By Andria Kades
As if cancer treatment wasn’t enough of a traumatic ordeal, those patients living towards the west of Cyprus – Limassol, Paphos, Peyia and Polis Chrysochous – have the additional disruption of having to travel all the way to Nicosia to get the comprehensive therapy they need.
The Bank of Cyprus oncology centre in Nicosia is the sole provider of radiotherapy, and if you don’t live in the capital, it can take hours to get there.
Radiotherapy requires a number of sessions which varies from patient to patient, however it’s not unusual for someone to need a month or more of treatment, five days a week. A session itself takes about 10 minutes.
The oncology centre, set up in 1998, also offers chemotherapy. This is available elsewhere, but if hospitals are overloaded, then once again the long trek to Nicosia is unavoidable.
“Imagine a patient living in Polis Chrysoschous who essentially has to travel across Cyprus to get their radiotherapy. All for 10 minutes,” chairman of the Cyprus Anti-Cancer Society Limassol branch Michalis Christofides told the Sunday Mail.
The charity offers free transfers to the oncology centre and back to all patients irrespective of their financial status, as does PASYKAF (the Cyprus Association of Cancer Patients and Friends).
Every week day, each bus takes an average of 12 patients, though this can rise to 22, according to the general manager of Limassol’s PASYKAF branch, Spyroulla Argyriou.
It is a journey that Paphos cancer patient Lizzie Ferguson is all too familiar with.
“I get the bus at 5.50am and get to the oncology centre at 8.30. It stops in Pissouri and Limassol to pick up other patients, and there are two buses back at 12.30 and 2pm,” she said.
“It’s a life saver especially if you have to go every day and you’re not feeling well enough to drive and you don’t want to rely on family and friends.”
Both charities are fully aware of the toll the journey takes on the patients they help.
“It has gone on long enough. Can you imagine what it’s like? Patients that have anal cancer are incontinent. I’m sorry to say this but do you know how humiliating this is for them? And there’s no bathrooms on the highway, we have to stop at a restaurant. We would like to have a bathroom in the bus but that’s too high a cost for us,” said Argyriou.
Then, there’s the heat. “Imagine radiating the brain and then having to absorb the sun rays especially in August.”
Patients also lose their day. Someone that lives in Nicosia can get their radiotherapy and then go to work if they want to. “A patient from Limassol or Paphos however needs to be stuck at home for two months,” she said because they are wasting about four hours or more a day in travelling.
But for patients living in Limassol and Paphos, 2017 should see the start of major changes for those needing radiotherapy.
The German oncology centre set up by Dr Nicos Zamboglou in Ayios Athanasios, Limassol should be fully operational this year. President Nicos Anastasiades himself conceded the new centre would cover needs “which the state has failed to meet” and went on to say every year, there were around 3,500 new cancer cases, half of whom need radiotherapy. About 40 per cent of these patients live in Limassol and Paphos, he said.
The centre will provide services covering the whole spectrum of needs, from prevention and diagnosis to treatment, rehabilitation and support for patients, plus offering modern radiotherapy techniques.
Additionally, Ygia Polyclinic Private Hospital, in cooperation with their Swedish company Elekta, will begin operating their own oncology centre this year starting with chemotherapy in January and with radiotherapy and brachytherapy which available from April, according to a news release posted on their website.
Administration and financial governance manager of Ygia, George Zachariades told the Sunday Mail the new setup would have adequate capacity to cover a large portion of the patients needing radiotherapy in Limassol and Paphos.
Furthermore, the Bank of Cyprus confirmed at the beginning of the month that a new deal has been struck with the health ministry to operate a new oncology centre in Limassol. While there were initial thoughts to expand the Nicosia operation, they’ve finally settled on making a new oncology centre with the bank financing €11 million for the project.
What remains to be seen, however, is how the health ministry will coordinate the new treatment providers. The Bank of Cyprus centre offers free treatment to all cancer patients, but Ygia Polyclinic is, for example, a private facility. Although the ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment, Ygia told the Sunday Mail they were in the midst of discussions as to how an arrangement would work.
Currently, the ministry has a budget for the running of the Bank of Cyprus oncology centre while the bank shoulders some running costs.
News of the new facilities has of course been welcomed by the charities. At present, the cost to PASYKAF for offering the free bus service alone is close to €56,000. That’s without the driver’s salary, maintenance costs and daily cleaning and sterilising. Though PASYKAF would continue to transfer patients wherever they need to go for treatment, shorter distances would reduce costs and release funds to be spent on other aspects of the charity’s cancer care.
For Ferguson, the thought of the shorter journey from Paphos to Limassol means she would feel just that little bit less tired after her gruelling treatment day after day.
“It would be fantastic,” she said. “Half the stress, half the journey.”
A cancer patient’s lifeline
While the bus services PASYKAF and the Anti-Cancer Society both offer are crucial, they are just a small section of what the two charities offer cancer patients and their relatives.
PASYKAF have medical staff on call 24 hours a day, psychologists, physiotherapists, doctors and nurses available for free to all patients. PASYKAF’s Limassol branch has 22 full time staff, including the bus driver trained in first aid while the Cyprus Anti-Cancer Society has 15 staff in Limassol.
Both make sure they pick up medicine for the patients to spare them the cost and effort of having to pick them up themselves and say their services are open to everyone – irrespective of race, religion or financial status.
In Limassol, the Cyprus Anti-Cancer Society operates the Evagorion – a palliative care centre – which also administers injections such as Zoladex and Zometa and blood transfusions.
Each charity has operating costs of approximately €2.5 million each per year. In the case of the Cyprus Anti-Cancer Society, €1.5 million of that is absorbed by their Nicosia-based palliative centre Arodafnousa.
The charities rely largely on donations from the public and private companies, though the government does provide some funds.
PASYKAF for instance has 550 volunteers to visit patients in their homes to help out with cooking, shopping, chores or even offer some company. The Cyprus Anti-Cancer Society offer similar help.
For PASYKAF, a major future project is a rehabilitation centre in Moniatis after a couple donated the money to set it up.
“It’s to help people get back into a normal life routine. Yes, there is life after cancer. I had stage three cancer at 34. Now I’m 62 and cancer free,” said Argyriou.