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Difference Maker: Kara Magsanoc Alikpala on Early Cancer Detection, Battling Ignorance, and Why Giving Hope in Dire Days is a Must

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In two decades, ICANSERVEhas helped change the lives of women diagnosed with breast cancer by lobbying for legislation, spreading awareness, and building a community.  

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in 1999, Kara Magsanoc Alikpala, Crisann Celdran, Becky Fuentes, and Bet Lazatin formed ICANSERVE, a breast cancer advocacy group aiming to provide support for breast cancer patients, survivors, and their families.

All four women are survivors. This fact inspired them to work together.

“Friendships among breast cancer survivors are different. You’re aware that life can be over in a blink. So you can’t afford to waste time,” Magsanoc Alikpala says. “You spend time where you feel most loved and where you can freely love and happily serve. No matter a patient’s diagnosis or prognosis, the urge to pay it forward comes so naturally.”

Never-ending journey

As an advocacy group, the focus is on promoting early detection, access to correct diagnosis, timely treatments, and patient navigation. Because of their experience, they are better equipped to handle and help the people they are advocating.

“When we design campaigns, programs, and projects for breast cancer communities, we have a better sense of what the women need because we were once like them and still like them—ignorant of breast cancer, someone who thought breast cancer only happened to other people, someone going through cancer treatments, and someone tackling life after cancer,” Magsanoc Alikpala shares.

In a way, it is a never-ending journey, one where it helps to have someone by your side.

“When your world is changed, it’s always good to have that one friend who has been through it. The wisdom and soul of someone who’s been through a similar experience can never be captured by simply reading about it,” says Magsanoc Alikpala.

The moment two breast cancer patients meet, she continues, there is an instant bond, an instant relief to meet someone who completely understands you without having to speak. “That’s why typically when they first meet, they spontaneously embrace,” she says.

For a newly diagnosed patient, the most important thing to hear is that breast cancer is not a death sentence. The unknown aftermath of diagnosis is where most of the fear stems. ICANSERVE supports the newly diagnosed by letting them know what to expect and how to prepare, which helps alleviate anxiety.

“I must admit the hardest to convince are those who don’t have the financial means to complete their treatments. There are two stumbling blocks for women hesitant to take the next step: they think breast cancer is not survivable and the expenses,” says Magsanoc Alikpala. “We can combat the first, but the latter is more difficult and heartbreaking when we are not able to deliver or refer them to government agencies who are tasked to help but fail to deliver.”

Need for care

ICANSERVE, along with other advocacy groups, lobbied for the passing of the National Integrated Cancer Control Act, a bill for the provision of quality health services and financial risk protection to cancer patients.

While the measure passed, Magsanoc Alikpala says this was the easiest part.

“We’re pushing for it to happen so more women have a fighting chance and access to the Cancer Assistance Fund, the expanded packages of PhilHealth, all provided by the law. We’re pushing for an entire ecosystem and infrastructure to support patients and their families. The law is clear that help must be extended to cancer patients of any stage, any age,” she says.

Last December, House Speaker Allan Velasco says that P620 million was allotted by the government for its cancer control program.

According to the World Health Organization, resource- challenged countries like the Philippines have a cancer incidence rate that will increase by 80 percent in the next 10 years. “This will have a staggering effect on the ability and resiliency of the Philippine health system. It will have a devastating effect on the economy,” Magsanoc Alikpala points out.

Due to current pandemic, dealing with the diagnosis of breast cancer has even harder for those affected. Many patients postponed surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation because they fear the virus, the ICANSERVE co-founder says.

She mentions the lack of public transportation as one of the reasons for the delay in care, along with people losing livelihoods and hospitals being overwhelmed. The Philippine Society of Medical Oncologists reported that 73.91 percent of their patients deteriorated or died because of the delay.

Different experiences

The impact has been hardest on the indigent class. “The poor don’t have dedicated doctors,” Magsanoc Alikpala explains. “When they walk into a public hospital, whoever is on duty sees them. They don’t have the luxury of building a relationship with a dedicated doctor.”

Now that many cancer doctors can only be seen by appointment, she continues, poor patients are left out of the system. In response, many medical societies, organizations, and NGOs, including ICANSERVE are creating online patient navigation solutions and platforms friendly to the poor.

It can be overwhelming for the newly diagnosed to know the next steps due to the misinformation that remains.

“This sounds so simple but you’ll be surprised at how many myths persist for the poor and the rich,” Magsanoc Alikpala says. “I still get asked if one can get breast cancer from deodorants. Some think breast cancer happens when one’s chest is hit or bumped by a hard object. In some communities, people think cancer is contagious so some husbands send their wives away.”

According to her, the biggest myth of all is that no one survives breast cancer—which is easily dispelled when someone newly-diagnosed meets a survivor.

“When this newly diagnosed attends an ICANSERVE gathering, she is witness to a fiesta of hope,” she says. “In those gatherings, it is a treat to see women in various stages of cancer, of life, behave happily because they believe life is lovelier the second time around.”

You are a survivor the moment you are told you have cancer. Survivorship starts at diagnosis and extends throughout the cancer experience. -Dr. Don Dizon #SEABCS

— icanserve foundation (@icanserve) August 1, 2021

Doing more

In the two decades of ICANSERVE’s existence, Magsanoc Alikpala has noticed that these days, more people are aware that a breast cancer diagnosis is nothing to be afraid of. Women have become a lot more open with their friends and family, which she believes helps make the situation easier to bear.

“There’s so much loss when one doesn’t share one’s experience especially with loved ones because they too can bene t from the journey which at the get-go seems hellish, but turns out to be the best teacher in distilling what matters most in life,” she says.

The flagship program of ICANSERVE is Ating Dibdibin, in partnership with LGUs for a comprehensive breast cancer program that covers the whole spectrum of care: from prevention to survivorship. The critical element for success in the program is patient navigation.

The needs of women (and men) after a diagnosis of cancer are numerous and change with time. Resources are needed for patients to discover what it is to live after cancer, or the new normal. -Dr. Don Dizon #SEABCS

— icanserve foundation (@icanserve) August 1, 2021

Magsanoc Alikpala is proud to say that due to the success of Ating Dibdibin and patient navigation in the last six to seven years, the rate of deaths due to breast cancer has gone down by a third in Taguig.

But she believes they can do more.

“We always say we dream of being irrelevant,” Magsanoc Alikpala says. “Until the cure and vaccine to all cancers are found, we will continue to advocate for the implementation of the Cancer Law and to institutionalize our Ating Dibdibin programs in localities.”

This story originally came out in the October 2020 issue of Lifestyle Asia.

Banner Photo Courtesy of Bayo

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