MSD PHL hosts innovative therapies forum

In the Philippines, cancer is the second leading cause of death but, medical experts stated that there is hope as new medicines and treatments are available to prolong survival and improve the quality of life of cancer patients.

However, the big question is how do we make these innovative therapies accessible by every Filipino cancer patient?

MSD in the Philippines’s Hope From Within cancer advocacy campaign successfully organized the media forum “Making Cancer Care Innovation Accessible to Every Juan, which served as a platform to address the urgent need for improved and accessible cancer care in the country.

Local and foreign medical experts, Philippine legislators, and patient advocates shared insights on the importance of collaboration and dialogue among key stakeholders to pave the way for a future where every Filipino can have access to the best possible cancer care.

The state of cancer care in the Philippines

“I believe the financial aspect is an important consideration. It is a known fact that our health system is not as robust as those in Western countries. While the government has initiated some projects and established access sites where patients can obtain chemotherapy drugs and targeted treatments throughout the country, there are still challenges,” said Philippine Society of Medical Oncology president Dr. Rosario Pitargue.

“Not all drugs are covered, and it can take a significant amount of time, sometimes even years, for a drug to undergo the necessary processes, including health technology assessment before patients can access it in the Philippines,” she added.

“As a result, those who can afford it often seek treatment in other countries like Singapore. Unfortunately, even if the drug is available locally, the cost can be prohibitive for patients, especially those in the Class B income bracket. Some patients even express that they would rather allocate the money intended for their treatment to their families instead.”

Despite the challenges, Pitargue emphasized that cancer is no longer a death sentence. New-generation treatments and diagnostic tools are available, providing hope for patients. Efforts are being made to improve access to treatments and support cancer patients in the Philippines.

“We have recognized that lung cancer is not a single homogeneous population, but rather consists of various subgroups defined by specific biomarkers, mutations, and other characteristics. This understanding has led to the realization that lung cancer is comprised of multiple types of cancer, each requiring personalized treatment approaches,” explained Dr. Jack West, thoracic oncology specialist from Los Angeles, California.

By utilizing targeted therapies, which are often in pill form or involve immune-based therapies to activate the immune system’s ability to recognize and combat cancer cells, we have achieved significantly improved outcomes for many patients. These approaches generally result in fewer side effects compared to traditional chemotherapy, although there are instances where chemotherapy still plays a role.

The field of lung cancer treatment has undergone a significant transformation. Previously, patients typically had a survival time of just a few months, but now we see more cases of successful cures and many more patients living for several years. This progress is largely attributed to the implementation of routine biomarker testing at the time of initial diagnosis, which allows us to characterize the specific features of cancer and determine the optimal treatment for each individual patient.

“In the case of head and neck cancer, similar to lung cancer, the prognosis has historically been very poor. A few years ago, when chemotherapy was the primary treatment option for advanced head and neck cancer, the chances of surviving five years were only one in 20. This meant that the average survival time was around nine to 12 months,” explained Dr. Alesha Thai, head and neck medical oncologist and clinical scientist at Peter MacCallum Cancer Center, Austin Health in Melbourne, Australia.

However, in recent years, there have been significant advancements in the field, particularly with the introduction of new drugs like immunotherapy. As a result, oncologists in Australia are now observing a notable increase in the number of patients who survive beyond five years, with approximately one in four or one in five patients achieving this milestone.

“There are numerous new treatments available nowadays, and credit must be given to the research and collective efforts of the global community in advancing these options. Singapore is fortunate to have access to many of these new drugs. The government provides reimbursement for 90 percent of these drugs to ensure their affordability,” said Dr. Joline Lim, a consultant and clinician scientist at National University Cancer Institute in Singapore.

“However, there is still a small portion, about 10 percent of drugs, that may not be financially feasible for the general population, requiring patients to bear the cost themselves. Nonetheless, overall, we can maintain a high standard of treatment, whether through immunotherapy or the emerging class of antibody-drug conjugates,” he added.

These advancements have had a significant impact on breast cancer therapy, along with the innovative utilization of chemotherapy in novel ways and combination with other treatments. Innovative medicines focus on improving the patient’s quality of life. In cases of stage four cancers, such as breast, lung, or head and neck cancers, where a complete cure may be unlikely, the focus remains on improving the well-being of the patients.

Patients are often informed by healthcare professionals that the complete eradication of cancer may never be achievable and that it may persist indefinitely. However, the objective is to convert it into a chronic disease, akin to diabetes or high blood pressure, wherein patients can effectively manage it with a daily pill or periodic treatments, enabling them to lead fulfilling lives.

Improving access to innovative cancer medicines

In his keynote speech, AnaKalusugan Representative Ray Reyes highlighted legislative efforts and proposed bills aimed at addressing these issues, including the provision of free medical checkups, funding for healthcare through taxation, and the establishment of regional specialty hospitals. The goal is to ensure access to quality healthcare and support for all Filipinos affected by cancer.

“We already have coverage for chemotherapy as part of our government program, but targeted treatment and immunotherapy are not yet included. Through ongoing collaboration with experts, the private sector, and the government, we aim to strengthen this mutually beneficial relationship, ensuring that every Filipino can benefit from improved access to innovative cancer medicines,” said Reyes.

When it comes to improving cancer care in the Philippines, there are various priorities and considerations that need to be addressed.

“Firstly, one of the key priorities is to ensure viable and accessible availability of medicines, while also focusing on affordability. This is closely tied to the second aspect, which is improving access to innovative cancer care. Additionally, the third priority is strengthening primary healthcare services, particularly by implementing nationwide cancer screening initiatives within community-based programs. Lastly, an essential element is establishing a comprehensive and robust registry or database to enhance the tracking and management of cancer cases over time,” said Jojo Flores, head and neck cancer survivor and advocate.

Furthermore, Engr. Emer Rojas, President of the New Vois Association of the Philippines, emphasized the importance of funding in addressing the cancer gap.

“I believe we have sufficient funding through the 2012 law. Annually, we generate approximately P59 billion from tobacco and alcohol. If we allocate a significant portion of this revenue to address the cancer gap, we can expedite the implementation of cancer control laws and ultimately save more lives,” said Rojas.

In the face of the urgent need for accessible cancer care in the Philippines, MSD’s media forum, served as a beacon of hope and collaboration. The forum acknowledged that cancer, specifically lung cancer, breast cancer, and head and neck cancer, continues to pose significant challenges for many Filipinos.

However, the insights of esteemed foreign medical experts showcased the remarkable progress made in cancer treatment and care. The advancements in lung cancer treatment, the transformative therapies for head and neck cancer, and the innovative approaches to managing breast cancer have all contributed to improved outcomes and higher survival rates. It is firmly believed that cancer is no longer a death sentence, and it is crucial to ensure that every Filipino has access to these life-saving innovations.


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