Every October since 2015, the ICANSERVE Foundation, in partnership with cities, hospitals, organisations, offices, schools, churches, medical societies and patient groups, stages OKtober all over the Philippines. At the event, free breast cancer forums and breast cancer screening sessions are offered. For this year we had 17 sites and 25 partners participating to OKtober.
This is the fourth year that we celebrate OKtober, where forums and clinics take on a fiesta-like atmosphere and each host finds a way to make the topic of breast cancer anything but scary. They jazz up the event with songs, dances, fashion shows, flash mobs, and celebrity breast cancer survivor testimonials. So far, through our OKtober efforts, we have reached more than 16,000 women and this is the year we really started to feel the programme taking root, not only in our hearts, but in the hearts of our hosts, as they took complete ownership over their events.
For example, when I phoned one partner, Tagum City in Southern Philippines, to finalise their requirements, my contact said, “We need X number of materials, you don’t need to fly in doctors. We will simply invite your volunteers as guests.”
My heart sank, “You don’t need our help?” In an assuring tone she said, “You told us to work towards independence and, thanks to ICANSERVE, we’ve learned that through the years. We want to invite you to witness how we will stage the event on our own.” My heart danced in delight. Our baby had grown up!
This is how we felt with many of our OKtober partners this year. They have fully embraced and personalised the programme. For the first time, volunteers did minimal supervision on all OKtober events.
OKtober is a glimpse of our flagship programme Ating Dibdibin or Take Your Breast Care to Heart, a comprehensive community-based early breast cancer detection programme in cooperation with cities. The institutionalised programme offers training, treatment, patient navigation, and forging of partnerships with public and private partners who can help fill the gaps in creating a clear patient pathway programme.
Breast cancer is the number one cancer in the Philippines yet we don’t have a national breast cancer screening programme, nor access to free mammograms and breast ultrasounds for the poor. The only programme of its kind in the country, Ating Dibdibin is our response to the problem that hasn’t been fully addressed. This is also the year when rapid innovations have taken place with our Ating Dibdibin partners. Beginning this October, Taguig City created breast cancer chats almost every day in the community health centers.
This is the very essence of our flagship programme Ating Dibdibin, bringing breast cancer awareness to the masses who are not comfortable with the topic of breast cancer nor the hospital setting. Now, the public is chatting with community health workers, midwives and doctors, familiar faces they consider extended family, about a topic that can intimidate and scare.
Partner cities like Taguig encourage us to keep finding ways to provide them with ammunition in battling fear, ignorance, myths, and the lack of a holistic support system.
Last year, we were fortunate to be a grant recipient of the UICC Metastatic Breast Cancer Challenge, which was a golden opportunity to give women with advanced breast cancer a fighting chance. One of its features was a pilot patient navigation programme sensitive to women with metastatic breast cancer. The programme could accommodate five participants per city partner. To make this a reality, we tapped into our Ating Dibdibin partners. Shortly after, hosts from two cities, Malabon and Taguig, requested that ICANSERVE train more navigators. In fact, officials of Taguig city upgraded the status of the navigators from volunteers on allowance to employees with security of tenure, thereby allowing us to extend the impact of our pilot programme.
We turn twenty next year and, as I reflect on the successes of our strengthened activities this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m proud of what the ICANSERVE volunteers and our partners have done. I salute other breast cancer patient groups making their own meaningful contributions. Yet, I know our collective efforts are outpaced by the increase in incidence of cancer and deaths due to cancer.
"We need a stronger united front. We especially need national government."
This is why, two years ago, ICANSERVE linked up with different stakeholders to form the Cancer Coalition of the Philippines to work on a Cancer Act to create a road map for the cancer crisis so that hope is on the table for the Filipino cancer patient and his or her family. We wanted to step up the conversation to discuss what else government can do to fulfill the unmet needs of cancer patients in the country, and how we the NGO community can be part of the solution.
It hasn’t been easy, but, knowing the perseverance and resilience of the champions in the cancer community, we will one day prevail. For now, we need all the allies we can get to outsmart cancer and save the light and heartbeat of people living with and affected by cancer.