Down2Earth - A Christmas wish fulfilled

THE Yuletide season is being observed on a poignant note following the passing of a good friend on Christmas morning.

Elaine Kwong was the editor-in-chief of The Malaysian Women's Weekly but she cut her teeth as a writer at theSun.

With little hand-holding she managed to bring in stories on her own and even write commentaries. She would go to press conferences attended by so-called senior reporters and yet return with a different angle.

For Elaine it was simple. Whether it was a government agency or a non-governmental organisation, the question that needed to be asked is what are the social benefits or impact of a policy or decision.

Although she was supposed to be learning from us, we also learnt from her.

Elaine, who worked directly under me, would stop me at times when I got carried away while editing her story, reminding me to focus on the issue at hand and leave her emotion in the story.

She would bat her eyelids at some of us hardened journalists when we told her that soft stories on people's suffering don't always sell.

"Why do we even bother then?" she questioned one day, when I relegated one such story involving low-cost flats to a filler.

Which is why I bet if Elaine had survived the ovarian cancer that took her life at only 37 years, she would campaign for better access to drugs and treatment.

Her own challenge in getting trial drugs after everything had failed shows that there is a lot to be done to cut the red tape.

The two weeks to over a month duration to obtain Health Ministry approval for use of trial drugs is a death sentence for some cancer patients.

With escalating medical and later hospice-care cost, she would have taken to task the federal authorities, as despite an annual health budget of RM12 billion, cancer care and prevention still seems to fall between the cracks – with 37,000 new diagnosis and about 21,000 deaths recorded each year.

The National Cancer Society says about 100,000 Malaysians are living with cancer. But this does not include family members – the primary caregivers – who are also living with the disease. Apart from the emotional strain of watching their loved ones suffer and deteriorate, there is also the financial stress.

An Australian study on the costs of oncology in Asean earlier this year, found that medical cost exceeded the household income by 30%, putting many families into debt.

Elaine if she had not already, would have asked what sort of government allows its people to go bankrupt because they cannot afford the cost of cancer treatment?

Would it be naïve to ask why is it that what is available for free are not the first rate drugs that taxpayers would be more than happy to see the government use to save lives? According to the Together Against Cancer Association of Malaysia (TACM), better drugs would cost about RM6,000 a month, or RM72,000 annually per patient.

No one is asking the government to foot the whole amount but TACM's request for the last three years for a Cancer Drug Fund of RM50 million seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

While Budget 2016's provision for additional allocation for oncology and radiology, and zero exemption on goods and services tax may be a good start, it is a case of too little too late for many.

And on the other side of the spectrum, the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), which we just signed, seems to be the final nail in the coffin as it extends the patent expiry period for up to 20 years, keeping affordable life-saving drugs out of reach.

Yes, knowing Elaine, she would have said all these and more. And those of us who are still here, especially those who are grappling with this disease either directly or indirectly must continue to hold the torch and demand that more be done to make cancer treatment and prevention a priority.

Terence says Elaine will continue to inspire those who knew her with her humility, passion, compassion and determination. Cancer did not beat her. She beat cancer by out-living doctors' expectations, and going on her own terms – seeing Christmas one last time. He wishes everyone a happier year ahead. Feedback: letters@thesundaily.com