To fight cancer
Despite medical breakthroughs, cancer remains largely unvanquished especially in resource-poor countries.
In the Philippines, where cancer awareness is low, it is estimated that one in every 1,800 Filipinos will develop cancer in a year. Cancer now ranks as the third leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the country, after communicable ailments and cardiovascular diseases.
Among Filipino children, the figures are more alarming and tragic: 10 diagnosed with cancer daily, with 8 in 10 likely to die, according to pediatric oncologist Dr. Julius A. Lecciones.
He lists leukemia as the most common (accounting for 47.8 percent of all childhood cancers), followed by brain and spinal cancer, lymphoma (affecting the lymph nodes), and retinoblastoma (eye cancer). Wilm’s tumor (which affects the kidneys) and osteogenic sarcoma (a type of bone cancer) are also on the list.
If caught early, most malignancies are treatable, said Lecciones, but the symptoms are similar to those of common childhood illnesses and thus tend to be ignored. They include prolonged, unexplained fever; unexplained pallor; increased tendency to bruise; unexplained localized pain or limping; unusual masses or swelling; frequent headaches, often with vomiting; sudden eye or visual changes; and progressive weight loss.
On top of the debilitating pain inflicted on a child’s tender body is the distressing economic cost of cancer: 56 percent of families lose their financial capacity to cope with the demands of cancer within a year. In fact, some studies show that over 50 percent of a typical family’s resources go toward treatment of the stricken member, thus jeopardizing the chances for survival of the rest of the family.
The government has taken initiatives to ease this economic burden, said Lecciones, who is executive director of the Philippine Children’s Medical Center (PCMC). Among the most notable is the My Child Matters program at the PCMC, which partnered with private groups to improve the survival rates of leukemia through several strategies: train frontline physicians in early cancer detection (there are less than 300 pediatric oncologists nationwide, most of them concentrated in urban centers); develop capabilities for satellite treatment units outside Metro Manila; and address affordability issues in chemotherapy.
Another PCMC partnership came up with Allmap (for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Medicines Access Program) that, among others, provides free chemotherapy drugs to indigent patients.
Then there’s the PhilHealth “Z” package launched in 2012 for catastrophic illnesses that covers hospital expenses and lab tests. Public information campaigns have raised awareness and understanding of childhood cancer and created public expectations that in turn increased the demand for healthcare. Such expectations prompted more parents to seek medical consultations for early diagnosis and intervention of their children’s illness.
Though laudable, these efforts can definitely use an extra hand, a legislative push in the form of the proposed “National Integrated Anti-Cancer Control Act” whose salient features include the creation of the Cancer Assistance Fund to help see poor families through the course of treatment.
The bill includes an expansion of PhilHealth programs and benefit packages, as well as more health services to underserved regions, “to effectively manage and control cancer in all its forms.”
Under the bill, mechanisms shall be created to ensure a steady supply of essential and quality cancer drugs, that would always be “available, accessible and affordable.” It also puts in place a competency-based curriculum for healthcare workers to improve cancer care treatment and support the healthcare service delivery system at all levels.
The Cancer Coalition Philippines is composed of representatives of cancer societies and NGOs such as Philippine Society of Oncology, Cancer Warriors Foundation, Carewell Foundation, ICanServe Foundation, and the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines, among others. Most of them or their families are cancer survivors who believe that the proposed law would raise awareness of this dread disease to a national level, and also ensure budgetary support from the national government.
Passing the bill is nothing less than a fulfillment of a constitutional mandate, according to the coalition.
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