PINK ribbons and the colour pink generally are most commonly seen during October – for a good reason.
They are an international symbol of breast cancer awareness and October has been designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month in which campaigns to raise awareness of the disease globally are organised throughout the month.
Pink Ribbon organisations the world over have helped increase early detection of breast cancer to let women know the importance of regular breast self-examinations.
A suspicious area detected by means of breast self-examination (BSE) has led to many breast cancer diagnoses and successful treatments.
Regular check-ups by a doctor and an annual mammogram, starting at age 40, can help diagnose early breast cancer when it’s most treatable.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a busy time for organisations such as the Sarawak Pink Ribbon Support Group Association (PKSPRS).
To demonstrate the importance of early detection through BSE, the association has organised awareness programmes to educate the public on the different areas of breast cancer.
Association president Suriani Rapaiee said during such a programme, the members, known as Pink Ribbon Ladies, will talk about breast cancer, the risks, prevention, stages of the disease, signs and symptoms, and various approaches to treatment.
The importance of early detection through BSE, screening (clinical exam by doctor), and mammogram is also emphasised together with the health impact of breast cancer and taking personal responsibility.
A mini-exhibition and demonstration on how to perform BSE and clinical examination of the breast, if possible, are organised as well.
“The awareness programme which starts with aerobic exercises covers several areas in and around Kuching such as Matang, Sungai Tebing Gersik, Kampung Sungai Midin, and Bandar Samariang.
“Schools too are targeted and so far, Sekolah Menengah Bandar Samariang, Kolej Tun Abang Haji Openg, SJK Sungai Apong, and Chung Hua Middle Primary School are involved,” Suriani said.
She added that catching the disease earlier through BSE, prompt reporting of changes to the doctor, and annual mammogram would, in most cases, mean the option of less aggressive and more successful treatment and a better outcome.
“It can save one’s breast and life. This is why breast cancer awareness is very important in Malaysia and PKSPRS is highlighting this message.”
The Pink Ribbon Outreach Programme is a community effort to educate women on breast health and help improve health literacy, especially on early detection and medical services available in a traditionally under-served community.
“Hopefully, with this outreach programme and awareness drive, the association can help women to be proactive about their breast health. We believe in the importance of looking after the health of the community. The work of our association will be better known and members can meet the communities from other areas as well,” Suriani said.
She added that with the support of established NGOs, the association could reach out to larger communities to get the message across and for this, it is working with established women’s groups and community-based organisations.
Over the past seven years, the association has also carried out outreach programmes in areas such as Bako, Buntal, Pulau Salak, Kampung Asajaya Ulu, Maludam, Kampung Semeba, Kampung Sebayor, Kampung Mang, Kampung Asajaya Laut, and Bau.
The coverage area is expected to increase in the future.
Quality of life
The association is helping those recovering from treatment to cope with two of the most common complications in breast cancer patients – arm motion and lymphedema (swelling of the arm).
“Early rehabilitation is very important to promote functional movement to the patient’s previous level of activity, and address emotional problems.
“Recognition and prevention of lymphedema through education, gentle manual therapies as well as arm and shoulder exercises are areas we want to focus on.
“The Pink Ladies strive to empower breast cancer survivors to maintain and improve their quality of life during treatment, manage anxiety, and return to an active and productive life,” Suriani explained.
To stress the importance of physiotherapy for survivors, the association has organised seminars on lymphatic drainage-massage, compression, and exercise of the arms and shoulders.
“We adopt a professional approach by setting up an exercise room at the Pink Ribbon Centre and appointing a physiotherapy advisor. We are planning to hold physical exercises and yoga.
“Our main aim is to increase the survivors’ daily activities and quality of life to help them return to active and productive lives.
“We have a Pink Ribbon member who is a qualified physiotherapist and are grateful that he has accepted the appointment of advisor,” Suriani said.
On the support for recovering patients, she revealed they would try to reach out to them “by being their hands and feet”.
“We can send them to hospital if their family members can’t due to work commitments, act as baby sitters during chemotherapy or radiotherapy, cook simple healthy meals if they are too sick to do it and do simple house chores.
“We believe no one travels the road to recovery alone. The Pink Ribbon Ladies are here to lighten the burden of the survivors and their families.”
She said when patients had to stay at home or get chemotherapy treatment in hospital, the Pink Ladies would visit them to show their support.
“One need not be alone on the road to recovery as support groups are an integral part of the healing process.”
Joining a support group can improve the survivors’ quality of life. Support groups can help them feel more hopeful and not so lonely besides the opportunity to talk about their feelings and cope with the side effects of the treatment.
The Pink Ribbon Ladies will continue to help survivors and newly-diagnosed patients through peer support sessions.
For those uncomfortable with face-to-face group settings or having easy access to other members, the association has formed an online group.
“This site is a useful tool to stay connected, share similar experiences and provide a sense of belonging,” Suriani said.
To go beyond the peer-to-peer support session, the association will set up a counselling unit. To make the service professional and safe, it will hold seminars for members on the approaches and skills in conducting peer support groups and minor counselling, recruiting qualified counsellors to deal with more complicated cases, and appointing a qualified counsellor as the counselling advisor.
The Pink Ladies are also involved in making breast prosthesis and mastectomy bras. Moreover, their home-hospital visits and peer-to-peer support empower breast cancer survivors and the community to take charge of their health.
