It doesn’t get nearly the same mileage in the primetime news as other pieces of legislation, but, if enacted, one particular bill can help save hundreds of thousands of Filipino lives. When Congress resumes this week, on the plate of the powerful House Committee on Appropriations chaired by Rep. Karlo Nograles (Davao City) is the Cancer Control Act.
It’s not an overstatement to say that millions of cancer stakeholders are praying for the bill’s speedy approval. The clamor is led by the Cancer Coalition of the Philippines, a national multi-sectoral alliance composed of cancer patient organizations, medical societies, and health advocates.
“All of us, members of the Cancer Coalition of the Philippines, belong to different NGOs that try to do whatever we can in our own sphere of influence, bringing with us wisdom gained from our experience with cancer,” said broadcast journalist and breast cancer survivor Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, coalition co-chairman.
“We have gone beyond ranting and started to fill the gaps in cancer care. I feel we should step up the conversation and start talking about what the government can do to fulfill the unmet needs of cancer patients in this country. While we want to be partners in finding a solution, it’s the government that has the resources, after all.”
The numbers are alarming. Every year, almost 110,000 new cancer cases are recorded and 66,000 Filipinos die from the disease. Since 2004, cancer has been the third-leading cause of death in the Philippines, next only to cardiovascular disease. This translates to 11 Filipino adults getting sick of cancer and dying from it every single hour.
Alikpala said while there have been a lot of inroads in the past few years, these developments are still outpaced by the increase in incidence of and deaths from cancer. There is no question that something more drastic, more holistic, more institutionalized has to be done.
“A comprehensive national cancer plan is long overdue,” said Dr. Ramon Severino, coalition co-chair and president of the Philippine Society of Oncologists. “We need more pathologists, we need more oncologists. We have limited nurses trained in oncology. Our cancer centers are mostly located in Metro Manila and some big cities. When you add this all up, and compare it with the number of cancer cases, then you will see why we need to act now.”
Even in the context of the region, the Philippines has the highest death rate for breast and prostate cancer. For the former, the country has the lowest survival rate, with a mortality to incidence ratio of 0.58, or 58 deaths every 100 breast cancer cases. The figures for childhood cancers is no less alarming, with an average survival rate of only 30 percent. This is a far cry from the 84-percent average in high-income countries.
It is worrying then that public healthcare spending to help treat and fight the disease hasn’t kept pace with the trend and has remained dismally low. While the overall healthcare spending for cancer is in the same level as Vietnam and Thailand at 4.4 percent of the GDP in 2013, only 32 percent came from the government, compared to 42 percent in Vietnam and 80 percent in Thailand.
A big chunk—57 percent—of cancer-related spending is paid out of pocket by Filipino cancer patients, not to mention the relatively low level of access to innovative cancer treatments. It is not surprising then that cancer diagnosis in the Philippines often spell financial catastrophe. The PhilippineE CostsS in Oncology, or PESO Study, found that a significant percentage of cancer patients either suffer financial ruin or outright die within a year of diagnosis due to lack of funds, support, and access to medication.
Thus, while fundamentally a public health concern, the impact of the staggering numbers on the economy must also be appreciated. After all, we can only surmise how the financial catastrophe arising from cancer diagnosis multiplies among families and communities. Statistically, the economic loss arising from the 100,000 new cancer cases and 60,000 deaths cannot be disregarded. This is approximately 10 percent of the 582,183 deaths in 2016 reported by Philippine Statistics.
Amid this backdrop, Rep. Nograles has thankfully vowed adequate funding for the bill some months back.
“Upholding the funding requirements of the measure will put it one step closer toward its enactment, which can’t come sooner for Filipinos whose loved ones are afflicted by this curse of a disease,” he said.
Under the law, the government’s efforts in helping combat the disease will be comprehensive and integrated, and the ensuing policy will serve as the framework for all cancer-related activities of the government, Nograles said. More importantly, diagnosis will no longer translate to either financial ruin or a death sentence.
“Through this bill, the state will be able to provide more PhilHealth benefits for cancer patients and access to better medication and health care services of the Department of Health,” he said.
Such overdue acknowledgment is welcome. The reality of cancer as public health phenomenon and a debilitating disease is something that the government can no longer ignore.
We hope that Rep. Nograles will keep his promise of ensuring that the Cancer Control Act will have adequate funding.
Pass the Cancer Control bill now.