The Philippines is observing National Cancer Consciousness Month this February, while World Cancer Day was on Feb. 4.
National Cancer Consciousness Week was last January, during the third week of that month.
All in all, recent official observances of cancer awareness come and go with varying degrees of success (or failure) in terms of public awareness.
Cancer remains one of the most common and deadly diseases in the country, yet when it comes to awareness, it seems relegated to cancer patients, survivors, and their families.
Quite a few types of cancers are lifestyle-related, yet many Filipinos still engage in behaviors that increase their risks of those types of cancers.
To improve quality of life for everyone, it’s important to advise Filipinos that cancer risk exists even for those without familial incidences of cancer.
This is where the importance of cancer awareness campaigns cannot be exaggerated. Filipino people need to be armed with knowledge to help reduce the severity and spread of this terrible illness.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer cites 2020 Globocan figures for the following statistics: breast cancer is the number one cancer in the Philippines, accounting for 17.7 percent of all cancers, followed by lung cancer at 12.5 percent, colorectal cancer at 11.3 percent, liver cancer at 6.9 percent, and prostate cancer at 5.4 percent.
Other types of cancers make up the rest.
According to the same study, lung (19.9 percent) and colorectal (14.3 percent) are the top two cancers that affect Filipino men, while breast (31.4 percent), cervix uteri (9.1 percent), and colorectal cancers (9 percent) affect Filipino women the most.
Overall, most new cases are of breast cancer while the highest number of deaths result from lung cancer.
All the cancer awareness observances this month and the last makes this an ideal time to increase awareness and education around this insidious disease.
Cancer is a serious issue that affects our population, and it is crucial that we become a society that is much more conscious of how we can minimize our risk and properly manage diagnosis and care.
Effective communication campaigns can be a powerful tool to spread the message and encourage citizens to take proactive steps to protect their health.
Perhaps the biggest and most effective cancer awareness campaign is the “Pink Ribbon for a Cure” campaign for breast cancer. Due to this, pink ribbons became a widely recognized symbol of breast cancer awareness in the United States and globally.
The original inspiration for this began in 1979 when a wife of a hostage in Iran placed yellow ribbons around trees in her yard.
Eleven years later, AIDS activists redesigned the ribbon, turning it red and presenting it to the public at the Tony awards to represent people affected by that illness.
In 1982, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization began to use the color pink to promote awareness and this came to include an abstract female runner outlined with a pink ribbon for the mid-1980s to early 1990s.
A year later, the first breast cancer survivor program was launched at the Komen National Race for the Cure, using pink visors as recognition and in 1991 ribbons were distributed to participants at the New York City Race for the Cure.
In 1992 Self magazine created their own ribbon and gave it out with cosmetics in New York City stores and this became the iconic pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness.
Nowadays, generic pink ribbons can be used to represent breast cancer. Other colors have been adopted for other cancers, such as blue for colon cancer.
These campaigns have shown that communication campaigns can be effective in raising cancer awareness and inspiring the public to take proactive steps to protect their health.
By making use of traditional and digital media outlets combined with inspiring stories of survivors, these campaigns have urged the public to make their health a priority.
Local campaigns exist as well. Among the most visible is the ICanServe community for breast cancer awareness. They have a highly active Facebook page. Other cancer-related communities have their presence on social media.
However, to minimize the risk of lifestyle-related cancers, the government needs to be more aggressive in their campaign to spread the message of a responsible, safe, and healthy lifestyle.
We must also strive to develop a greater public understanding of the potential effects of lifestyle on cancer risk. This should go beyond just abstaining from unhealthy habits like smoking and heavy drinking, but also exploring the psychological and social implications that can affect a person’s risk.
Understanding the importance of proper nutrition and regular physical activity should also be part of the discussion.
For the private sector, investing in medical research and funding universities and other research bodies could lead to scientific breakthroughs that can help detect and treat cancer even more effectively.
Sadly, the burden of this serious illness is compounded by limited awareness, access to care, and resources within the country.
Without sufficient education, many Filipinos are unaware of the symptoms and risk factors associated with cancer, and often wait too long to seek out potentially life-saving treatment.
It is therefore essential to focus on prevention through early detection and screening. As such, the national government should prioritize the mobilization of resources for screenings, diagnostic tools, and ongoing education.
This means stepping up efforts to screen for the main types of cancer that afflict Filipinos.
The Philippine government should also work towards increasing access to cancer care across all socio-economic levels, including investing more in research and more modern technologies for detection and treatment.
Another key step is to ensure that people facing a cancer diagnosis have access to the necessary treatments and financial support they need.
This means ensuring access to social protection and benefits such as health insurance or other initiatives that can financially help those affected by cancer.
One law that can help is the National Integrated Cancer Control Act of 2019.
It provides for the creation of a National Integrated Cancer Control Program and a Council that “shall act as the policy making, planning and coordinating body on cancer control.” Whatever happened to that, by the way?
If we are to make progress towards reducing the threat of cancer and increasing survival rates in the Philippines, providing the right resources and education is key.
As we observe National Cancer Consciousness Month, let us remember the importance of recognizing and addressing the full scope of what it takes to truly tackle this serious disease.
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Dr. Ortuoste is a board member of PEN Philippines, member of the Manila Critics Circle, and judge of the National Book Awards. She is a cancer patient twice over, for breast and colon cancers. FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO