Mr James Lau has lived with primary liver cancer since 1999, undergoing numerous surgeries and treatments as his cancer returned more than 10 times in the past 22 years.
It has been a difficult and protracted battle. Mr Lau, like other cancer patients, draws on the strength and support of friends and relatives to live with what has been essentially a life-changing disease, and lengthy treatments that include major surgery, and chemo and radio therapies.
“Cancer assaults the body. It intrudes into the patient’s daily life. Cancer patients experience significant pain, stress and anguish. They feel they have lost control over their lives,” said Ms Julianah Bee, Senior Programme Coordinator, Department of Hepato-pancreato-biliary and Transplant Surgery, Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
Cancer wears down patients mentally and physically, and liver cancer is one of the deadliest and commonest among men. According to the Singapore Cancer Registry’s 2014-2018 report, issued in 2021, a quarter of male liver cancer patients can expect to live beyond five years.
To support these patients, Ms Bee set up in 2017 the Liver and Pancreas Support Group (LPSG) with Associate Professor Peter Mack, Senior Consultant, Department of Hepato-pancreatobiliary and Transplant Surgery, SGH, and five other colleagues.
Members, including liver cancer, post-liver transplant and chronic pancreatitis patients, meet regularly to discuss and learn from each other how to manage their illnesses. The LPSG also organises talks on diverse topics, such as chemotherapy, traditional Chinese medicine, mindfulness, and caregiver stress. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the LPSG met for activities like yoga, music therapy, healthy cooking demonstrations, and art jams to provide patients with psychosocial support.
When diagnosed with a potentially deadly illness like liver cancer, many patients feel helpless and despondent. To help them accept their condition, a mask-painting workshop called Self-Rediscovery was organised by Prof Mack. “Patients’ cancer journey often involves a process of developing a new identity — including re-evaluating hopes and plans for the present and future — which can influence their well-being and relationships with the care provider,” said Ms Bee.
The talks and workshops, and above all, the bonding and support that members provide each other through their darkest days, have helped the group grow into a close-knit community of 40 patients and carers.
“The LPSG offers patients a safe place to share, and to work through their feelings and challenges. It allows them to learn from other patients who are facing similar situations,” said Ms Bee, adding that patients who become socially isolated and despondent tend to do less well medically.
When Mr Lau was going for his first immunotherapy session, he was afraid and worried. But after hearing an LPSG member talk about his experience, Mr Lau felt hopeful about his future. Realising how their own experiences can encourage others, Mr Lau and other LPSG members often step forward during meetings to help others.
Even as large social gatherings are put on hold due to the pandemic, the group has stayed connected via video conferencing apps to support one another. This year, the LPSG won the 2021 Singapore Health Inspirational Support Group award for its role in ensuring patients’ well-being during these trying times.
“We are not alone in our suffering,” said Mr Lau. “By sharing our experiences as patients, we can help each other along in our fight against cancer.”
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