The Covid-19 pandemic has hit us hard, especially so for people who are in vulnerable groups. A cancer diagnosis in a time of social distancing can feel even more isolating, especially when those with compromised immunities are advised to stay home as much as possible. To help cancer patients, support groups and educational resources are sprouting up online to help them cope with the tough journey ahead.

When Ms Lim Peck Khim found out she had stage four ovarian cancer in April last year, she was shattered.

She had experienced symptoms such as back pain and joint aches and frequently felt tired. She went to a polyclinic and was referred to the Singapore General Hospital. She underwent a few medical tests at the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), which then confirmed the diagnosis.

“I was sad, shocked and found it difficult to accept,” said the 53-year-old former clinic assistant.

She went for surgery to remove her ovaries in July last year and is now undergoing chemotherapy. To cope with feeling low, Ms Lim decided to join cancer support programmes after she came across a poster about them at NCCS.

Finding support online

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Support group programmes, talks and even bra fittings for breast cancer mastectomy patients have moved online to help people deal with their medical conditions in a time of social distancing.

Support groups bring patients and caregivers with similar conditions and situations together, to garner support from one another and learn how to cope better throughout the cancer journey. They are free and open to all cancer patients and their caregivers in Singapore.

Group activities include the offering of psychosocial support and the dispensing of medical and health information, on topics such as understanding cancer pain, mindfulness, physiotherapy, resilience in patients and self-care for caregivers.

The sessions are co-led by a volunteer patient leader and a team of healthcare professionals, such as medical social workers, nurses and medical physicians.

Since last December, Ms Lim has attended several support group sessions, in which she received advice from other patients on how to cope with the disease.

“I decided to join the sessions as a form of support for myself, so I don’t feel alone, and to make some friends who have the same condition as me. I also wanted to gain knowledge on managing pain and know more about cancer generally,” said Ms Lim, who is married and has four children aged between 12 and 29.

During the circuit breaker in April, NCCS temporarily suspended its support group meetings on-site before it started conducting online sessions on video-conferencing platform Zoom last month.

Ms Lim, who was worried about her health and the risk of getting an infection given her weakened immunity, said: “I tried to stay at home most of the time, unless it was important for me to go out. The online support sessions are a good way to keep me engaged during the stressful Covid-19 pandemic.”

So far, she has participated in two online support sessions – on traditional Chinese medicine and understanding cancer pain.

A challenging time for cancer patients

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Patient support manager Brandon Goh at the NCCS department of psychosocial oncology said the Covid-19 pandemic can be a challenging time for cancer patients.

“Besides worrying about their health, some of them may feel the effects of isolation as the level of social activities has been reduced. It is important to introduce a virtual platform to help patients and caregivers who are in similar situations to stay connected, to share and give one another support, and to know that they are not alone in this journey,” he added.

He said participants are encouraged to share their experiences and exchange coping tips with one another.

Can-Care general manager Joeanne Wong said the platform provides educational sharing while allowing patients and their caregivers to share their experiences or challenges with other members.

“This fosters a stronger sense of belonging, while at the same time, patients can gain more knowledge on cancer management-related topics,” she said, adding that it also supports the patients’ emotional well-being by reassuring them that they are not alone.

So far, it has conducted sessions on topics such as breast prostheses, taking care of the skin and scalp and lymphoedema management.

The online sessions, which are free and open to all cancer patients in Singapore, are conducted by healthcare professionals and patient care executives from Can-Care.

They were conducted once in two weeks during the circuit breaker and are now held once a month.

Apart from online support sessions, Can-Care also provides free personalised mastectomy bra-fitting sessions online for breast cancer sufferers. Patients pay for the mastectomy bra, which costs $75 to $130 apiece.

Can-Care works with manufacturers to bring in healthcare products including prostheses, post-operative bras, mastectomy bras and wigs to support the needs of cancer patients.

Ms Wong said: “The circuit breaker restricted many activities. We could not conduct any personalised (breast prosthesis and mastectomy bra) fitting for patients in person during that period.

“While our product offerings may not be essential to the public, they are essential to certain breast cancer patients who have just had a mastectomy.”

So Can-Care started to offer fittings over video calls in April. It has provided more than 100 patients with customised bras through such consultations and has a return rate of below 7 per cent.

“This proves that a virtual fitting is possible and challenges our old-fashioned beliefs that patients need to be fitted physically,” said Ms Wong.

Ms Tricia Ng, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in December last year, heard about Can-Care’s services from breast care nurses at the National University Hospital.

The 27-year-old healthcare worker went through an online personalised mastectomy bra-fitting session last month and found that the process worked well.

She initially felt daunted and overwhelmed by the idea of searching for post-mastectomy products, but her experience has led her to feel “grateful for a supportive community of women who want to make a difference in the lives of those with breast cancer”.

Ms Wong said: “Supporting the physical appearance of patients is especially important as this helps to boost their confidence and self-esteem, which has been found to improve the treatment outcome of patients.”

The online support group sessions run weekly and, depending on the topic, last between one hour and three hours.

Social enterprise Can-Care, which helps newly diagnosed cancer patients and cancer survivors cope with changes they are experiencing with their bodies and lifestyle, has also been offering online support and educational sessions for patients and their caregivers since the circuit breaker was announced in April.

For more information or to book a session, visit Can-Care or National Cancer Centre Singapore.

Text: Amrita Kaur / The Straits Times