Unbeknownst to many, Maria Nancy Socrates, a first-term city vice mayor, is a breast cancer survivor. On Monday, her authored ordinance, SDO No. 142-2020, hurdled its third and final reading before the City Council, in a bid to strengthen the capability of public health systems, facilities, and services for cancer patients within Puerto Princesa City.
“My mom died at a young age of 32 because of cancer. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to her screaming of pain. I was five years old,” Nancy told Palawan News.
October 1 marks the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Cancer is the second leading cause of death for Filipinos, trailing behind heart diseases. In Palawan, up to 90 percent of cancer patients die within three years after detection.
Institutionalizing cancer services
Early detection is the key, Socrates said as she recalled her own battle against cancer.
“After my mom died, syempre natakot ako so I started early with my mammogram, doon nalaman,” she said.
Unfortunately, many Palaweños still do not have access to affordable healthcare. According to Dr. Joseph M. Tovera, oncologist and medical adviser of Palawan Cancer Support Group, around 25 local residents are diagnosed of cancer every month. Around 90 percent of the cancer patients are already on late stages of cancer upon medical consultation.
“Kahit may nakakapa na sila, hindi sila agad nagpapatingin kasi mahal nga naman. By that time, it’s sad because mahirap na labanan,” Tovera said.
On 2019 Valentine’s Day, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte signed into law Republic Act (RA) 11215 that created a national integrated cancer control program, also known as National Integrated Cancer Control Act (NICCA). Nancy, who is also known for her civic engagement in Philippine Red Cross, said that she took the opportunity to bring the matter up to the local legislative council.
“Na-inspire ako, so I thought panahon na para ma-supplement ‘yong national law. Doon nag-umpisa ‘yong local ordinance,” Socrates said.
The proposed ordinance, once enacted into local law by the chief executive, will allocate funds to the City Health Office (CHO) to provide subsidized medical services especially for cancer patients.
Subsidized access to tests such as mammography and ultrasound, which also includes treatment, are also being pushed for budget appropriations in 2021.
“Even the testing is expensive. Kahit na hindi natin sila ma-libre, pero kahit papaano makatulong tayo, malaking bagay na ‘yon,” Socrates said.
Around four in every five cancer patients in Palawan are embattling breast cancer, according to Tovera. One of founders of the Palawan Cancer Support Group (PCSG), former Palawan National School (PNS) principal Rebecca Arquero died earlier this year because of cancer. Arquero was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2014 that gave birth to the PCSG.
“The treatment is expensive, we all know this. Not everyone can afford chemotherapy,” Tovera added.
Non-medical interventions would also be established for city residents fighting cancer. A collaboration among strong family support system, psychological, social, and other palliative care services are being sought for patients who are in the grim near-end fight.
Funds for cancer
Under the NICCA, a Philippine Cancer Center would be established in the National Capital Region with comprehensive cancer care centers and treatment units in various regions. There would also be a Cancer Assistance Fund under the Department of Health that can provide financial assistance to patients in need. The national law also called for the expansion of PhilHealth’s benefit packages that are now limited only to a few selected hospitals and not for all kinds of cancer. The national law also mandated more affordable cancer drugs and improved palliative and pain management services.
In a recent webinar presented by the Strong To Someone Facebook group, entitled “Cancer Care-Nections”, which is still available on their Facebook page, Dr. Clarito Cairo Jr., program manager of the DOH’s NICC program, lamented the lack of funding for the NICCA.
Cairo said that next year’s line budget item for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases, where cancer programs and services are included, have been reduced from the current P510 million to P370 million.
In Puerto Princesa, Socrates said that she has yet to personally talk to mayor Lucilo Bayron for the budget allocations. However, her strong established online and offline presence about her advocacies is not something that Bayron has overlooked.
“Hindi ko pa siya nakakausap about dito sa ordinance, but he knows about the advocacies of my office and hopefully, he approves the ordinance,” she said.
Life goes on
“The annual Christmas party is something they look forward to every year,” Tovera said. This year, however, the local cancer support group’s annual Christmas party is now being threatened to be postponed because of the raging pandemic. Cancer patients are among the vulnerable groups from the new coronavirus disease because of the systemic compromised immune system.
On October 11, a breast cancer awareness campaign, dubbed “Dibdiban 2020”, is penciled to advance the advocacy in breast cancer.
“One of the most important aspects of fighting cancer is awareness. People suffering from it must know not to give up hope. And I also hope people get to know more about this disease—how to detect it, how to prevent it, how to fight it,” she said.