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Feature: China's war against cancer

By Wang Chenxi (Xinhua)    13:00, February 09, 2015

BEIJING, Feb. 9 (Xinhua) -- A five-storey gray building within the southeast corner of Beijing's Second Ring Road is one of the city's burgeoning "cancer hotels".

Each room has about 10 square meters, and one of these windowless rooms accommodates Sun Yu and her husband for a daily rent of 40 yuan (about 6.4 U.S. dollars).

Sun, 64, has ovarian cancer. She and her husband have come often to the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences Tumor Hospital from their village in north China's Hebei Province since 2012. Each time they travel 250 kilometers to Beijing for months of treatment, living in one of the "cancer hotels", which are cheap and close to the hospitals.

Sun was diagnosed in a provincial hospital in Hebei in 2012, and was told her condition was too advanced for surgery there. "They told me I only had two years at most. My son said a hospital in Beijing was my last hope," she says, weeping.

She is one of about 700 patients, most of them from outside Beijing, who queue every week at the hospital, reputed to be one of China's leading cancer treatment centers. But with the limited number of hospital beds, most of them live in the cancer hotels.

China's cancer morbidity and mortality rates are set to keep rising over the next 20 years, says Dai Min, a researcher at the China National Cancer Center.

In 2012, more than 3 million Chinese had cancer, accounting for a fifth of the world total; while cancer deaths reached 2.2 million, accounting for a quarter of the total.

A forecast by the International Agency on Research for Cancer said that, without effective measures, the incidence and death toll in China will reach 4 million and 3 million respectively in 2020, then 5 million and 3.5 million in 2030.

Cancer has no regard for wealth, age or social standing. Last month, a famous Chinese singer, Yao Beina, died of breast cancer at the age of 33.

China has an average cancer morbidity rate, but a death rate higher than world average. Tumor Hospital of Peking University director Ji Jiafu says one reason is the difference between common types of cancer in China and the rest of the world.

In Europe and North America, prostate and breast cancers - the most common cancers - have survival rates of over 80 percent, but in China, the most common cancers of the lungs and liver have survival rates under 30 percent.

China's high death rate could be attributed to the high proportion of patients in terminal stages, says Cheng Shujun, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering. For example, over 80 percent of lung cancer patients in Beijing are in the terminal stages, while in Europe and North America the proportion is about 50 percent.

Staying in the same hotel as Sun, Zhang Qingxiang, from east China's Shandong Province, also has ovarian cancer. Initial examinations by senior doctors in a local hospital found no sign of cancer, but when her belly swelled from the disease, it was too late.

"When the local hospital diagnosed cancer, it was already at the terminal stage as the cancer cells had moved to other organs. I don't trust them anymore - I want to get treated in Beijing," she says.

The initial examination and diagnosis of early stage cancers is still expensive and limited to a few hospitals in bigger Chinese cities, leaving almost no chance of early diagnosis for people in rural and poverty stricken areas.

Cancer is also a heavy economic burden to patient families and society as a whole. China's medical system has spent tens of billions yuan on cancer treatments, much more than the cost of any other chronic disease.

The government started the New Rural Cooperative Medical System (NCMS) in 2003 to partly cover rural people's medical expenses. Although coverage has extended to more treatments and higher reimbursement rates, cancer treatment is still unaffordable for most rural patients.

According to an NCMS regulation this year, cancer patients can claim 50 to 80 percent of treatment costs if treated in local designated hospitals, but only 35 percent if in hospitals of other provinces.

For Sun and Zhang, that means they can go to a local hospital at a lower cost, but risk a misdiagnosis, or go to a big city and incur massive debts.

"We have to stay here, but we don't know where to borrow money. I've already borrowed more than 80,000 yuan from relatives and friends. It's hard to get more," says Sun's husband. They've spent more than 200,000 yuan and the NCMS has returned about 60,000 yuan.

They live frugally in the cheapest room equipped with only a bed and a table. They cook their own meals and spend 10 yuan a day on food such as plain steamed buns or cabbage. With the 40-yuan daily room rent, they spend 50 yuan a day.

Zhang has spent more than 200,000 yuan and claimed back just 30,000 yuan for now. Her hometown has started a donation appeal for her. But the medical program only covers 20 to 30 percent of her costs at the hospital in Beijing.

Zhang's husband, Li Xinxin, says they've been in Beijing for three days and all they eat are fried carrots and dry pancakes brought from home.

"The experts on TV health programs said carrots can prevent cancer, and they're cheap," Li says.

They borrowed more than 80,000 yuan from fellow villagers. "We don't know when we can pay them back," says Zhang.

"China is facing a war against cancer," says Chen Zhu, former Health Minister and Vice Chairman of the 12th National People's Congress Standing Committee.

Cancer experts want higher coverage from the health program for medicines to cut the treatment expenses. Charity groups and cheap, China-made medications could also help ease the financial burden of patients.

They also suggest earlier diagnosis to improve survival rates. Zhi Xiuyi, a lung cancer expert, says most early stage lung cancers can be detected and cured with surgery.

For Sun, the good news is she is still alive. "The doctors in my hometown said I could only live one year or two, but I'm still here."

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Editor:Yuan Can,Yao Chun)

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