Saturday, February 8, 2014

Would You Rather Have Cancer or HIV?

This question popped into my mind when I was diagnosed as positive. Cancer and HIV have similarities. They are serious and dreaded. And people fear them. Cancer, if diagnosed at a late stage, can be fatal, and may even cause so much pain to the patient. On the other hand, HIV at an advanced stage, may or may not be fatal. Many PLHIV even with advanced AIDS cases do recover, thanks to ARVs.  

But why does it seem like people are more fearful of HIV? Simple... due to ignorance. To most people, including myself before my diagnosis, AIDS is death. They don't know and refuse to know how modern HIV medicines have advanced. Another reason is stigma. HIV doesn't always kill. Stigma does. Stigma makes HIV bigger than the virus itself. 

What do people with cancer get upon diagnosis? Sympathy! Friends, family, and relatives suddenly show utmost care and empathy. They openly offer prayers, love and support.  

On the contrary, what do PLHIV get? Disgrace! They become objects of gossips. People look at PLHIV as immoral, equating them to prostitutes and sex maniacs. People look at them with sodomy, disgust, and prejudice in mind. 

As a result, PLHIV hide in closets. They camouflage their illnesses, opportunistic infections, changes in skin conditions, and physical appearances. Having pneumonia for "normal" people is difficult enough. But what is worse is to fight pneumonia, TB, and other AIDS opportunistic infections while pretending to your friends and work mates that you are just on an extended vacation. PLHIV are in constant stress to keep their illness in their security vaults. Worse, some PLHIV even commit suicide. Some family members disown them. And a number fall into depression. 

Stigma! This magnifies the suffering of PLHIV. Unfortunately, I don't see this ending soon.  No, at least not in this generation.  

Going back to my question, Cancer or HIV? Many will definitely not choose HIV, all because of stigma. That's quite easy to understand. It's difficult to fight stigma. It's difficult to live in the closet, fighting for your life without your dear friends and loved ones. 

As for myself, would I rather have cancer or HIV? Knowing the facts, I'd choose the latter. I value life more. I want to live, and HIV offers a higher probability of having a normal life. PLHIV can recover and re-live their lives. I can endure stigma. I can hide my virus from my friends. I can endure not getting their support during my difficult times in the hospital. I can discreetly take my ARVs at exactly 8pm daily for the rest of my life. I can always make reasons on why I no longer drink beer. I can forever invent reasons whenever I go to my HIV hub to get my supply of HIV drugs and CD4 test. I can forever lie on why I suddenly stopped eating sashimi and medium rare steak. I can forego traveling to HIV-phobic countries like UAE, China, Singapore and Malaysia. Yes, I can forever hide in my ARV closet. I can live with that. If at the end of my battle, I will regain my life back, I would consider stigma as a little sacrifice to pay. But can you image how much easier the battle would have been had there been no stigma? In any case, I'm still lucky to be living in the era of ARVs. 

Someday, there will be a cure for HIV. But before that momentous day happens, I hope people will look at PLHIV just like people with hypertension or diabetes - no stigma. Stopping stigma starts with me.