"It was like the end of my world," says twenty-eight year old Penkhra Jitjamnong, of being told two years ago that she had breast cancer. "I had so many questions, like why me? There were no right answers. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to say when people would ask me ‘Are you going to die?’ "
As her illness progressed, she asked nurses about whether there were any support groups for breast cancer patients, and eventually a nurse gave her a brochure about the Bangkok Breast Cancer Support Group (BBC). "I’m so happy I found out about them. I’ve connected to a big family," she says. "The BBC will tell you about what to do if you lose your hair, how to feel good about yourself and stop thinking about being sick."
Dr Narongsak Kiatkikajornthada, an oncologist at Samitivej hospital, says that it can help cancer patients to talk to other people who have had a similar experience. "So you know that you will be okay later on. But in Thai culture, I’m not sure how it would work… At the moment, [a support group] would have to be gradually developed."
The BBC was launched more than a year ago by American Connie Larkin and two other women. When several of Larkin’s friends were diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided to do something to help them by getting the group going. "In America, support groups are very, very prevalent," Larkin says. "Even in a couple of other places in Asia, but not Bangkok."
The group consists of volunteer women from diverse backgrounds – there are currently nine women on the committee, who speak five languages between them – who are able to provide emotional support to people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. "What we are trying to do with this group is provide alternatives to people, both Thais and expatriates. When people are diagnosed, they can call us and ask ‘Where do I go in Bangkok? What’s here for me? What services exist?’ "
As well as promoting community awareness of breast cancer, another of the group’s objectives is to create a resource centre with literature and current information. "We have tried to gather information from various cancer societies. We’ve also purchased books, and we research what’s coming out of the major cancer institutes. If people go to a doctor’s office here, there is little to sometimes no information."
Larkin hopes that doctors will let their patients know about the group. "Part of our success will be based on getting the support of physicians and their referrals. This is our main obstacle at the moment."
One of the main activities of the group are the monthly emotional support group meetings, held at a different hospital each time, which Penkhra found so useful. "I think we’re going to increase the number of meetings because the people who are sick and are coming to these meetings say they want more," says Larkin. "What we’re trying to do is encourage them to support each other, so after every meeting we send a list to everyone who participated and they can call each other."
Pensri Wanrakakit, an oncology nurse, says that she has often been asked by patients about whether it is possible to contact a support group anonymously. "Some patients want help over the phone, or Internet instead," she says.
Culturally, then, perhaps the group will take some time to be sought out by Thai women. Penkhra, however, remains baffled by this lack of enthusiasm to meet and talk about problems. "I don’t understand why Thais don’t talk. If you talk about something, it makes you feel better. When I was going to hospital, I wanted to talk to the other patients there, ask them how they were feeling. I thought maybe we should share our experience together," she says. "I really needed someone to talk to."
Penkhra has now recovered and is returning the favour to other patients by remaining active in the BBC. "If there’s someone new, I want to help her. I want to hug her, tell her that she will be fine. I understand what she’s feeling. I lost my hair – if someone is going to lose their hair, I’ll tell them to look at me," she says, indicating her now very healthy-looking locks.