public health

[Vantage Point] Renewed hope for cancer patients

Val A. Villanueva
[Vantage Point] Renewed hope for cancer patients


'If we have to save more lives, we need more funds from the government, not just for treatment, but for testing, because early diagnosis and treatment is far more effective than treating late-stage disease,' says Dr. Mendoza of the NKTI

In January 2015, I went under the knife for colorectal cancer, after suffering from months of agonizing pain whenever I moved my bowel. Blood in stool, piercing stomach pain, insomnia, rectum soreness – symptoms that I self-diagnosed as caused by hemorrhoids. It reached a point when the pain became unbearable and affected my daily routine. I could no longer think straight and couldn’t concentrate on my work.  

I only meant to have a casual visit to my doctor for hemorrhoid medication, or possible  hemorrhoid retraction through a simple operation. But blood tests, ultrasound, and a pet scan revealed that the Big C was trying to put me down.

My mind went blank, unable to process then what my doctor was saying. A major operation was immediately scheduled at the Makati Medical Center to be done by a team of doctors. They had to act fast. I was told that the cancer was still lodged in a two-inch diameter tumor and had not crept into other body parts.

As I was being wheeled to the operating room, the hallway looked surreal to me. I felt like I was traveling inside a dark tunnel that led nowhere. Time seemed to creep very slowly by. Many negative thoughts flashed through my mind. Would I be able to wake up from the ordeal? Was I just having a nightmare?

I woke up, thank God, from the shivering temperature of the recovery room. I was swiveled back to my room and fell promptly asleep again. Loud noise suddenly brought me back to wakefulness, I opened my eyes and saw crowds of people on TV cheering as they lined up the streets to welcome Pope Francis who visited the Philippines in January 2015 to meet with the survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) which devastated the city of Tacloban, Leyte in November 2013. On January 18, Pope Francis celebrated an emotional mass with a sea of weeping survivors, telling them how their pain had silenced his heart. Just seeing the Pope even only on TV gave me renewed strength.

While watching these solemn images on TV, I received a phone call from a dear friend, the late former Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas governor Nestor Espenilla Jr. who was at the time BSP’s deputy governor for supervision and examination. Sadly, in late 2017, Nesting was diagnosed with tongue cancer and died peacefully two years later in the presence of his family at the age of 60.

I’ve been in remission for eight years now, and remain cancer-free. But the medications I took and were injected with damaged my kidneys. I’m now managing to live with a 35% kidney function, and maintaining a diet to slow down, if not to completely halt, my kidneys’ degeneration.

Still, I thank God for my second life. Others – some of whom are my close relatives and friends – were not as lucky. The psychological and financial trauma haunts not only the patients, but most especially those they leave behind.  

Is cancer curable?

Dr. Marvin Mendoza, head of the Section of Medical Oncology of the National Kidney and Transplant Institute, claims it is.

“Thanks to medical advances and innovations, cancer is curable even at stage 4 or when a cancer has metastasized to other organs – be it breast, liver, cervical – there is hope for treatment, but even more so if they are diagnosed early. The medicines for many different kinds of cancer are already available locally,” he says.

Mendoza reveals that the government has been providing targeted therapies for two types of cancer, breast and lymphoma: “For breast cancer patients who cannot afford the P300,000 to P450,000 needed to go through the required 18 treatment cycles, they can go to at least 23 public hospitals throughout the country for free treatment.”

These public hospitals are:

  • Jose R. Reyes Memorial Center (Manila City)
  • East Avenue Medical Center (Quezon City)
  • Philippine Children’s Medical Center (Quezon City)
  • Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center (Baguio City)
  • Mariano Marcos Memorial Hospital and Medical Center (Batac City, Ilocos Norte)
  • Region 1 Medical Center (Dagupan City)
  • Cagayan Valley Medical Center (Tuguegarao City)
  • D. Paulino J. Garcia Memorial Research and Medical Center (Cabanatuan City)
  • Batangas Medical Center (Batangas City)
  • Bicol Medical Center (Naga City)
  • Bicol Regional Hospital and Medical Center (Legazpi City)
  • Western Visayas Medical Center (Iloilo City)
  • Corazon Locsin Montelibano Memorial Regional Hospital (Bacolod City)
  • Vicente Sotto memorial Medical Center (Cebu City)
  • Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center (Tacloban City)
  • Zamboanga City Medical Center (Zamboanga City)
  • Northern Mindanao Medical Center (Cagayan de Oro City)
  • Southern Philippines Medical Center (Davao City)
  • Cotabato Regional and Medical Center (Cotabato City)
  • Davao Regional Medical Center (Davao City)
  • National Kidney and Transplant Institute (Quezon City)
  • Rizal Medical Center (Pasig City)
  • Bataan General Hospital (Balanga City, Bataan)
What is targeted therapy?

More and more patients are currently turning to targeted therapy as a form of treatment for cancer because it has proven more effective than chemotherapy. While chemotherapy offers around a 30% success rate, targeted therapy is successful in up to 80% of cases. Compared to the scatter-gun approach of chemotherapy, targeted therapy is sniper-like in accurately taking out its target mass without any collateral damage to otherwise healthy cells. Unfortunately, not all cancer patients will be well-suited to receive targeted therapy treatment.

To be at its most effective, targeted therapy must be used in conjunction with a meticulous diagnosis by expert medical staff. Each patient’s symptoms are unique, so every course of treatment must be tailored to suit the individual. This approach is referred to as “Precision Medicine” due to the precise nature of the treatment which results in greater efficacy and an improved chance of success. Experts claim that targeted therapy is highly accurate, has minimal side effects, and is suitable for elderly patients who are too weak to undergo a course of chemotherapy.

DOH lacks funds

“Options for treatment include a subcutaneous injection that takes about five minutes to administer or a three-hour intravenous administration that also requires an additional two hours or so for preparation,” Mendoza explains.

Only about 200 or so patients can be accommodated nationwide because the Department of Health (DOH) was given only less than P1 billion for this program. Fortunately, for 2023, funds were restored by Congress as a result of a “multipartisan, bicameral push.” (READ: Congress restores P1.56 billion for cancer funds in 2023 budget)

Mendoza reports that there are about 27,000 new cancer cases for breast cancer alone each year. “If we have to save more lives, we need more funds from the government, not just for treatment, but for testing, because early diagnosis and treatment is far more effective than treating late-stage disease,” he adds.

Medical innovation has progressed over the years to make treatment more effective and patient-considerate, as well as easier for healthcare providers to administer, resulting in more patients being reached in a timely manner.

“We can beat cancer now,” Mendoza says. “We can save lives. And we are trying our best to make treatment accessible nationwide, especially to those who cannot afford the treatment. In particular, we have medicines for breast cancer and lymphoma available in the DOH hospitals.” –

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