In April 2017 I spent a week on the paediatric oncology and haematology ward at Yangon Children’s Hospital in Myanmar. I was able to spend two enjoyable afternoons at Heroes School, the hospital school set-up and supported by World Child Cancer for children with cancer and blood diseases, as well as their siblings.
Class takes place in a room off one of the wards that is decorated with drawings and creations made by the children. A bell rings at 1pm to begin class and after registration the children sing a variety of (very loud) songs from a Burmese version of the hokey cokey to songs about washing your hands properly and my favourite; ‘happiness is here, happiness is there, happiness is everywhere’.
The children then sit down with the two teachers to draw and learn English and Burmese language. They play games like pass the balloon, where they have to do a silly action if the balloon lands on them when the music stops, and egg and spoon races. Some days they will have story time led by one of the incredible play-workers who have been volunteering at the hospital for over 10 years or will have an art session with a volunteer art therapist.
Since June 2016, almost 300 children have attended Heroes School. Attending the school not only allows children to continue with their education that would have otherwise been put on hold, but also gives them a break from their bed and the constant reminder that they are unwell and have to stay in hospital. It gives the children something to look forward to, allows their parents some respite and brings positivity to the ward.
After speaking to the families of some of the children who attend Heroes School, it became clear that families face similar challenges. Reaching a diagnosis for the illness is often not straight forward and takes valuable time. Awareness of childhood cancer in Myanmar is low amongst the public and healthcare workers so the signs and symptoms are often not recognised, leading to late presentation.
Following diagnosis, families, or part of the family, relocate to the hospital in Yangon to begin treatment. Depending which part of Myanmar families are from, it could take up to 13 hours to reach the hospital via poor transport links leaving behind family members, livelihoods and their homes.
Families in Myanmar have to cover the majority of the cost of treatment for childhood cancer so quickly run out of money to pay for this, especially as at least one parent has to give up work to look after the child in hospital. A few of the families I spoke to had left hospital before treatment had finished as they could no longer afford the costs for treatment. Their child inevitably became very unwell and they were forced to return to the hospital and face debt and often poverty to give their child a chance of survival.
World Child Cancer are working to address these challenges in Myanmar.