Malaysia’s inaction against cancer causing needless deaths

February 1, 2018 — Over 20,000 Malaysians are dying from cancer each year, with half of these deaths unnecessary if Malaysia were ‘fair’, says the National Cancer Society of Malaysia (NCSM).

At the Primary Healthcare Cancer Forum held on February 3, in conjunction with World Cancer Day (February 4), NCSM President Dr Saunthari Somasundaram will tell the audience that due to inequality in its early diagnosis, treatment and care, Malaysia has a high incidence to death ratio in Southeast Asia, with 37,000 new cases and 22,000 deaths each year.

“The U.S. just announced a 26 per cent drop in cancer deaths last month, and they have a higher cancer incidence than we,” she says. “Even Singapore, which announced a sharp increase in cancer cases, claimed to have a steady death rate. As a middle to high income country, there is no reason Malaysia can’t achieve the same.”

Dr Saunthari explains that the high death toll is partly caused by the lack of early recognition of symptoms. Right now, the most common cancers in Malaysia: breast, colorectal, cervix, lung, and nasopharynx are often presented at late stages (40, 65, 60, 90 and 60 per cent respectively).

“A free and accessible programme, such as a national screening programme for breast, colorectal and cervix cancer could lead to early detection, which vastly improves survival rates,” she says. “It would also increase the public’s awareness and remind them to maintain healthy habits.”

The shortage of public treatment facilities as well as professionals also push patients to seek help from private hospitals. A study of 1,400 cancer patients in Malaysia revealed that half of them spend at least 30 per cent of their household income on treating the disease. There is also a price disparity between public hospitals and university hospitals.

“Those who don’t have private insurance or can’t afford private healthcare will just have to delay their treatment,” Dr Saunthari says. “Also, patients who previously received treatment from private facilities are penalised when they transfer to public hospitals, having to pay a higher rate.

“The stress of facing financial catastrophe only worsens their quality of life, which, again, affects their survival.”

With insufficient oncologists and cancer services in the country, Malaysia needs to empower general practitioners and nurses, who could be a front-liners of this battle, Dr Saunthari adds.

“They are the first ones to see patients, and it shouldn’t just be about treating existing problems, but also practicing preventive healthcare. For example, is the patient due for an annual check-up? Are they smoking or overweight? What is their family history?”

“This is why our forum on world cancer day this year is focused on primary healthcare. We should shift our mindset from reactive – only seeking medical help when we’re sick – to preventive.

“Malaysia is also the host to the World Cancer Congress in October, in which global cancer control experts will unite. We need to show the world that we have come leaps and bounds in battling the disease by then.”

NCSM’s Primary Healthcare Cancer Forum is held in Melaka on 3 February 2018. Media is welcome to attend. See:

The National Cancer Society of Malaysia is also the host of the World Cancer Congress in October 2018. See: