While breast cancer patients in the public health sector face long waiting times for surgery, a team of medical volunteers in the Western Cape is slowly chipping away at the waiting list. They have performed more than 700 life-saving surgeries to date and founder Dr Liana Roodt says it is simply their way of relieving the burden on patients and Mzansi’s “frail healthcare system”.
The link between social deprivation and premature cancer death has been well researched and documented the world over.
In Mzansi too, patients in the public healthcare system are dying from treatable and manageable diseases. Without intervention, this will simply continue or get worse, two local surgeons also working with breast cancer patients but not involved with Project Flamingo recently wrote.
Dr Justus Apffelstaedt and Dr Fatima Husain explained that patients from poor communities are being diagnosed too late, suffer poor access to healthcare services, wait too long for treatment or have a lack of knowledge and understanding of their condition and potential for treatment.
It was a similar reason that led Roodt and her team to get their charity, Project Flamingo, off the ground.
About Project Flamingo
The charity was founded in 2010 after Roodt witnessed “the heart-breaking and often chaotic journey” breast cancer patients in the public healthcare system had to endure while waiting agonisingly long for surgery and often feeling isolated.
“It goes without saying that social challenges bring health challenges, not just cancer.”
Due to a strained system, especially because of limited theatre time and staff, patients could wait up to 14 weeks for surgery. Roodt, a general surgeon who runs her own private practice in Somerset West, got a team of like-minded people together and the idea of “catch-up surgeries” was born.
Today the charity works to shorten waiting times at the Groote Schuur and Tygerberg hospitals in Cape Town, and the Livingstone Hospital in Gqeberha by providing access to doctors, anaesthetists and medical personnel. These specialists perform surgeries free of charge on weekends and public holidays when most operating theatres are empty.
In conversation with the doctor
Roodt says they strive to relieve some of the strain on their patients and the healthcare system, resulting from delayed treatment. “We have definitely made progress in the project since it began in 2010. We have completed over 700 surgeries with hopes of doing even more.”
She emphasises the fragility of our healthcare system, saying that treatment still depends on where you live in this country.
What’s more is that the social challenges are complex. Lifestyle choices may not be ideal for optimised health as the availability of healthy food sources may be limited, for instance. The availability of supplements, support and even something as simple as transport to healthcare facilities can pose a challenge.
While some factors contribute to the development of diseases, poorer healthcare extends right through to the recovery process when patients, say, struggle to access rehabilitation facilities.
“It goes without saying that social challenges bring health challenges, not just cancer,” says Roodt.
Education can make a difference
She concurs that education could help prevent premature cancer deaths if people had knowledge of what to do when faced with certain adversities.
“Not knowing what can go wrong, and what you can do to prevent it, [puts you] at higher risk. Therefore, education is one of the key components of helping prevent diseases and detect them early on,” Roodt says.
“Education gives people the confidence to take care of themselves.”
“We cannot expect anything to change if patients do not demand what is their right. By educating patients, we can empower them to advocate for themselves. If you don’t know, you won’t seek help.”
Increasing their reach
A significant accomplishment since Project Flamingo began, was partnering with the Cancer Alliance of South Africa, a collection of non-profit organisations which advocate for better healthcare in Mzansi. This helps them assist patients from outside the Western Cape to some extent.
“In Gauteng we work with the Cancer Alliance and other organisations such as the Breast Cancer Foundation to direct patients to the appropriate channels,” says Roodt.
“In cases where someone from Limpopo or the larger parts of the Eastern Cape [for example] contacts us via the website, email or social media, and they need assistance, we would reach out to that specific individual and figure out how we can help.
“Currently, we only have branches in the Western Cape, Gqeberha and Gauteng,” says Roodt, who hopes to be serving patients throughout Mzansi in future.
Project Flamingo don’t select patients for surgery themselves but receive patient lists from the hospitals where patients receive treatment according to a more holistic treatment plan.
“Patients have to make their way to the healthcare facilities in order to gain access to Flamingo, so that the proper treatment plan may be devised, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.”
NGOs as a tether of life support
“Our collaboration with various organisations serves as a bridge for patients; a point of contact when patients suspect something is wrong but don’t know where to start or how to get to the clinic.
“I don’t see my work at Groote Schuur Hospital and my work in private practice as separate entities. They all feed off each other and allow my work at the non-profit to flow smoothly because I can see the gaps in the system that can be bridged.”
Despite the pandemic, Roodt and the team of doctors continue to assist patients who need help.
“The reality is that the challenges that the healthcare system faced prior to the pandemic have now been exacerbated by it and the rest of the health team has had to take a back seat.”