BRUNEI-MUARA – The sultanate has the capacity to treat “95 to 98 percent of all cancers”, making cancer treatment in Brunei on par with its international counterparts, said the former Cancer Chief of the World Health Organization (WHO).

This was said during a press conference on Monday following Borneo’s first Medical Oncology Conference that was held on April 14 at the Pantai Jerudong Specialist Centre (PJSC).

Former Cancer Chief of WHO and current Chief Medical Officer of Proton Partners International, Professor Karol Sikora speaking during a press conference on Borneo’s first Medical Oncology Conference on Monday. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

Professor Karol Sikora said that the facilities and services provided by the Brunei Cancer Centre (TBCC) under PJSC are of “first world standard” with exception of a few complex cases.

Professor Sikora is now the Chief Medical Officer for Proton Partners International, a company based in Wales that develops proton therapy — which is most often used in the treatment of cancer —  in the United Kingdom.

“Before [the TBCC was established], many patients in Brunei had to go to Singapore or Malaysia, which is very disruptive [to the lives of the patients]. Cancer is a long term disease which requires patients [to come into these countries] maybe every two or three weeks for a long period of time,” he said.

“Having an effective cancer treatment close to home is very vital.”

More cancer patients now treated locally

He said that due to the nature of cancer in which patients are often uncertain of their future, being treated in one’s home country, surrounded with its local culture and religion is really important as it provides comfort to the patients.

The medical expert said that TBCC is comparable to the best cancer centres in the United States as the cancer cases that were presented during the oncology conference were similar in nature to the ones he had seen in New York and Houston.

Medical Director of PJSC, Dato Seri Laila Jasa Dr Babu Sukumaran said that until two years ago, radiotherapy patients, were sent to Singapore for treatment.

Now, almost 98 per cent of radiotherapy patients are treated in Brunei, and according to Dr Sukumaran, the number of patients going outside to seek treatment has dropped significantly over the last couple of years.

Medical Director of PJSC, Dato Seri Laila Jasa Dr Babu Sukumaran speaking during a press conference on Borneo’s first Medical Oncology Conference on Monday. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

With the exception of specialised treatments like bone marrow or stem cell transplant which still requires patients to go abroad, Dr Sukumaran said the number of patients seeking radiotherapy and other services like CAT scans and bone scans have doubled or tripled since the center opened in 2016.

Last year the TBCC’s Radiotherapy Department treated more than 600 cases since it was opened.

In Brunei, cancer has become the leading cause of death, said the medical director. He explained that as cardiac intervention improves, the world’s population is living longer, long enough that they are able to develop cancer.

According to the Ministry of Health, one in five deaths in Brunei are caused by cancer and in 2017, the sultanate recorded 385 deaths from cancer — a nine percent increase from the previous year — while 625 new cases were made.

Obesity main culprit in rising number of cancer cases

“Many questions arise [on] why we have more and more [cancer cases] when it has existed since centuries ago.”

Dr Sukumaran correlated the rise of cancer with the rise of obesity, stating that in this modern day, more and more individuals sustain diets with high fat, meat, preservatives and additives intake.

Professor Sikora, said that diet, or an unhealthy one is “definitely responsible for a number of cancers”.

“Especially with breast and prostate cancer, the reason is almost certain that with obesity comes hormonal change both in men and women and this becomes the driver of the increase of these types of cancer.

“It’s not just about being obese, it’s about how the hormones react to the [bodily] change.”

Brunei is already the most obese nation in the region with three out of 10 adults in Brunei being obese. Since 2011, school children under the age of 13 are growing obese at a rate of one percent annually while obesity rate among adolescents between ages 13 and 17 is at 17 percent.