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Feb 28, 2006

Medical community shares information on cancer

Story PictureCancer: it’s a word that can’t help but make us uncomfortable, since the disease leaves its often fatal mark on both young and old of every ethnicity and social strata. Last week Belize’s medical experts met to learn more about cancer … and News Five’s Jacqueline Woods was there.

Jacqueline Woods, Reporting
Three year old Julian Alexander Wholers has to wear a mask every time he leaves his house. Two years ago he was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that is affecting the little boy?s nervous system.

Patricia Wholers says when her son was one year old he started to complain about a pain in his neck. Wholers say as she examined her son she felt a small lump … a lump that would only get bigger.

Patricia Wholers, Mother
?Right at the base of his neck and then it just went growing and growing and growing. And in a period of time between one month and two months it was already a big thing, a big mass that he was not even able to do so [turn his neck] it was like this.?

The abnormal tumour was malignant. For the past year and a half, young Wholers has been receiving chemotherapy to treat his illness. Today he is desperately in need of a bone marrow transplant.

Patricia Wholers
?To give him a fifty, fifty chance of living. His bone marrow is giving good bone marrow, but to make sure that the tumour does not come back and he can live a little more, give him a little more time they are giving him this bone marrow; it?s necessary.?

The Wholers is just one of many Belizean families fighting deadly cancers. A year and a half ago, Rita Maria West and her sixteen year old daughter Vanessa Castillo began their battle with leukaemia.

Rita Maria West, Mother
?I suspect something was wrong with Vanessa when she told me that when she went to high school and she couldn?t climb the steps. So she came and she told me that she could not climb the steps and she was crying and I noticed that she could not walk a far distance, she start to cry.?

Vanessa Castillo, Cancer Patient
?Well it has been very difficult because I had to stop my studying, all my regular activities I had, I cannot do them anymore. I had to leave my house and go to Guatemala for approximately two months before I came back and I really miss my family and everyone at home.?

Cancer patients and their families suffer physically, emotionally, and financially as they do their best to find treatment for loved ones. Because most cancers cannot be treated in Belize, the Castillos and Wholers are some of the thousands that travel constantly to Mexico and Guatemala to receive therapy.

Patricia Wholers
?Sometimes we have to go emergency to Merida; we have to forget about everything and just run. We have to catch one bus after another bus and go. Forget about the need to eat, need to sleep, we need to get Julian to the hospital.?

Rita Maria West
?Every eight days. The most they could give us to come here to Belize City is ten days, because we need to go one day and one night to reach Guatemala City. And when we go one day and one night, next morning when we reach it?s direct to the hospital and that is very tiring for her. So we could say three days.?

There are no available statistics on just how many people are living with cancer in Belize. But alarmingly, health officials like Doctor Fernando Cuellar believes that there has been an increase in certain types of the disease.

Dr. Fernando Cuellar, Physician
?I think Belize does not have any single particularity in comparison to other countries. We share the same higher incidence of some type of cancers like other places. For example, cervical cancer is still high on the list, lung cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancers those are the more frequent types that we are seeing in Belize. We see more brain tumors and more brain cancers, more kidney tumors.?

?I am not sure if there has been an absolute increase or just that we are diagnosing them earlier and more, but there is no way to really say exactly. I am sure that as we grow as a nation, the introduction of different chemicals and so forth would play a role, but it is hard to say at this point.?

In mid-February, the Belize Cancer Society sponsored a one-day symposium to raise the awareness of the various types of cancer in our society. The doctors, nurses, and medical personnel and students shared the latest information on the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

But while Dr. Cuellar admits that during the last decade, technology available in the country to detect cancer has become more sophisticated, the same cannot be said about our ability to treat patients. Cancer treatments include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Currently, chemo is not offered in Belize.

Dr. Fernando Cuellar
?I must say that in terms of diagnosing, we have made some steps?of course not big enough, but we have made some steps. As compared to the treatment, unfortunately we haven?t made absolutely no steps in being able to treat most of the cancers here in Belize.?

?It?s nothing too complicated, well the drugs themselves are expensive, but there must be a way how to get the resources necessary for the acquisition of these medications.?

All the experts agree that when it comes to cancer, prevention is better than cure.

Dr. Fernando Cuellar
?To live healthy lives: eat properly, exercise regularly, stop smoking, lower the alcohol. All of those things, so that is one. We don?t have to put together mechanisms where we can assist people in getting medications at a cheaper rate. Definitely not for free, but very much more accessible rate. I think that?s the responsibility of, partly government, the NGOs, the private sector and everybody coming together.?

The Wholers have kept an album of pictures highlighting their son?s medical journey as they hope for a final cure. Julian and his family will continue their pilgrimage each twenty-one days to Merida for treatment.

Patricia Wholers
?No he was suppose to have chemo for this month, he has not had, but he gets hyper, he runs whole day around. You would think he was a normal kid, the only thing that shows he is a kid with a cancer is because he has no hair.?

As for Vanessa? She and her mother also remain optimistic for the future.

Vanessa Castillo
?They told me that I am overcoming it because I have approximately a year the eighth of March and I do not have a drop back in my treatment.?

And while families hold fast to the hope that modern medicine will continue to keep their children alive, if all it took was love to cure cancer, then little Julian would be one of the healthiest children in Belize.

Jacqueline Woods for News Five.

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