Canberra team delivers first ever oncology unit to Solomon Islands
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Canberra team delivers first ever oncology unit to Solomon Islands

Dr Nalini Pati remembers seeing a young woman at the National Referral Hospital in Honiara having difficulty breathing because her lymph node had swollen to such a size it was restricting her airway.

She had been diagnosed with a type of lymphoma, a treatable cancer, Dr Pati said. But sadly it was at such a progressed stage that treatment was no longer an option.

Professor Desmond Yip, clinical nurse consultant Wendy Spencer, haematologist Dr Nalini Pati and oncology pharmacist Beth Hua from the Canberra Hospital have returned from a trip to set up the Solomon Islands' first ever oncology department.

Professor Desmond Yip, clinical nurse consultant Wendy Spencer, haematologist Dr Nalini Pati and oncology pharmacist Beth Hua from the Canberra Hospital have returned from a trip to set up the Solomon Islands' first ever oncology department.Credit:Elesa Kurtz

Thankfully, the introduction of the Solomon Islands first ever oncology unit means that hopefully won't happen again.

Dr Pati was part of a four-person team from the Canberra Hospital that recently returned from setting up the cancer treatment unit, bringing a whole new range of treatment options to the Pacific Island nation.

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The team treating the 34-year-old patient at the hospital in Honiara, Solomon Islands. From left: nurse Meltus, Dr Andrew Soma, the patient, Wendy Spencer, Beth Hua and nurse Stephen.

The team treating the 34-year-old patient at the hospital in Honiara, Solomon Islands. From left: nurse Meltus, Dr Andrew Soma, the patient, Wendy Spencer, Beth Hua and nurse Stephen.

The team from Canberra consisted of senior haematologist Dr Pati, clinical director of oncology Professor Desmond Yip, oncology pharmacist Beth Hua and clinical nurse consultant Wendy Spencer.

One of the biggest challenges is now getting patients to hospital, as many wouldn't consider going until it is too late.

"People with very treatable cancers, those patients when they have a diagnosis of cancer, they think they’re going to die," Dr Pati said.

"That is their expectation and they don’t expect anything can be treated and even if they do there is nothing much available in terms of the drugs.

"We want to bring an awareness that not all cancer patients will die and a fair proportion of them will survive."

The project to bring greater cancer treatment services to the Solomon Islands began in 2016 when Professor Yip travelled there, funded by the John James Foundation, to assess the extent of cancer services.

Since then a Solomon Islands based doctor has visited Canberra to undertake training.

The team successfully set up the oncology unit on their latest visit to Honiara, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The key parts of the program were to write protocols that could be easily followed, ensure the use of medicines was up to date, and teaching the doctors how to give chemotherapy safely.

The team at the National Referral Hospital in Honiara, Solomon Islands put the new equipment and oncology training they received to use.

The team at the National Referral Hospital in Honiara, Solomon Islands put the new equipment and oncology training they received to use.

Professor Yip said one of the most important goals for the team was to train their counterparts in delivering treatments safely.

"It was [previously] done on a sort of ad hoc basis," he said.

"It was given by any doctor that was looking after the patient. It wasn’t done with protective equipment."

He said with a lot of work over the past two years and the efforts of the Canberra-based team, the unit was in a position to begin treating patients.

One of the highlights for the team, Ms Spencer said, was being able to provide chemotherapy to a 34-year-old man diagnosed with testicular cancer and know that his chance of survival was hugely increased.

"They were very responsive, they were very pleased to see us and very grateful for anything we were doing," Ms Spencer said.

Oncology pharmacist Ms Hua added: "They know the value and the impact that it can have. Particularly the mum of the 34-year-old, she was thinking of taking him to New Zealand at her own cost, so to have a curative treatment so locally she couldn’t thank us enough."

The Canberra Hospital also has an agreement with the Fijian government to bring nurses to Canberra for training. The team will be making another trip to the Solomon Islands next year to follow up on the last visit.

All of them hoped the Australian government would continue to assist less developed neighbours to improve the quality of their healthcare.

Elliot Williams is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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