Anina was in her 20s, a mother of two young children who felt a painless lump on her left breast while taking a bath. She knew she had to see a doctor but was scared what the mass foretold about the future of her young family. She did not earn much as a public school teacher and her husband was only at home, caring for their twins.

She convinced herself the mass was caused by her menstrual irregularity. When she finally told her parents, they sought the advice of faith healers in Cebu and nearby Negros. She drank concoctions from herbs and applied poultice made by the healers. About two years after she first felt the mass, Anina was dead from cancer that metastasized from her breast to her lungs.

Anina’s parents say that they did not even consider a doctor because past experiences with hospitals and doctors left them distrustful and apprehensive about expensive and “useless” treatments. Anina’s mother said at the barangay health center, the workers were always too busy with personal business to attend to Anina and other clients.

The biased mindset of Anina and her parents reveals one tragic aftermath of a primary health care (PHC) system that fails to reach out to the public, especially members whose limited resources make them vulnerable to ailments that can be addressed through regular check-up, early detection and education on and management of factors, such as nutrition, lifestyle and exercise.

Encompassing all medical service available outside hospitals, the PHC system is the frontline ensuring health education and proactive care for promoting health, preventing disease and treating disease.

In its Global Breast Cancer Initiative Framework released last Feb. 4, 2023, considered as World Cancer Day, the World Health Organization (WHO) zeroed in on the PHC as a crucial “pathway” in the campaign to empower citizens, especially women, to be better informed and more decisive in proactively caring for their bodies and sustaining the lifelong promotion of health for themselves and their children.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer striking adults, with 2.3 million cases yearly, according to the WHO.

The United Nations agency specializing on global public health says that undetected and untreated breast cancer affects not just women and men but also the children that are left orphaned and experience lifelong deprivations in health, education, employment and other areas.

In its 2020 study, the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that the estimated 4.4 million women lost to cancer in 2020, nearly one million children were orphaned. Overshadowing these children’s entire lifetime are “generational, chronic social disruption and financial harm” that affect their health and education, among other aspects.

With 80 percent of deaths caused by breast and cervical cancer monitored in low- and middle-income families, the WHO emphasizes that early detection programs can spot and treat at least 60 percent of the breast cancer cases as early-stage disease.

Treatment of breast cancer within the first three months of presentation can improve outcomes, points out the WH.

For Anina and family, the paralysis that grips a person who initially suspects cancer never left because they were unable to find help to address anxieties about medical treatment and fears of being trapped in financial debt over unending medical expenses.

The panacea of resorting to folk remedies presented an affordable and thus accessible alternative in the light of the family’s perception that the public health system is closed and inhospitable to low-income or single-income families like theirs.

At the height of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, citizens were unable or apprehensive to approach clinics and hospitals for non-Covid-related ailments. The two-year interregnum should push government and private stakeholders to return the focus on the PHC as a vital strategy to save more lives compromised by breast cancer.