Carl Gilchrist, Gleaner Writer
OCHO RIOS, St Ann:
FOR MORE than seven years, female volunteers have kept the St Ann/St Mary branch of the Jamaica Cancer Society active, offering care to hundreds of cancer patients.
After losing relatives to cancer, the current chairperson of the branch, Madeline Witter, along with Norma Walters, decided to establish a branch of the Jamaica Cancer Society in St Ann.
With the blessing of the organisation's headquarters in Kingston and a donation of $250,000 from a Mr McPherson, the branch was launched in 2005 with a small office in Pineapple, Ocho Rios.
Now located at Ocean Village, the office is run by 16 volunteers, most of whom have had cancer-related episodes in their lives.
"We've assisted a lot of people," manager for the branch, Marilyn Williams-Chambers, told The Gleaner. "One of the reasons we created this branch was to enable us to be hands-on to help the people. We didn't want to be a branch that just collects donations. We wanted to be a branch that educates people, teaches them how to look after themselves, gives them support. That's the kind of branch we are.
"We go from hotels to churches to little halls in the village. We educate about cancer, we counsel people that come into the office, we do free testing in the villages, we do free Pap smears, and free mammograms sometimes."
Added Williams-Chambers: "We navigate the patients through care from the start, when they are told they have cancer, right through all the treatment. Going to the doctor, we go with them; going for the test, we go with them. We see them through hospital. We visit them at home. We see them right through all the service, and then we have the Survivors' Club, which gives them other support."
The Survivors' Club currently has 126 members, all of whom have survived five or more years after having been diagnosed with cancer, the majority of cases being breast cancer.
Williams-Chambers has been with the organisation from the start. During that time, she lost a brother to cancer. She believes that more can be done locally to help persons survive after being diagnosed with cancer.
According to Williams-Chambers: "When you hear that you have cancer, people think sometimes it is a death sentence, but if you catch it in the early stage, you can save a life, and you can have a good quality of life for quite a while. But what happens in Jamaica is people don't want to know. They know something is wrong, (but) they don't go to see the doctor.
AFRAID OF BAD NEWS
"Some of our women, they feel the lump in their breast, they know they have young children, yet they are prepared to die because they say their man doesn't want a one-breast woman, and that is the saddest part of it."
And cancer is no respecter of age either as even babies are victims.
"We have a little boy, who is 18 months old, from St Ann's Bay. He lost an eye and the cancer is in the other eye and they don't know what they are going to do. One of our volunteers went to her church and in two days raised $26,000 to help him. The lost eye cost $40,000. It was the Optimist Club that donated the balance."
With all the work the branch is doing, it is struggling to stay open as lack of funding is a major hindrance.
This year's budget is $7 million and the branch's premier fund-raiser, Relay for Life, held in August, is not expected to raise anything close to that when the figures are tabulated.
"There are those who give year after year - some cash, some kind," said Williams-Chambers.
Earlier this year, a group of students of the University of the West Indies, Mona-Western Jamaica Campus, held a fund-raising ball as part of their coursework and were able to donate $160,000 to the branch.
All the support comes from the private sector, none from the Government. Williams-Chambers wants that to change.
"We would like the Ministry of Health to give us some money to do Pap smears in the rural areas because it's really needed. We would also like assistance to get the mammogram machine so that we are able to provide more mammograms for the ladies."
Despite the struggle, Williams-Chambers and her team continues to give of themselves.