Alternative cancer therapy modalities?

I often get questions from my friends and family about cancer. In fact, it is not just limited to what I am studying, I get questions about all diseases, and recently I have been bombarded with questions about COVID-19. Too often we find ourselves in conversations with our friends where when something becomes scientific, they automatically look to you, their resident scientist, for answers. It happens to me all the time and I am often puzzled but humbled by how much people trust me and how they think I know everything. Trust me, I do not know everything, and all of us continue to learn every day, either through reading or listening to others speak about their research work.

One of my cousins recently was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and it has been a sad period for the whole family. You can imagine how many questions and debates I have fielded through this. However, as a scientist, I ask myself what solutions I bring to the community and how can I equip myself to educate other people. One of the topics I work(ed) with during my master’s and PhD explores different methods for the treatment of cancer and bacterial infections as opposed to traditional methods of treatment.

One of the methods we explore is photodynamic therapy (PDT). Traditional methods of therapy often have irreversible side effects and can sometimes lead to other illnesses. On the other hand, PDT is a method that specifically targets the cancerous cell without damaging healthy cells or the surrounding tissues. It uses a photosensitizer and light of a specific wavelength to target the cell. In PDT, three things are required, a photosensitizer, light of a specific wavelength and molecular oxygen.

The most common photosensitizers are porphyrins which have to be biocompatible, cytotoxic and soluble in the biological media. Porphyrins are heterocyclic organic compounds with 18 planar pi electrons and hence making them aromatic. The photosensitizer is injected into the patient’s body in the dark, and laser light of a specified wavelength is irradiated to the tumour cells. Because of the molecular oxygen in the cell, this induces the production of singlet oxygen and other radicals which will in turn kill the cancerous cell without any harm to the normal cells.

One advantage of this method is that no noticeable damage is observed on healthy cells. However, not many clinical trials of this method have been conducted in Africa where some cancers such the breast cancer is particularly prevalent. I am continuing the work of using different methods alternative to surgery, chemotherapy or other traditional methods and the work will be published in accredited research journals.

CRITICALLY CONSIDERING YOUR SAFETY- Are you safeguarded against service users?

Imagine receiving a crisis call and wanting to assist. You know that you have the professional expertise to assist, and you have the passion to help people. However, you never know what you would find on your way to the individual who has made the call, or upon entering the home or setting where the call has come from. You enter an unfamiliar area alone, often with limited back-up, no weapons, and no way to protect yourself.

What is not often spoken about, is that this scenario is quite common in the healthcare field. Social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, medics, nurses, occupational therapists, and other members of the helping professions are frequently exposed to unstable and potentially violent situations. It is mind-blowing to read that higher rates of violent incidents are reported in health and social sciences than in all other industries combined. 

On the 14th of December 2013, Deon Kondos began his day with the intention of supervising a visit between a father and his child. When the father pulled out a gun and started shooting, he killed the social worker, the child’s mother, the stepfather, and then himself. During 2015, a social worker in Rustenburg was killed when he intervened in a domestic violence case (Ola, 2018) and in 2016 another social worker was killed while attending to a case in Malamulede area (Gazankulu, 2018). Nokuthula Dlamini, a social worker, wrote an open letter to the Minister of Social Development in 2017 in which she pleaded to the minister to improve the working conditions of social workers. During the same year, a social worker in Empangeni was stabbed to death. The most recent reported incident in South Africa, was in 2021 in Pietermaritzburg, Sithembile Vilakazi, brutally murdered in an allegedly orchestrated incident, approximately three months after the murder of her husband – both of them were social workers.

When helping professionals engage with service users, it is often because service users are encountering stressful or crisis circumstances. Research has found that the intensity of stressors and crises, whether physical, cognitive, psychological, or spiritual, can have an impact on service users’ thoughts and behaviors. In the event that a service user is under the influence of alcohol or substances, has a history of mental illness, or faces any developmental delays, it contributes to having a distorted perception of reality and/or lower cognitive capacity, which can cause difficulties with impulse control and related aggressiveness.

Service users would at times engage in physical violence, emotional abuse, verbal attack, property damage, and sexual assault (collectively known as client violence) against helping professionals. Younger helping professionals are more likely to experience all categories of client violence. In a 2014 paper Malesa, Kgashane Johannes confirms that younger professionals are particularly vulnerable when the service users they serve are older than they are. Furthermore, helping professionals with little experience are more likely to face various forms of client violence. In this context, it is a mystery why there are limited protocols and regulations by government and employers to protect and safeguard professionals against violence from service users.

My PhD research focused on client violence and the protection of social workers in South Africa.  The purpose of the study was to learn more about the nature of client violence against social workers and the factors that may contribute to it;  to better understand client violence in the context of South Africa and to explore the relative risk of social workers being exposed to client violence occurrences; to  identify relevant international and national policies, frameworks, protocols and guidelines that could inform the development of a policy framework to enhance the protection of social workers and finally, to design a concept policy framework that was reviewed and refined before it was submitted to key role players in the social work profession.  

A focus on these aspects did not only assist our understanding of the phenomenon, but also ensured a better understanding of professional and client risk profiles, the lived experiences of social workers, as well as incredible insights on how to properly manage the client violence cycle. International guidance and inspiration assisted with the development of a reliable concept policy brief and policy framework for the South African setting.

Image: Extraction of first section of policy brief developed during this research study.

The policy brief and policy framework presently include programs to make social worker safety and security a national priority, programs to establish a safety culture in the workplace, and initiatives to support social worker safety in the office, while traveling, and during site visits. Local experts and stakeholders in the social work profession was consulted to review and refine the policy framework. The current version is a practical guide, with ready-to-use templates and visual aids, that may be consulted and immediately implemented by practitioners and stakeholders.

Image: The policy framework includes a set of visual guidelines of initiatives to support social work safety. Example of some home visit guidelines.

And while this particular study focused on the social work discipline specifically, the findings can be translated to other disciplines as well. After all, this critical issue affects health and social science sectors, as well as all helping professions who engage with service users. Who will be responsible for ensuring the safety of helping professionals when they provide care to service users? This policy may be a first step for stakeholders to answer the question.

Imagine receiving a crisis call and responding confidently, because you are assured that you will be safe to do your work. This makes an enormous difference to you, the service user, and the overall workplace.

Additional references:

Gazankulu, O. 2018. Social workers killed on duty [e-mail]. 13 Nov 2018. South Africa.

Ola, O. 2018.  2018. Social workers killed on duty [e-mail]. 13 Nov 2018. South Africa.