This Breast Cancer Awareness month, an acclaimed student-made project is turning heads by combining sustainability and affordability to bring a new area of cancer care to the Philippines.
University of the Philippines students Emmanuelle "Minnie" Pangilinan and Jason Pechardo are introducing the Brakong, a lightweight external breast prosthesis made from the locally-grown aquatic plant bakong.
With the Philippines having the highest prevalence of breast cancer in Asia, Pangilinan and Pechardo wanted to offer an affordable alternative for survivors who have undergone a mastectomy, or surgery to remove breast tissue to prevent or treat breast cancer.
The psychological toll of getting a mastectomy has long been a topic in cancer care, from survivors experiencing post-surgical depression to the loss of one's self-image.
"It started when we were brainstorming for the Design Center of the Philippines' (DCP) Bakong Circular Design Challenge with our mentors in the medical field, Dr. Nats and Dr. Ancoy. In the competition, we were tasked to ideate applications of the Bakong material in line with DCPs goal to add value to this invasive plant species," the pair shared with PhilSTAR L!fe.
Trained in the steps of product development, they first identified various medical problems in the Philippine medical community like ostomy appliances, arm casts, and eventually, anxiety caused by breast cancer.
"After intensive discussions, we decided to focus on breast cancer granted the emotional aspect of the problem."
"Using bakong maximizes the impact as it hits two birds with one stone, tackling both the negative psychological effects on survivors as well as the sustainability issue posed by prostheses," they said.
After three months of hard work and focus on the project, Jason and Minnie were able to combine the bakong plant’s antimicrobial properties and 3D scanning to create a breast prosthesis that stays clean in the chest area while perfectly fitting one's measurements.
A year later, the Brakong has earned them the top prize in the Philippine leg of the 2022 James Dyson Award and P330,000 cash incentive to jumpstart the product for further development, and hopefully widespread use in the medical field.
"It would largely depend on the pace of product development and available funding," they said regarding the Brakong's road to commercial distribution.
"We are hoping the JDA impact would help us boost the development process and get the product out to the market at the earliest time possible. However since the design itself is an iterative process, we really want to make sure the product is at its best once it's out."
Currently, Pangilinan and Pichardo are in coordination with the DCP, ICanServe foundation, and several medical advisers to gather user feedback and guide their approach for future product upgrades.
Remember that the first step of design thinking is to empathize
"Aside from what was mentioned, FDA approval and certifications are a bit difficult to get here in the Philippines and we're still exploring our options at the moment."
With regards to the initial reaction of breast cancer survivors, they said it felt different from the usual prosthetics, and there are areas they could still improve on. Still, they can also see the potential of the product because of its materials and affordability.
For their advice to innovators and fellow design thinkers, the two say that empathy should be the core of any new ideas, whether it be for struggling cancer survivors or the Filipino people as a whole.
"Stay scientifically and creatively curious, and remember that the first step of design thinking is to empathize."
"Understand the real-life problem from the perspective of the ones who experience it. Do not be too hasty in designing without really empathizing with all the stakeholders. Every problem is multifaceted and solving one facet without considering others might result in a solution that isn't applicable," they added.
"At the end of the day, it's a collaborative endeavor. We do it best together."
At its core, Brakong does not just serve as a sustainable and aesthetically-pleasing covering for survivors, but as an affordable way to cope with what comes after the diagnosis.
After all, through the congratulations and well-wishes, there is still the psychological impact that a survivor goes through with the pain they've dealt with and the bodily loss they feel.
"Cancer care is more than just fighting the disease itself, it's about bringing quality of life through a cancer care ecosystem— of doctors, patients, caregivers, and advocates," Jason said.
"If we could bring a more accessible and sustainable option to even a few, it could make the difference."