Health experts and advocates call for better cancer care during the pandemic
Cancer is one of the greatest healthcare challenges for Filipinos, with its prevalence continuing to increase each year. Today, as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer patients are among the most vulnerable groups whose worries have compounded.
Dr. Buenaventura Ramos Jr., President of the Philippine Society of Medical Oncology (PSMO), presented the facts on how Filipino cancer patients have been affected by COVID-19 during his segment on Hope From Within’s live webinar. In his presentation, Dr. Ramos revealed that 46.74% of the 92 doctors who responded to PSMO’s unofficial survey said their cancer patients were hesitant to make hospital visits during this time. 93.48% of doctors surveyed had to delay the administration of systemic therapies, like chemotherapy, by one week or even up to a month. 73.91% also said they had patients who deteriorated and died because they were not able to seek urgent care during this pandemic.
The numbers presented by Dr. Ramos serve as a wake-up call and reminder that cancer does not sleep, and more innovative and adaptive measures must be implemented urgently. These measures include safe means of transportation in order for patients to make necessary hospital visits.
“If only we had the National Integrated Cancer Control Council set up in time like in November as it was mandated, then things might have been different,” said Paul Perez, President of Cancer Coalition Philippines and Founder of Project Brave Kids, in reaction to Dr. Ramos’ presentation on cancer care in the Philippines during COVID-19. “Now more than ever we need policies. We need planning. We need the coordinating desk to guide us most especially in navigating the pandemic.”
“We have to accept the reality that several cancer patients in our country use mass transport and will have no other alternative but to use this despite the recommendation to avoid it,” Paul pointed this out as well as the need for strengthening and equipping regional cancer care centers.
“Many patients from the provinces come to Metro Manila for treatment. There is a very similar situation in the Visayas where patients in the other islands can’t get to Cebu while on a lockdown. It is of utmost importance to accelerate the creation or the upgrade of the cancer centers most especially in the regions,” he said.
Kara Magsinoc-Alikpala, Vice President for Internal Affairs of Cancer Coalition Philippines and Founding President of IcanServe Foundation, echoed Paul’s sentiments and raised issues which focused on the plight of low-income cancer patients.
Kara talked about how difficult adapting to telemedicine may be for patients who do not have access to internet or cellular service. “We’re going to have to teach them how to warm up to the idea of talking to someone they don’t know especially for the poor because they don’t have dedicated doctors the way a lot of us do,” said Kara. “We need to restore patient’s confidence when going back to the hospitals, seeing their doctors, continuing treatment. We need to help them stay in touch.”
Apart from addressing certain issues, Kara also discussed some of the positive impacts the pandemic urged Filipinos to make. “We saw the goodness of volunteers in terms of addressing the big barrier of transportation especially during the lockdown,” she added. Cancer Coalition Philippines and ICanServe formed a hatid-sundo program for patients within Metro Manila and nearby provinces who are currently on treatment.
“We’re a small operation but we’ve managed to help over 150 patients, mostly children. We’ve had requests from Mindanao and the Visayas, but sadly we couldn’t service them because we didn’t have the resources. We see the need is still urgent and real so we want to try and expand this program and find partners whether transport partners, individuals, organizations who can help us,” said Kara.
“When we were campaigning for the cancer law, one of the things we members kept talking about was in 10 years the World Health Organization said that cancer incidence can increase by 80% for resource challenged countries. The WHO said this would be a big strain financially especially to the Philippines’ health system. It’s a scary problem. We really need to work together to survive this,” said Kara. “To all cancer advocates, let us continue clamoring and calling out to our leaders. We need to be part of the conversation all the time. We need to assert ourselves.”
Health experts and patient advocates alike reiterate that cancer does not stop, so cancer care must not stop during this pandemic.
The good news is, most hospitals today are making every possible effort to ensure patient safety by adapting to new workflow setups, especially for outpatient clinics, which include social distancing measures, mandatory wearing of personal protective equipment and the like.
Cancer patients and caregivers are encouraged to seek information and guidance, as needed, from their oncologists, and from trustworthy groups such as Cancer Coalition Philippines (CCPH), Philippine Society of Medical Oncology, and Hope From Within (hopefromwithin.org).