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Fighting together: Helping children with cancer in Mindanao

Childhood cancer is one of the leading causes of mortality among children in the country and cases of cancer among children are steadily rising.

Based on data from Senator Nancy Binay’s Senate Bill 3028, around 3,500 children are expected to develop cancer each year which is equivalent to 10 children being diagnosed with cancer each day.

“Ang cancer sa bata di na siya pareho sa cancer sa tigulang (the cancer of the child is not the same with adult cancer),” said  pedia oncologist Dr. Mae Dolendo.

Dr. Dolendo, during the Kapehan sa Dabaw program, explained that  while adult cancers are more caused by exposure, cancer among children have multi-factorial causes including genetic predisposition and environmental exposure.

She said  that acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is the most prevalent cancer among children in their setting with a 50% survival rate, while Retinoblastoma, a type of eye cancer, is the most frequently diagnosed solid tumor among children.

“This is the reason why cancer is not preventable among children and the strategy is early detection,” Dr. Dolendo pointed out.

Hence, when children brought to them exhibit symptoms, they are taken to hospitals equipped to treat childhood cancer.

Pediatric Oncology Specialist Centers in Mindanao

Dr. Dolendo said  that in Mindanao there are few resources that will cater to help children in need of care and their thrust is to develop the capacity of hospitals outside Southern Philippine Medical Center (SPMC), so the young patients can have many options instead of just one facility in Davao City.

“The thrust is to bring specialist care close to patients. Mindanao is so big we are just two pediatric oncologist and two hematologists in the SPMC.” Dr. Dolendo stressed.

They have set up the Mindanao Pediatric Cancer Network which is a partnership of public and private institutions whose main goal is to bring children with cancer to specialist centers.

The medical staff of the SPMC Children's Cancer Institute

They are currently upgrading the childhood cancer care facilities of Northern Mindanao Medical Center in Cagayan de Oro City, St. Elizabeth Hospital in General Santos City, Laviña General Hospital in Valencia, Bukidnon and the Davao Regional Medical Center in Tagum.

These four hospitals will support SPMC Children Cancer Institute which has been designated under the World Health Organization Global Initiative for Childhood Cancer as the champion for the global initiative.

“We are one of the model projects not just here in the Philippines but also the whole Asia Pacific Region,” Dolendo said.

She added that they still need additional manpower and facilities; the Mindanao Pediatric Cancer Care Network oversees 25% of the number of expected cases needed to be seen in a year.

Dr. Dolendo cited that during the pre-pandemic days they targeted to see 1,500 children but because of manpower lack they only were able to meet 397 children.

The ongoing initiative is the training of more pediatric oncologists in Mindanao. Currently, they have four graduates and four doctors undergoing training which has reinforced their network.

According to fellow pediatric oncologist Dr. Cheryl Lyn Diez, their network’s active engagements have detected more cancer cases among children.

Dr. Mae Dolendo (left) with a private sector donor visiting the House of Hope

“Ang daming activities na ginagawa regarding early detection campaign,” Dr. Diez said.

There are barriers to their initiatives, these include poverty, financial challenges and remote locations such as those patients living in Geographical Isolated and Disadvantaged Areas (GIDAs).

Diez said they are using the internet to train people to add to their network, stating that childhood cancer is highly curable.

“We have shown that patients coming from different circumstances na cu-cure natin,” Diez added..

However, undergoing treatment is also a time-consuming process. For instance,  treatment for Acute lymphoblastic Leukemia  involves a protocol spanning two and a half years.

“Then six months pabalik-balik ang pasyente three times a week sa hospital,” Dolendo said.

“Daghan patients dili makahuman ang best chance at first diagnosis mahuman jud na cya. Mag relapse lisod na itreat (Many patients will not finish their treatment. The best chance at first diagnosis the patient must complete it. If the cancer relapses, we will have difficulty in treating it),” Dolendo said..

House of Hope

“If a patient and the family approach them for help, we refer them to the House of Hope Foundation,” said Dr. Dolendo.

House of Hope Foundation, established in 2004  as the Davao Children’s Cancer Fund, is a non-stock, non-profit organization that provides a holistic, child centered and multidisciplinary approach for kids with cancer. 

Among its major projects is the House of Hope, a transient home within the SPMC compound which houses the young patients and their watchers during the duration of their treatment.

From a bungalow within the hospital compound, it was supplemented with a SPMC Annex building funded by Senator Pia Cayetano and a house in the nearby Margarita Village donated by former President Rodrigo Duterte who is a staunch supporter of the foundation. A fourth House of Hope building is set to be built in Tagum City.

The House of Hope facilities accommodate three hundred children patients across Mindanao, annually.

But more than a shelter for transient patients, the foundation also provides essential support for children with cancer.

The House of Hope in Margarita Village

“And I think in Mindanao we are very lucky because we have House of Hope Foundation everything na outside na hindi kaya sa gobyerno naga step in the gap ang House of Hope so whether it is medicines, whether kulang ang bayaran sa radio therapy gina salo sa House of Hope Foundation for kids with cancer,” Dolendo explained.

The home has also provided child residents with tutorials provided by visiting teachers from the nearest public shool. Dumanlas Elementary School. 

According to Maryvel Galupar, administrator of the House of Hope facility, there are currently 12 children cancer patients staying in the house. There are five rooms in the home and each room can accommodate three patients.

“Kanya2x sila og luto sa ilang food ug kanya2x sila og laba sa laundry area ( they cook their own food and they wash their clothes in the laundry area). There are new washing machine units donated from a sponsor in America,” Galupar said

A teacher spends time with a patient for tutorials

Jovhen Ramirez, 23, from Barobo, Surigao del Sur was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) at the age of five and received chemotherapy at Davao Medical Center (now SPMC). Inspired by her family's journey, the House of Hope transient facility was established.

Back then,  parents and caregivers would sleep on cartoon sheets near their children's hospital beds, in the hallways of the medical center, or, like Jovhen's mother, sometimes in waiting sheds outside the hospital.

Upon discovering that Jovhen’s mother was caring for a newborn while staying at the hospital with her child, Dr. Dolendo, the House of Hope founder, rallied friends and colleagues to construct a temporary home within the hospital grounds for both patients and their parents.

Following the establishment of the transient facility, a substantial portion of Jovhen's childhood was spent at the House of Hope, where she resided with her mother and younger sibling.

Nakapuyo pud mi sa original na House of Hope and memorize pa gihapon nako ang pasikot sikot ato sauna. Unsay hitsura kada room, kada cr, ug sa kitchen. The most memorable spot for me was the long table sa sulod. There I would eat with my friends samtang gina uto uto mi sa among mga mama ug papa na magpa paspasay ug kaon (We stayed in the original House of Hope and I can still memorize my way there. What the room looks like, every comfort room and the kitchen. The most memorable sport for me was the long table inside. There, I would eat with my friends while my mama and papa would trick us to hasten eating our meals),” Jovhen recalls.

Despite her many academic awards and achievements, Jovhen still cherishes the certificate given by Dr. Dolendo which signified the completion of her chemotherapy treatment.

“It reminds me of my achievement that I’m so proud of. Dili lang sa proud ko sa akong self (I’m not just proud of myself), but more of proud to my family, to what we’ve been through and most importantly I am proud of how God works in His amazing ways),” Jovhen said of the House of Hope certificate which she still keeps up to this day. (RGA/PIA Davao)

About the Author

Rudolph Ian Alama

Regional Editor

Region 11

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