Together for Health: One Community in Action Against Cervical Cancer

In a bid to address the challenges of cervical cancer in the Philippines, leading voices from the healthcare sector, the government, and civil societies convened at the “Together for Health: Making a United Stand Against Cervical Cancer” forum on April 5, 2024 at the Makati Diamond Residences. Organized by the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP) and healthcare company MSD in the Philippines, the event discussed the urgent need for concrete, multisectoral action against the silent but deadly disease.

“We cannot fight this battle alone. It requires a concerted effort among all stakeholders, government agencies, healthcare providers, advocacy groups, academe, and the community at large. Each of us brings unique perspectives, strengths, and capabilities to the table and it is through our collective action that we can effect meaningful change,” said PHAP Executive Director Teodoro Padilla in his welcome remarks. “Together, let us forge a path forward–one marked by innovation, compassion, and inclusivity that host the promise of a future where cervical cancer is just but a distant memory.”

The forum invited cervical cancer survivors to share their stories and cervical cancer doctors and champions to spark conversations on cervical cancer in the Philippines, including the challenges of raising awareness and calling for collective action to combat the disease.

Working Together to Eliminate Cervical Cancer

The financial implication of cervical cancer leads to patients facing exorbitant out-of-pocket healthcare expenditures. From costly treatments and hospitalizations to the indirect costs of lost productivity and income generation, the financial strain inflicted by cervical cancer can push families into dire financial circumstances. In fact, at least 7 in 10 cancer patients in the Philippines “drop out of regimen” due to lack of funds.

“As we discuss and strategize, we’re not just talking about numbers. We’re talking about our mothers, daughters, sisters, friends–their faces fuel our determination. Their stories demand that we do better. For my part, I have consistently pushed for additional budget for the cancer programs of the Department of Health, including funding for the cancer assistance fund, which aims to support cancer patients in their needed treatments,” said Senator Bong Go, Chairman, Senate Committee on Health and Demography.

The Department of Health’s (DOH) commitment to combatting cervical cancer is aligned with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer. By 2030, the DOH aims to vaccinate 90% of girls by the age of 15; screen 70% of women by the age of 35, and again by the age of 45; and to provide treatment to 90% of women diagnosed with cervical cancer. However, the effectiveness of these efforts hinges on the systematic implementation and coordination of interventions across various sectors.

To achieve these targets, a concerted and multi-faceted approach is needed. This includes bolstering vaccination and screening programs while strengthening local healthcare systems, improving access to quality care, and addressing disparities in healthcare delivery. Forum panelists highlighted that by systematizing efforts to eliminate cervical cancer, stakeholders can maximize impact and accelerate progress towards achieving the overarching goal of ending the disease.

Ending Stigma, Beginning Education

Beyond its physical toll, cervical cancer often carries a social stigma that impedes prevention and treatment efforts. Cervical cancer is mostly attributed to the human papillomavirus (HPV). According to experts at the forum, since this virus can be sexually acquired, misconceptions surrounding the disease contribute to fear, shame, and reluctance to seek HPV screening or other medical care.

Despite being one of the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer, cervical cancer continues to claim thousands of lives each year, largely due to a lack of knowledge and awareness. Raising awareness about cervical cancer is paramount to overcome the barriers of prevention, early detection, and treatment. Therefore, efforts to educate the public about the risk factors, symptoms, and preventive measures associated with cervical cancer are essential in empowering individuals to take proactive steps towards their health.

The forum underscored the need for amplifying the stories of those affected to help humanize the disease, dispel misconceptions, and inspire action. “Let’s keep telling stories. Stories are very powerful to communicate a message, statistics, or a very complicated issue. It’s good to share stories of survivors; even of those who did not make it or discovered their cancer–there’s something to be learned,” said Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, iCanServe Founder and Cancer Coalition of the Philippines Vice President

By sharing these stories, survivors and advocates can offer hope, encouragement, and practical insights into navigating the challenges posed by cervical cancer. Additionally, amplifying diverse experiences ensures that the narrative is inclusive and reflective of the diverse communities it affects. Through collective advocacy and storytelling, cervical cancer champions can raise awareness, promote early detection, and ultimately save lives.

“We hope to raise awareness on the need to focus on the following items: the first one is on sustainable preemptive measures for HPV and HPV-related diseases, including cervical cancer. There are a lot of conversations in the past that said, ‘Hopefully we have a vaccine for cancer.’ In reality, we have several vaccines that already prevent cancer and HPV is one. We’d like to continue this conversation to really raise that awareness. Access to quality care services and treatment for all Filipino patients, regardless of socio-economic status, collaborating on tactics to improve public communications, and, of course, self-reporting,” said Karlo Paredes, Corporate Affairs and Market Access Director at MSD in the Philippines.

As the curtains draw on the “Together for Health: Making a United Stand Against Cervical Cancer” forum, a resolute call to action echoes across the nation. The forum served as a catalyst for change, igniting a collective movement to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health threat. Through collaborative action and sustained advocacy, stakeholders aim to create a future where cervical cancer is no longer a silent killer, but a preventable and treatable disease.