A dream realized

THE invitation is for the "blessing and inauguration of the SPMC Cancer Institute, Children's Cancer Center, House of Hope Annex, and Candles of Hope by Kublai Millan."

It will be at 2 p.m. of December 8, 2016 at the SPMC Front Canopy, the invitation says.

The one inviting, the House of Hope Foundation for Kids with Cancer Inc. What is not written is the decades long dream and work that made this event possible.

The inspiration being the desire to treat the afflicted children from marginalized sectors as early as possible to give them a better chance of survival.

"Childhood cancer is highly curable. No better proof than Survivors Day," said Dr. Mae Concepcion J. Dolendo, head of the Children's Cancer Center of the Department of Pediatrics of Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC).

The inauguration is timed with Survivors Day, which is celebrated every December 8 since 2007 and officially declared as such by the Davao City Government in 2013 through Davao City Council Resolution No. 0283-13.

Surviving cancer, however, needs the earliest possible diagnosis.

"We need to get the kids with cancer early," Dr. Dolendo said, as this will mean less resources needed for cure and higher chances for a cure.

As it is, cancer treatment for the marginalized has indeed come a long way in Davao City.

From the four-bed cohorted room in the Pediatrics Department of what was then the Davao Medical Center (DMC, now the SPMC) in 2004 to the 25-bed-pediatric oncology unit in 2010, and just before 2016 ends, the whole east wing of the new Cancer Institute will become the Children's Cancer Center. The west wing is the Adult Oncology Center and also houses the radiotherapy center.

Before the cohorted room was assigned for cancer patients, there was no facility for such. There was just the pediatric ward for all. There was also no support program for indigent patients, thus, in 2004 when a child from a poor family was diagnosed to have cancer, it was like a death sentence. The survival rate among DMC patients was less than 10 percent because many were dropping out of treatment. The families cannot afford the cost of sustained treatment, transport, and temporary shelter for at least two years. And this was the situation for child cancer patients whose families were able to bring them over to Davao City from as far as Zamboanga, Cotabato, and other far-flung areas. How the other children were faring before SPMC was able to fully serve children with cancer in this part of the country are heartbreaking stories we will know nothing about.

All in

The Children's Cancer Center has a Day Therapy Unit on the first floor that includes the Chemotherapy Infusion Unit, consultation area, offices and a conference room for multidisciplinary meetings and teleconferences.
Those undergoing diagnosis and treatment are admitted on the second floor, while the third floor of the east wing houses the isolation rooms and a high dependency unit for ill patients.

Aside from the radiotherapy center at the west wing are the chemotherapy infusion unit and wards for patients.

Before, the cancer center had to spend some P14,000 to P16,000 once or twice a week for tests of those difficult to diagnose leukemia and lymphoma cases to the National Kidney and Transplant Institute in Quezon City. The cost is shouldered by the House of Hope Foundation.

"Now, we can do it onsite and charge it to Philhealth," Dr. Dolendo said with local pathologists trained at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the United States.

"The initial idea of a cancer center originated from a request of the pediatric oncology team from then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte for a facility that can accommodate more kids with cancer because the number of patients being treated for cancer was increasing. On December 8, 2013 Mayor Duterte announced during Survivors Day that resources are available for a cancer center. The construction of the facility was started in 2014," Dr. Dolendo said.

Apparently, the mayor was able to source fund from the national budget that was allotted for the institute. Dr. Ma. Elinore Concha, the chief training officer of SPMC, said the whole facility cosst P113-million sourced from the general appropriations act and the hospital income.

"Hospital income comes from PHIC (Philippine Health Insurance Corporation), out of pocket expenses, and Lingan (para sa Mahirap) contributes to it when they shoulder fees for patients," Dr. Concha said.

Lingap is a Davao City Government funded assistance for marginalized patients who cannot afford the cost of treatment of a disease, including cancer.

The idea is to provide the best treatment for children with cancer without unnecessarily exposing them to the pathogens of other patients, considering their much compromised immune system.

The cost outside treatment

Butuan-based photojournalist Erwin Mascarinas, whose daughter was diagnosed with leukemia when she was still three years old, says that aside from the high cost of treatment, finding a place where they can stay with their daughter before and after her chemotherapy sessions for the past two years is a major concern. The daughter was treated at a hospital in Cagayan de Oro City, but the travails of living far from where cancer treatment is available is similar for all.

"Ang ginawa namin, nag-rent kami ng house para ma-stay-an. Pero syempre, dahil mababa ang resistance niya hindi kami basta-basta maka-rent nang kung saan-saan lang. Kelangan namin mag-rent doon sa maayos rin ang environment, mahal ang ganun," Mascarinas said. This added up a lot to the cost of treatment because everytime the daughter acquires a disease from the environment treatment curing it costs much more than chemotherapy.

June Anne, the daughter, will have her last chemotherapy this month, almost three years since first treatment.

Considering the earning and paying capacity of the families of the SPMC cancer patients, this recourse is not possible.

Thus, the need for the House of Hope Annex, as well. The original House of Hope is a seven-room one-storey structure, a former residential house that was converted as a halfway house for out-of-town patients and their caretakers. The caretakers keep the house and its surroundings clean as their counterpart in the upkeep.

The Annex, just beside the original House, has 20 rooms for sleeping, a multipurpose area, a teens activity area equipped with flatscreen TV, couches, a small library of teen novels, and board games, and a room dedicated as activity area for smaller children, Dolendo said. This structure was built from funds facilitated and sourced out by Senator Pia Cayetano.

Since separate facilities have been allocated for pediatric cancer care, from the less than 10 percent survival rate, the SPMC Child Cancer Center now has a 59 percent survival rate for symphoblastic leukemia patients from 2008-2014, and 50 percent survival rate for pediatric solid tumors.

With the inauguration of the Cancer Institute, the children are given a much higher chance of licking the disease.

"Every kid deserves a fighting chance regardless of ethnicity or status in life," Dr. Dolendo said. "Currently, we even have a Badjao patient with liver cancer. And we're gonna fight for her, just like any kid."

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