Combating cancer with science and spirit

19 August 2002
ADDRESSING a near capacity lecture theatre, Professor Raymond Abratt of the Division of Radiation Oncology put an artistic twist to his inaugural lecture on the medical campaign to contain and cure cancer in South Africa and, more specifically, at UCT and in Cape Town.

Speaking on Improving Care and Cure of Patients with Cancer – Multiple Collaborations, Abratt introduced each section of his presentation with an apt reference to some prominent work of art, including Michelangelo's statue of David and a piece by Vincent van Gogh. So, for example, he began his talk on prostate cancer – which occurs most commonly in senior citizens and is the second most common cancer in men – by citing Die Skaapwagter ("The Shepherd"), a painting by South African artist Maggie Loubser that "shows the serenity and dignity of age as well as the presence of vitality and individuality".

As with his sections on testeis cancer (the most common cancer in men between the ages of 15 and 35 years) and lung cancer (the most common form of cancer), Abratt spoke on the widespread treatments of each condition, and the units, clinics and people at UCT and Groote Schuur Hospital that are involved in researching and treating them. He also made special mention of the medical and technological advances in the field over the past decades, including the use of the Computed Tomography [CT] scan devised by UCT's own Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Professor Alan Cormack, in the 1950s.

But treating and curing cancer is more than just a medical issue, Abratt indicated, and with the aid of George Pemba's painting on Hairdo, talked on the psychological, social and spiritual aspects of wellbeing. So he and colleagues have, for example, come up with a test to help patients assess, understand and monitor their own sense of wellbeing, he explained.

"Disease treatment is about interventions, which affect biology to improve the wellbeing of patients with cancer," Abratt said. "Health-related quality of life is about the biological as well as the psychological and social aspects of wellbeing."

Patients who confront a serious illness such as cancer may also confront spiritual matters and their underlying values, adding an extra dimension to the treatment of disease, he added.

"Spirituality embraces a unitary concept of health and disease, and assists in making decisions when science can no longer inform decisions."

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