survival,” Dr Yii said.

“We must ensure that all Malaysians understand what cancer is, how it can be prevented, and how it can be treated. This education must start in schools and continue throughout our lives.”

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