China's war against cancer

Updated: 2015-02-09 14:42


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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."

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