How Cancer Support Varies in Different Countries, and Why It Matters

May 10, 2021
How Cancer Support Varies in Different Countries, and Why It Matters

Written by Nnamdi Omesiete

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Jake Prigoff

Finding out your loved one has cancer comes as a complete blow to your entire system. But finding out this loved one might have to seek treatment for said issue in another country? That’s an even scarier situation to wrap your brain around.

My mother got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 after several inconclusive biopsies. From the point of the diagnosis, we knew treatment in Nigeria would be difficult. Most of the cases we had seen weren’t positive; the cost of treatment in Nigeria is extremely high, with one round of chemotherapy costing from $700 - $1,000, way more than the average Nigerian can afford. Many resort to crowd-funding apps and social media to seek funds, and by the time the funds have been gathered, the cancer may have spread.

Though we had some money my mother had saved, family that were willing to support us, and our church, we knew we had to leave Nigeria to get her the best treatment.

So our journey began.

Cancer treatment around the globe

In the course of my mother’s nine-year battle with cancer, she sought treatment in three different countries: America (twice), South Africa (once), and Germany (once), where she passed away.

In these countries, I noticed there were several differences in after-hour care, response to queries on treatment and pre-treatment queries and assistance to foreign patients.

America

In America—specifically, Memphis, Tenn.—my mother started her chemotherapy, as well as radiation midway through. The doctors were always very understanding with her and the numerous questions we had, and she never had to wait long to book an appointment if she had any side effects from the chemotherapy. The doctor assigned to my mothers’ case was wonderful as far as after-care questions, as my mother sometimes had side effects from her radiation treatments; her doctor would call and give medication suggestions to soothe the pain and then call again to make sure everything was getting better. 

 When my mother was cleared after treatment was over and she was able to return to Nigeria, her doctor in America and his nurse still stayed in contact, making sure she went for check-ups regularly; asking her to send in her blood-work for him to go through every three months; and generally checking on her mental health. This last action item is something I feel a lot of people forget to do; cancer patients and survivors go through a lot physically and it also weighs them down emotionally, so it was great to have a doctor that was very hands on with both. 

In America, everyone getting chemotherapy cheered each other on as they walked in. If they were meeting for the first time, they’d ask how long the other person had been fighting, assuring each other that they would beat the disease, going into the room with a smile. The chemo nurses were absolute peaches; they would just keep making sure you were as comfortable as they could make you. A lovely 55-year-old candy striper would come in every day with her tea and coffee cart, sporting a smile that would make you forget the horrendous situation you were in.

South Africa

When my mother’s cancer came back for the third time, my mother wanted a different doctor. It wasn’t anything against her American doctors, but she wanted to try a different treatment option. So off to South Africa we went.

My mother didn’t tolerate the chemotherapy and radiation in South Africa as well. I don’t think the type of chemotherapy was higher; I only know that the dose was upped because as the cancer came back, it was a bit more aggressive than her last experience. While she didn’t have the other side effects like before, the new ones were harrowing: her palms got darker, her feet got darker, and she lost a lot of weight, far more than she did when she was in America. 

Unfortunately, in South Africa, we experienced what we suspect was racial bias. Several things occurred, from emails being responded to in a pointed manner or left unanswered, to nurses just not offering the same sort of care, compared to what we were used to from our time in America. I’ll just say that the response my mother received to her reactions to medication was not what you’d like to see or witness; it did not sit well with me at all.

Pretreatment questions covered only the basics; in contrast with America, not much was given in the terms of “how we are going to fight this disease with you.” The hospital did not offer up suggestions for accommodation, nor did they try to help out with the little things we got help with in Memphis. My mother was forced to resort to online research to find out what she could do about her darkening feet and hands (it turns out coconut oil and argan oil are life savers).

Germany

My mother had been researching alternative methods of treatment when she found out for the fourth time that the cancer was back. Understandably wanting to avoid even more chemotherapy, she found out about immunotherapy in Duderstadt, Germany, in which your white blood cells are used to build a vaccine that helps you fight the tumor’s effect on your body. 

In a lot of ways, Germany was an improvement over our experience in South Africa. The hospital was very on-point with their communication with us, and it was incredibly smooth from our first consultation via email to our final confirmation. In detail, the staff explained the process of getting our visas (which, from Nigeria to Germany, is pretty harrowing), suggested accommodation suggestions, and sent us a map for when we finally arrived at Duderstadt. 

The doctors were confident in their method of treatment, but my mother ultimately passed away in the midst of it. Even at the end, the hospital was helpful in assisting with records and helping move her remains out of Germany.

What I learned from our trips around the world

It’s important to do a lot of research before leaving a country to seek treatment for cancer. There are a lot of elements to consider, like language barriers, which caused a huge discomfort when we were in Germany; we were in a small town with very few people who spoke English, so getting even small things done could be a daunting task (though tools like Google Translate and Duolingo came in handy). 

I also noticed some problems that exist across the board, no matter what country we were in. Aftercare is often overlooked in cancer treatment, and that’s been a giant takeaway for me during trips for treatment with my mother. There is more to cancer than just chemotherapy, radiation, and taking pills.The patients need assistance that covers more than just the side effects of chemotherapy; most of the time, patients are left to their own devices, searching online message boards for answers. There should be support systems set up to help with the little things. 

Another important element left out of treatment is mental health. Therapy needs to always be added as a part of treatment. That said, the doctors in both Germany and America would always sit down with my mother once a week, just to ask how she was doing mentally and how her body felt. In America, her doctor even knew who I was before I first came over to help her during treatment, and it meant a lot to her, because it made her feel like they were genuinely interested in her health and her battle against cancer. 

Above all, before pursuing cancer treatment in a different country, do as much research as you can. Quality of treatment is important, but quality of support is just as important, because it aids in making a hard situation a little better.

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