China's cancer hotels

Shandong native and colorectal cancer patient Wu Mingliang, 43, resting in a so-called “cancer hotel”, which is in fact a private apartment, in Beijing.

BEIJING - When civil servant Wu Mingliang travelled from coastal Shandong to Beijing last October, he picked a hotel that few others would have chosen.

The hotel had no lobby, no check-in counter, room service or security, and is not close to most major tourist attractions. In a cramped 20 sq ft space, his room could barely fit two single beds, a small cupboard and a TV.

But this is not a typical hotel. And Mr Wu, 43, is not a typical traveller.

Diagnosed with colorectal cancer just before he came to Beijing with his wife Sun Juan, he was looking for a cheap place near the capital's renowned Beijing Cancer Hospital and Institute. At 90 yuan (S$19) a day, this room fit the bill.

"It costs less than half of that for a budget hotel room and I can cook meals in the kitchen for him," Ms Sun, 43, told The Sunday Times in an interview at the apartment, where a bathroom is shared by three families, but Wi-Fi is provided.

Although it is located in a dimly lit high-rise flat and amenities are basic, it "suits our needs", she said.

Such accommodations - dubbed by some as "cancer hotels" but which are actually rooms in private apartments - have sprung up in recent years as China's cancer rates steadily grow.

They offer cheap housing for China's growing number of cancer sufferers who throng the few hospitals in the country they deem good enough to treat the condition, located in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

The trend mirrors the one in Singapore medical hubs such as Novena where real hotels have sprouted up to cater to hospital patients from overseas.

Like many other cancer sufferers, Mr Wu and his family do not feel Shandong's hospitals have the expertise or facilities to handle serious illnesses.

Similarly, a family of four from northern Liaoning province told The Sunday Times at the hospital last Monday that "everyone back home advised us to come to Beijing", to treat their 70-year-old mother's stomach cancer.

Like the Wus, they found a "cancer hotel" after being accosted by an agent milling around the hospital entrance. The same scene was replayed near the Beijing University Cancer Hospital when The Sunday Times visited last Tuesday.

In both places, there were about a dozen people carrying signs that display daily rates. Rooms go from as low as 40 yuan a day for a single room, up to 160 yuan for a room that can accommodate four people.

Advertisements for such rooms can also be found on the Internet, which prominently state that they are "located near cancer hospitals".

At least seven or eight blocks of flats near the Beijing Cancer Hospital and Institute offer such housing, said Ms Kang Shuxian, 38, who rents out three apartments to cancer sufferers, including the one that Mr Wu stays in.

She makes a profit of about 4,000 yuan a month from rent and said that business is brisk, except during long Chinese holidays.

"I estimate about one-third of these apartments here are rented out to patients," she pointed out to The Sunday Times, sweeping her finger across a few buildings.

While "cancer hotels" are not officially banned, they occupy a legal grey area since they are not licensed. The government does not encourage sharing of flats, for fear of hazards that come with overcrowding. Furthermore, some of them are illegally sub-let.

Yet this demand is unlikely to abate.

One forecast by researchers said that China's cancer sufferers will increase from three million in 2012 to four million in 2020 and five million by 2030, Xinhua reported in February. A World Health Organisation report in the same month described China's cancer growth rate as "ferocious".

The increase is partly due to more Chinese going for check-ups, but also because of factors like air pollution and food safety, said Dr Liu Qiyong, who treats cancer patients in a public Beijing hospital.

Exacerbating the public bias against smaller local hospitals, Chinese media reports say about 80 per cent of China's medical resources are concentrated in large cities.

It is a vicious circle, Dr Liu told The Sunday Times.

"The less people visit local hospitals, the less experience doctors there will have dealing with cancer patients," he said. "This discourages patients from visiting them, which further reduces the doctors' exposure."

He added that it is not just treatment for cancer that pushes patients to big cities, but any treatment for serious conditions.

This is why patients like Mr Wu are willing to fork out 100,000 yuan - a massive sum for a couple who make 8,000 yuan a month and still need to provide for a 17-year-old son. The government insurance scheme covers less than half the cost because they have chosen to seek treatment in another province.

When asked how the couple are financing Mr Wu's operation and chemotherapy sessions, the reply was "qing jia dang chan", meaning they have emptied their coffers.

While some might criticise "cancer hotel" owners for exploiting an illness for personal gain, Ms Sun does not begrudge this business.

"They're fulfilling a need the government doesn't provide. I'm just happy he is getting better," she said, pointing out that Mr Wu can now eat regular meals when he was struggling to keep down food in the past.

She has, in fact, also become firm friends with Ms Kang, whom she has been renting her room from.

Said Ms Kang: "I don't want to pretend that I'm not in this to make money, but we're not milking them." She added: "I hope we're helping in a small way."

chengwee@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Lina Miao

BIG HOSPITALS STILL BETTER

If there is one thing that cancer patient An Wen is certain of, it's that she has finally done the right thing.

"If I had gone to Beijing when I was first diagnosed with early stage cervical cancer in 2013, I wouldn't still be fighting the disease today," she told The Sunday Times.

Instead, the sales executive had had her operation at a hospital in Hefei, the capital city of her native Anhui province, to save cost.

When she suffered a relapse last year, however, Ms An, 40, quickly decided to seek help in Beijing, where she felt her chances of recovery were better.

She went there with her mother and husband last July, and stayed at a "cancer hotel" near the renowned Peking Union Medical College Hospital before moving to a friend's home last month.

While the apartment was "small and not very clean", at 150 yuan (S$32) a day, it was the most affordable option for them, considering that she was going to spend 300,000 yuan on her cancer treatment.

Comparing her experience in Hefei and in Beijing, Ms An said that the doctor, the equipment and the service were all better in the capital.

Such a perception has led to patients crowding at renowned hospitals in big Chinese cities, despite doctors and officials urging them to give their local hospitals a chance.

Ms An said she has been warmly received in Beijing by both the medical staff and local members of a support group she joined.

For now, although she has not been cleared of her cancer following an operation and sessions of chemotherapy, she is feeling "more positive than before" and might return to Anhui this week.

"I want to live," said the mother of a 12-year-old girl.

"I want to watch my daughter grow up."


This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
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