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No two cancer diagnoses are alike — it’s specific to the patient

Tautai Lavea’i logo

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Sadly, cancer has become as common in our community as gout, diabetes, and hypertension.  However, unlike those chronic diseases, cancer patients cannot find relief from a pill or dialysis. No two cancer diagnoses are alike because the way cancer cells mutate and spread is specific to the patient.

For this reason, there is no single standard procedure to ‘cure’ cancer or stop its growth.  While healthy living and cancer screening can provide prevention against dying from cancer, there realistically is no total protection against developing cancer. There are too many factors that affect how our bodies grow and change; we cannot control them all.

Cancer trends for 2018-19 show less chemotherapy has been used by early-stage breast cancer patients, from 34.5% to 21.3% (Schattner E., 2017). More doctors are prescribing targeted drugs for tumors with specific genetic structures. By targeting tumors directly, there is less chance of damaging the body overall with a more invasive treatment like chemo, focusing instead on one specific area.

However, these drugs are not affordable. For example, a drug by Novartis that treats rare blood cancers starts at $475,00 per treatment. The cost of care, treatment, and maintenance through survival is beyond the capacity of the healthcare system in American Samoa. 

Former Board treasurer for the American Samoa Community Cancer Coalition (ASCCC), and parent of a teenage cancer survivor, Christina Lutu-Sanchez described the word cancer as a “powerful word that sucks all energy and unfortunately, hope from cancer patients and families”.  

For this reason, the ASCCC Board of Directors have committed their time, reputations, and resources to the Coalition’s simple, yet all encompassing mission:

To help the people of American Samoa fight cancer.

In their own words . . .

“Every ounce of energy, faith and hope that we can all devote to support our cancer patients and families truly carries a long way; and to have this collective group (ASCCC) is more powerful than we could ever be individually.” Mrs. Christina Lutu-Sanchez

“I’ve seen the pain and suffering that cancer can do to individuals and families. Providing some comfort to those that are battling this forsaken disease is worth the effort.” Taotasi Archie Soliai, Board Chair and Coalition member since 2006.

“My family has been personally impacted by cancer and the assistance of grassroots organizations such as the ASCCC is what is most impressive. I believe that we ALL have a role to play and indeed, a responsibility to one another. So often our community turns to the government for answers; I believe that our greatest strength is each other.” Dr. Jueta McCutchan, Board member.

There are many ways to achieve the Coalition’s mission.

In 2018, the Board committed to implementing a 5-year strategic plan that will address cancer in our territory by influencing and enhancing community-based efforts (policy and community partnerships), mobilizing community-based prevention, empowering the community through information sharing, and increasing accessibility to community-based support for comfort. These directives will enhance the Coalition’s existing efforts which include the well-known ‘Cancer Patient Stipends’. 

For the past ten years the most direct and visible way in which the ASCCC helped cancer patients is partnering with the community to raise funds for local patients. As long as funds are available, local cancer patients may apply for and receive a $500 annual stipend. To date the ASCCC has distributed 374 stipends. Patients have reported back, stating they used their stipends to pay for airfare, medicine, medical bills.

While an annual $500 stipend may seem like a feeble effort in the face of hundreds of thousands of dollars in treatment costs, the Board of Directors feels these stipends are the most significant contribution the Coalition has made since its inception, augmented by grants which fund research, public awareness and education.

Dr. McCutchan stated, “. . . giving cancer patients a sense of hope through financial assistance is important, but the true power of the Coalition is equipping the community with information to make informed decisions about their care.” 

Additionally, fundraising ‘raises’ awareness of all the issues faced by cancer patients and their loved ones. While the focus of the stipend may have begun with money for patients, the effort produced positive unexpected outcomes as well: cancer data, community partnerships, increase in number of cancer screenings leading to early detection and longer survival rates, healthier lifestyles, reduction in the fatalistic perception of cancer, more people accessing treatment rather than giving up.

Awareness and knowledge remove the stigma surrounding cancer, empowering and encouraging people to do mammograms, Pap smears, colonoscopies and other recommended cancer screening. 

In the face of overwhelming odds, the Coalition continues to move forward to help the people of American Samoa fight cancer.

This month the Coalition welcomes new leadership to its Board of Directors. Joining Taotasi Archie Soliai (Chair), Tuli Fruean, Si’itia Soliai-Lemusu (Vice-Chair), and honorary members Silia Feliciano and Rochelle Reid. We thank Dr. Robin Faumuina, Loata Sipili, Richard Masunu (Secretary), Johnny Mapu (Treasurer), and Tautasi Falanai for their commitment to serving our community.