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Cancer is something we can live with, not die from

By LAI S. REYES, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 23, 2021 5:00 am

Before COVID-19, there was cancer, one of the leading causes of death in every corner of the world.

In observance of National Cancer Month this February, the Cancer Coalition Philippines, members of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), as well as the Department of Health (DOH), joined hands to inspire action for a cancer-free future through a series of online conversations/forums aimed at mapping the path forward to strengthen cancer control in the Philippines.

The first of the series, “Cancer Conversations: Navigating Cancer with Patients,” centered on discussions on the plight of cancer patients and their families during the pandemic.

The forum also highlighted the importance of the full implementation of the National Integrated Cancer Control Act (NICCA).

The World Health Organization projects that in less than 10 years, there could be an 80-percent increase in cancer incidence globally.

“From Cagayan Valley in the north to Cagayan de Oro in the south, and from every province in between, patients tuned in via Zoom or Facebook Live to access key information on how to access funding, especially through Malasakit Centers and tips on cancer prevention,” shares Paul Perez, president of Cancer Coalition Philippines (CCPh).

During the forum, cancer patients also repeated what we already know: That the hard fight versus cancer is becoming more difficult because of the pandemic.

“Our patients are in dire need of more action. They’re looking forward to actionable ideas. They’re looking forward to continue the (cancer) conversation,” stresses Perez.

From policy to meaningful actions

The Cancer Coalition Philippines was a “product of a conversation.”

“The initial conversation among patient organizations was followed with more conversations — both big and small — with other stakeholders, medical societies, the academe, which later on expanded to include the hierarchy of the DOH until it reached the halls of Congress.

“Every single conversation was important. It allowed us to dig deeper into the issues and challenges of the day and in dealing with the difficult road cancer patients and their families take,” adds Perez. 

The sharing of thoughts, ideas and beliefs were then translated into one solid action: the enactment of Republic Act 11215.

“RA 11215 is the hallmark of those conversations,” notes Perez.

On February 14, 2019, President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law the National Integrated Cancer Control Act (NICCA), a law that provides quality health services and financial risk protection to cancer patients.

 Paul Perez, president of Cancer Coalition Phils.

Since its passage, major progress has been made, but there are also areas that require concerted action.

“We need to be assured that the Cancer Assistance Fund would be sustainably funded according to patient needs,” Perez stresses during the second forum titled “Cancer Conversations: From Policy to Meaningful Action.”

“We aspire for better cancer care now through the full implementation of the NICCA so that we can protect patients and their families from the long-term impact of the pandemic,” he adds.

Cancer screening, care and treatment have been disrupted mainly due to fears of COVID-19 exposure. For the majority of cancer patients who lack financial capacity, treatments were discontinued because funding assistance was also halted.

The CCPh is composed of ICanServe Foundation, Philippine Cancer Society, Cancer Warriors Foundation, Philippine Society of Oncologists, Project: Brave Kids, Carewell Community Foundation, and the Philippine Society of Medical Oncology.

The NICCA aims to alleviate the burden of cancer patients and promote survivorship. To address a major issue in cancer-treatment funding, the NICCA sought to establish a Cancer Assistance Fund.

The DOH may also solicit and receive donations to augment funding for cancer. The law also required PhilHealth to expand its benefit packages for cancer to include not only treatment but also screening, rehabilitation, pain management, and palliative care.

 Health Secretary Francisco Duque III

During the forum, Health Secretary Francisco Duque announced that an initial budget of P756 million would be available for the cancer assistance fund, in line with the Cancer Supportive Care and Palliative Care Medicines Access Program.

“Long before the pandemic, cancer patients and their families have always had a lot of unmet needs,” says Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, CCPh VP and founding president of IcanServe Foundation. “The pandemic exacerbated this desperation. Sadly we will be seeing more advanced, harder-to-treat cancers. We’re also missing a lot of opportunities for early cancer screening. The WHO projects that in less than 10 years, there could be an 80-percent increase in cancer incidence globally.

 Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, founding president of IcanServe Foundation

“We urgently need the creation of the National Integrated Cancer Control Council, which will function as the policymaking, planning and coordinating body on cancer control,” she adds. “We are deeply committed to working with the government, all stakeholders, especially the cancer community, for better cancer care now.”

With NICCA and UHC in place, the DOH will double its efforts in moving forward the goals of advancing and expanding cancer care in the Philippines.

Innovation is key

Cancer itself is a complex global and national challenge that is now compounded by the pandemic. No one sector can effectively respond to this enormous task.

“In this fight, innovation is key,” says Teodoro Padilla, executive director of PHAP.

The bio-pharmaceutical researchers being represented in the country by PHAP are innovating with an increased understanding of cancer. In fact, there are 3,000 potential life-saving medicines and vaccines being developed for cancer.

 Teodoro Padilla, executive director of PHAP

“Our aspiration is to see cancer transform to just another chronic condition whereby drugs are taken as maintenance,” adds Padilla.

While treatment remains a critical factor, addressing cancer requires recognition of its complexity and management through the whole continuum of care.

“As such, we have members who are engaged in a number of health partnerships with the government, the academe, health workers and organizatons to address barriers to cancer care,” shares Padilla.

The PHAP has also put in place a number of patient-support programs. These include:

  • Roche’s Rapplus, an individualized financial assistance and patient support program for all Filipino patients prescribed with Roche medicines;
  • Go Fund Cancer, a one-stop website that provides cancer patients and their families with information on where to they can find funding sources for their treatment;
  • Pfizer’s Inspire Program and Care for Cancer, in partnership with Grab, which provides free transportation to cancer patients to and from their treatment facility for free; and
  • MSD’s Hope From Within, a patient-centered advocacy campaign that aims to help patients and their families in their journey in the continuum of cancer care.

“As we take up the implementation of policies that are already in place, we at PHAP would like to be part of the conversation in our collective search for more sustainable solutions that go beyond populist quick fixes,” says Padilla. “We believe that cancer is something we can live with — not die from.”