Increasing chances for cancer survival

We have all lost loved ones to cancer. Personally, I lost my father-in-law and my best friend to pancreatic cancer. Last July, I also lost my brother to lung cancer. If there is anything I learned about this insidious disease, it is that it cannot be stopped if not immediately treated. It must be detected early and managed accordingly.

Last year, 19.3 million people worldwide were afflicted with cancer, ten million of whom succumbed to the disease. One out of every five people develop cancer during their lifetime. One in eight men and one in 11 women die from the disease, eventually.

The survival rate of cancer within the first five years of diagnosis varies according to cancer type. A pre-COVID-19 oncological study conducted in the United Kingdom revealed that survival rates can go as high as 83.2% and 81.1% for prostate and breast cancer, respectively. It is at 60.2% for cervical cancer, 56.6% for rectal cancer, 53.8 for colon cancer, 47% for leukemia and 36.9% for ovarian cancer. The survival rate plunges for stomach cancer at 18.5%, lung cancer at 9.6%, and liver cancer at 9.3%. Survival rates are even lower these days in light of COVID-19. Studies show that patients with cancer who contract COVID-19 are 16 times more likely to progress to a severe or critical stage.

In the Philippines, 153,751 new cancer cases were reported last year, 44% of them were males and 56% were females. Incidences of cancer accelerate progressively as we age. For men, the probability of acquiring the disease doubles after his 55th birthday. For women it progressively increases beginning the age of 40. Among males, the most common types of cancer are lung, colorectal, prostate, liver, and leukemia. For women, it is breast, cervix-uteri, colorectal, lung, and ovarian. A total of 92,606 cancer-related deaths were reported in the country last year.

According to the World Health Organization, the number of cancer cases in the Philippines will rise to 275,000 a year by 2040 if the disease is not mitigated.

To address the cancer menace, the Philippine legislature signed the Universal Health Care Act and the National Integrated Cancer Control Act (NICCA) into law in February 2019.

NICCA is an internationally acclaimed law that comprehensively maps the path forward to strengthen cancer control, increase cancer survivorship, and reduce the burden on patients and their families. The NICCA law is meant to supplement Republic Act 11223 or the Universal Health Care Act. Together, these laws should reduce the mortality rate of non-communicable diseases, including cancer, by 30% by the year 2030.

Although the enabling laws were signed, they have not been implemented yet. See, to activate the National Integrated Cancer Control Act requires the formation of a council to execute the law. The Office of the President is responsible for forming the council. When formed, the council will be tasked to provide technical guidance, support, and oversee the full implementation of the law. It will act as a policy-making, planning, and coordinating body that oversees all facets of cancer control and mitigation. The council will be attached to the Department of Health.

The National Integrated Cancer Control Act is fully funded. In the General Appropriations Act of 2021 ratified last December, a budget of P756 million was appropriated for the Cancer Supportive Care and Palliative Care Medicines Access Program (CSPMAP). This will cover breast cancer, childhood cancer, and other priority cancer types.

Historically, the budget for cancer control programs fluctuated and was always insufficient. With the enactment of the law, cancer care will be better funded, opening the way for more research, mitigation programs, supportive care and palliative care.

All it takes to activate the law is for the President to appoint the members of the council and to convene it. However, the President is said to have been preoccupied with the pandemic that he has not had the time to convene the council.

Cancer victims, their families and all those in the high-risk sector are asking President Duterte to please convene the council as soon as possible. Having the NICCA law in place will increase cancer survival exponentially. After all, cancer is the more insidious killer of our people, more so than COVID-19.

Andrew J. Masigan is an economist

Twitter @aj_masigan