Nagaland: Terminal state of affair in cancer treatment

•    At least 600 new cases of cancer detected every year

•    Highest incidence of nasopharyngeal cancer in India

•    And not even one radiotherapy unit to treat patients  

Imti Longchar
 Kohima | April 4  

An unspoken terminal state of affairs in cancer treatment exists in Nagaland and is intensifying each year.

As per the Population Based Cancer Registry of the Naga Hospital Authority Kohima (NHAK), Kohima at least 600 new cases of cancer are detected every year. Annually, from a population of one lakh, the incidence rate of cancer stands at 27 person- at the least.  

It could be much more because the identifying data is only of patients registered in Nagaland. There are still countless who go outside of state directly to avail better treatment without any reference from the doctors here.  

Nagaland also has the country’s highest incidence of nasopharyngeal cancer in both the male and female population. Internationally, Nagaland is placed 3rd in male prevalence and 2nd in female prevalence of this type of cancer.  

According to the latest data from the cancer registry, the leading cancer in male is nasopharyngeal cancer at 19.27%, stomach cancer at 17.43%, esophageal cancer at 16.06% and hypopharyngeal carcinoma at 7.80%. In the female, cervical cancer has the highest incidence rate at 19.09%, stomach cancer at 13.64%, breast cancer at 11.82% and nasopharyngeal cancer at 10.91%.  

Distressingly, these facts and figures is still not convincing enough for the State Government to address this alarming health burden on a war footing- clearly evident from the fact that it cannot even bring in a single Radiation Therapy (radiotherapy) machine to the state. The only radiotherapy machine, which was installed in Mokokchung district hospital years back, now outdated, is still lying non-functional. At present, Eden Medical Centre- a private hospital in Dimapur, inaugurated in 2016 has the only functional radiotherapy treatment facility.  

“The lack of radiotherapy treatment facility is one of the biggest drawbacks to provide treatment to cancer patients which could save or prolong their lives, and decrease their pain and suffering,” Dr Tina Khamo, senior pathologist, NHAK told the Morung Express.  

NHAK is the only government district hospital, which was conferred autonomous status in 2004 and the referral centre for the whole state.  

While NHAK claims to have all facilities for cancer diagnosis and the requisite trained manpower, the lack of infrastructure, most importantly, the radiotherapy machine which is an integral equipment to treat most cancer is hampering in providing treatment. It is a known fact that at least 50 percent of cancer victims can benefit from radiation therapy (radiotherapy) that destroys cancerous tumours.  

Even though the doctors at NHAK administer chemotherapy, cancer treatment is not confined to chemotherapy alone. 

“After surgery, some patient may need chemotherapy, some radiotherapy, immunotherapy, hormone therapy or it might be a combination of different therapies,” she explained.   “When someone is diagnosed with cancer, what happens? They have to go outside for treatment because we don’t have the treatment facility here,” Dr Tina rued.  

Many succumb even from treatable cancer

Due to the lack of affordable and inclusive cancer treatment facility in the state, many patients continue to succumb even from treatable cancers. And many of the patients are from the lower socio-economic backgrounds because they cannot afford to go outside the state for treatment.  

The major area of concern is for the poor and the needy patients, which constitutes a large bulk of the population affected with cancer in Nagaland, Dr Tina said, because they face huge constraints in terms of resources and finances for treatment.  

“Here in Nagaland, the patients’ coming from villages or far flung areas face transportation problem due to poor road connectivity. In some places, there is no bus or taxi plying, whereas some roads are not even motor-able. Some of the patients even have no fare to come to Kohima to get themselves treated,” Dr Tina elaborated on the numerous constraints faced by cancer patients.  

For patients who do manage to travel outside the state for treatment, they further encounter multiple predicaments such as language problems, food and lodging, or waiting weeks to avail treatment, while in the meantime the cancer grows, Dr Tina pointed out.  

“And when the patient (s) return back, they are too angry to meet us, the doctors, who have referred them there,” the senior pathologist lamented.  

There may be a ray of hope, though. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India centre is stated to have released Rs. 13.23 crore for establishing Tertiary Care Cancer Centre (TCCC) at District Hospital, Kohima during the financial year 2016-17, which was announced in the Lok Sabha by Anupriya Patel the Minister of State (health and family welfare) recently.  

We are hoping and praying that this fund is utilized properly for the establishment of a radiotherapy unit here at NHAK, Dr Tina enthused. The situation is so distressed that even cancer patients at the hospital are praying for a radiotherapy unit in Nagaland, she added.  

“If we can’t even start a radiotherapy treatment unit here or provide the basic cancer treatment, we are criminals, we are killing people,” she pointed out.  

1066 cancer patients availed treatment at EMC in two years At Eden Medical Centre, Dimapur, the first multispecialty cancer hospital in Nagaland, which was only formally inaugurated in 2016, hordes of cancer patients throng in for treatment.  

At least 336 cancer patients availed the radiotherapy treatment within a span of two years-from April 2015 till date.  Eden Medical Centre is the only health institution to have a radiotherapy unit for cancer treatment in Nagaland.  

Director of Eden Medical Centre, Dr Lima Imchen who himself is a radiotherapist informed that there were 109 cases of treatment in 2015 while 190 cases were registered in 2016. These patients form the bulk of the new 400-cancer cases diagnosed at the centre.

  A total of 1066 patients which include new diagnosis at the centre, and patients referred for further treatment from other health institutions were recorded at the Eden Medical Centre from 2015 till date, Dr Moa Aier, Pathologist informed.  

“90-95 cases of cancer require radiation at one point of time during the course of treatment,” Dr Lima pointed out while stressing on the urgent need of more radiotherapy units in a state like Nagaland where cancer is already a deadly disease.