“We believe reaching out and touching someone’s life through social interaction is important. According to a study, a strong social support system in the first year after diagnosis is less likely to cause death or a recurrence of cancer. Other clinical studies have indicated social support can improve the health of patients with breast cancer,” Suriani added.
The association has organised social gatherings to keep survivors connected, allow them to escape the feelings of loneliness and feel as part of the community.
Social gatherings include New Year celebrations, other festive seasons, cooking and flower arrangement sessions, and doing handicrafts together.
Pink Ribbon workshops usually address the unique needs of women with breast cancer. Through such exposure, the members will have a greater understanding of the disease, acquire skills, identify their responsibilities, and build up their confidence.
This will improve their performances in peer-to-peer support, counselling, delivering breast cancer talks, and demonstrating BSE.
Equally important is raising funds to find a cure.
Suriani said the public could help breast cancer patients in Sarawak by donating to the association.
It organises fundraisers throughout the year as funds are needed for community outreach programmes, mastectomy bras and breast prostheses, home-hospital visits, the Annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month, peer-support sessions, and annual general meetings.
She pointed out that during its first year of existence, the association was able to purchase two sewing machines for making breast prostheses and mastectomy bras and other facilities to raise breast cancer awareness with the donations from Toh Puan Datuk Patinggi Raghad Kurdi Taib, the wife of the Head of State.
“Our fundraising events are not just to raise money but also to promote breast cancer awareness. Organising fundraisers is very challenging as it takes weeks and even months to plan.
“The Pink Ladies are doing it for breast cancer survivors. It motivates them to make a difference to the lives of others,” she added.
Avenue of hope
According to Suriani, the members are determined to have a centre – an avenue of hope as they call it – for breast cancer survivors.
To achieve this, the association has organised annual fundraisers. A centre is needed because post-discharge care and recovery are a long journey.
It’s not a short-term but an on-going process dealing with not only the physical but also the psychological.
Initially, members used the homes of the president and the committee members for meetings and gatherings.
They then shifted to the shophouse at Klinik Satok, operating from there for two years. In 2017, with the help of Batang Lupar member of parliament Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim, who Suriani said is very caring and concerned about the welfare of women, in particular, those with breast cancer, the association was allowed to use a room at Anjung Kasih, Sarawak General Hospital.
“For seven years, we have not only been carrying out various activities to help breast cancer patients but also raising funds through dinners, Pink Ribbon high tea events and Pink Run and Cycle Charity.
“Those were challenging times. The members involved were cancer survivors. They were inexperienced and lacked resources and marketing skills. But their sincere heart, spirit of teamwork, and volunteerism and the continued strong support from various quarters, made them very resilient to the challenges of organising these fundraisers.
“The generosity of the public, NGOs, and state-federal representatives, the contributions and support from state agencies, companies such as Inspiration Resources and UG Uniform Sdn Bhd and CMS Property Development Sdn Bhd have made our centre a reality.
“Our long-cherished wish was fulfilled with the purchase of a house at Bandar Baru Samariang last year.”
Suriani is proud the association is recognised by other NGOs in Sarawak, saying it has received many invitations to participate in community services.
“This shows PKSPRS is accepted by the community,” she noted.
On the future, Suriani said the association hoped to put up a centre for lymphatic drainage massage, peer-support sessions, promotion of breast cancer awareness, and distribution of breast prostheses and mastectomy bras in a more professional way, adding, “We also want to make PKSPRS a platform for students of tertiary education to research breast cancer.”
She said the association could become a resource centre for cancer patients and survivors and the community, act as a navigator for patients in the healthcare system, and cooperate with government agencies to provide health services and raise breast cancer awareness in the society.
The Pink Ribbon breast cancer awareness programmes and outreach drive have reached as far as Mauludam, Bau, Kampung Pulau Salak, Samarahan, Bako, and Buntal.
The committee members with a few nurses are empowering women in urban and rural areas to take charge in detecting breast cancer and seeking early treatment.
Committee members also help to alleviate patients’ stress, anxieties, and fears through home-hospital visits, peer-to-peer sessions, social media, and social gatherings.
“We strongly believe no breast cancer survivor should suffer, struggle and face their situation alone,” Suriani said.
She noted that the members had enjoyed attending workshops together on training and counselling apart from social gatherings, festive seasons, and handicraft sessions.
“They laughed, exchanged gifts and enjoyed the dancing and singing. It seems the disease could not kill their spirits and hopes.”
Suriani, however, pointed out that it was also disheartening that cancer could strike any time.
“Along with the feelings of happiness, sadness has also struck the patients over the loss of their peers. Since the association was formed, we lost an average of three to four members a year due to metastasis. We’re determined to provide physical and psychological support more professionally and effectively.”
She reiterated they had worked very hard to organise charity sales and fundraising projects to have their own centre.
“Within seven years, we’ve achieved our dream despite the challenges. Then again, without the generous support of Toh Puan Raghad, and our patron (Assistant Minister in the Chief Minister’s Department – Law, State-Federal Relations and Project Monitoring) Datuk Sharifah Hasidah Sayeed Aman Ghazali, grants from state representatives, donations from the Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation (STIDC), KPJ Hospital, public charity and assistance from CMS Property Development Sdn Bhd, our centre would not have materialised,” she acknowledged.