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SEEN UP NORTH – Cancer focus in NY

Tony Best

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“Our incidence isn’t greater than anywhere else.”
Dr Chrisita Powlett, registrar of Barbados’ Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s Department of General Surgery, was referring to pancreatic cancer, a lethal disease, which was thrust onto Barbados’ national consciousness last year when it took the life of Prime Minister David Thompson.
A somewhat similar thing has just happened in the United States in the wake of last week’s deaths of Steve Jobs, a founder of Apple Computers, who resigned in August as chief executive officer of the electronics giant, and of Ralph Steinman, the co-winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for medicine.
Two years ago, the disease killed well known actor Patrick Swayze.
“Pancreatic cancer is very much on people’s minds in Barbados and the United States,” said Powlett after participating in a one-day symposium organized in New York by the Barbados Cancer Association (BACA), USA, Inc. and the Caribbean American Medical and Scientific Association, CAMSA, in collaboration with the Caribbean American Outreach Association, CAOA.
Held on a recent Saturday afternoon at the Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Centre located in the heart of a predominantly Caribbean immigrant community, the symposium attracted scores of people, many of whom had lost relatives and close friends all because of the disease.
“Most people diagnosed with the disease pass away in a relatively short period of time,” as in Thompson’s case, explained Powlett.
At the symposium, the audience learnt some key facts from the Barbadian physician and from Dr Nageswara (Neil) Mandava, chief of surgery at the Flushing Medical Centre in New York.
Some cases in point:
– More than 44 000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and over 37 000 will die of it this year.
– The cancer is often not diagnosed until it has advanced or has spread.  
– Its survival rate is dismal, about 20 per cent after one year and four per cent after five years.
– Thirty-seven cases of pancreatic cancer were diagnosed at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital between 2006-2010, giving Barbados an annual average of three cases for every 100 000 people in the country.
– Seventy five per cent of Barbados’ cases were diagnosed in patients 60 years or older. The incidence remains low in the country.
– Black males suffer from it at a higher rate than white.
– Most of the patients weren’t candidates for curative surgery because of the advanced stage of diagnosis.
– In the United States, pancreatic cancer was the fourth leading cause of death.
– The lifetime risk of developing it was one in 71, or 1.41 per cent.
– Among the risk factors are cigarette smoking, diabetes, obesity and exposure to certain pesticides, dyes, chemicals and metal refining, to persistent inflation of the pancreas and cirrhosis of the liver.
But there was more to the symposium than hard facts about the disease. Sylvia Hinds-Radix, a Barbadian who is the administrative judge of Brooklyn’s civil courts, who supervises more than 100 judges in New York City’s largest borough, moderated a panel discussion on health care and privacy, especially for prominent public figures, such as Thompson, Jobs and Swayze.
On that panel were two attorneys – Janice Powers, a Barbadian, and American Eleni Coffinas. Basically, they concluded that while all patients had a right to privacy, top elected officials, especially those in government, whether in Barbados or America, must also respect the public’s right to know about their illness.
Dr Debra Brathwaite, a Barbadian physician at Kingsbrook, said the medical centre was eager to work alongside BACA in its various outreach efforts.
Canon Llewellyn Armstrong, an Episcopal priest; Barbados’ Consul-General in New York, Lennox Price; and Dr Ed Alleyne of BACA, also participated in the symposium. It was followed the next day by a luncheon to raise funds for the proposed Barbados Hospice, a Bds$1.5 million collaborative initiative of the Government in Barbados, the National Association of Barbados Organizations, the Council of Barbadian Organizations in New York, the United Barbados Planning Committee, and BACA.
A hospice provides care for terminally ill patients, and Prime Minister Freundel Stuart said in a message that the Government was looking forward to “working with the collaborative to ensure that the project is realized and satisfies the needs for which it is being established”.
Minister of Health Donville Inniss, in the United States for the Pan American Health Organization’s annual meeting in Washington, addressed the luncheon guests and praised BACA for its contributions to the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
Dr O’Neall Parris, BACA’s chairman, described the hospice effort as an “ambition project which will test how effectively we in the United States Diaspora can work together for our common good of our island home”.