Breast Cancer Activism in the Philippines
The Philippine breast cancer network
by Laura Shea, R.N., Prevention First Coalition
The World Conference on Breast Cancer brought together breast cancer activists from around the globe, many of them breast cancer survivors. It was fascinating—and often shocking—to hear women speak of the situation existing in other countries. The issues are vast and wide-ranging.
Women from St. Vincent spoke of working endless hours to raise funds for a mammography machine only to find themselves with a machine but no film. An Indian doctor spoke about Indian women with breast cancer who sacrifice their health to avoid jeopardizing their daughters’ dowries. There were stories of women without financial resources in both developing and developed countries (such as the U.S.A.) who have limited or no access to quality health care, and there were stories of what women with breast cancer face—from powerlessness in the doctor’s office, to stigmatization and/or ostracization in their communities— because of the persistent, institutionalized gender inequality that exists in many guises the world over.
Yet these same stories also chart the creative and effective work that breast cancer activists and advocates accomplish. I shared a lunch table with two inspiring breast cancer activists from the Philippine Breast Cancer Network (PBCN)—Elvira Galang and Ederlinda Austrial. The PBCN was co-founded by Rosa Meneses and her husband, Dany, in August 1997.
Five months after a diagnosis of invasive breast cancer, Rosa traveled to Kingston to attend the first World Conference on Breast Cancer. Responding to the call for “Global Action towards the Eradication of Breast Cancer“and inspired by the courage and energy of the women she met at the conference, Rosa and Dany established the PBCN, its mission to end breast cancer through action, research and policy initiatives:
- To replace mammography with a safer, more reliable form of detection;
- To discover and promote non-toxic treatments;
- To eliminate preventable causes of the disease, such as those in the environment; and
- To make the best possible medical care, support services and information available to all.
The activities of the PBCN range from operating a Breast Cancer Resource Center and publishing a monthly national newsletter to organic farming and the monitoring of corporate environmental polluters.1
A focus of PBCN activism is the relationship between public health and the high level of environmental carcinogens found in certain regions of the Philippines.2 The incidence of breast cancer has increased so rapidly in the Philippines that today it has the highest rate of breast cancer in all of Asia.1
For instance, the Health Office of Angeles City, in the province of Pampanga, reported that the numbers of cases, and deaths, increased by more than 200% in just two years—from 149 cases in 1996 to 502 in 1998, and from 188 deaths in 1996 to 603 in 1998. Why? The PBCN strongly suspects the volume of highly toxic waste (amount as yet undetermined) left when the U.S. abandoned Clark Air Field. This base was used to store the highly toxic chemical Agent Orange during the VietNam War. The carcinogenic effects of Agent Orange remain for decades in soil, water and air.
Another hot spot is Guihulngan, a small agricultural town that has the highest incidence of breast cancer in the province of Negros. Why? The townspeople suspect their drinking water is contaminated. Although there are no cars or factories to pollute, the town is surrounded by mining operations whose chemical waste is dumped into nearby rivers. Mining operations occupy one quarter of this province while one half consists of sugar cane plantations that utilize extensive chemical methods.
The PBCN is relentless in their campaign to educate the population and to challenge government policies that put corporate profit before public healt. The PBCN calls on people worldwide to join their movement to “Stop Breast Cancer—Take Strong Action!“3
In August 2000, Rosa Meneses and her son traveled to Japan as part of “The Breast Cancer Fund’s Climb Against the Odds—Mount Fuji 2000’ team. Rosa’s activism was fueled by determination that her three daughters be spared the disease and, even though her deteriorating health kept her from the final climb, her son reached the summit in her honour. Rosa died at the age of 48, less than four years after her diagnosis and one day after a five-hour telethon organized by the PBCN established breast cancer as a national public health issue in the Philippines. At the Victoria conference, her husband, who is now president of the PBCN, hosted the world premiere screening of a documentary film about her struggle.
The PBCN delegates and I agreed that the conference program was deficient in the area of primary prevention. We had hoped to hear more about research focused on identifying and eliminating the causes of breast cancer. We also agreed that the idea of “pills for prevention” is highly problematic for women’s health and public health in general. We discussed our shared faith in the Precautionary Principle as a guide to public health policy. We discovered that although there are many issues that our organizations face that are specific to our respective cultures, histories, and national policies, we have shared convictions and problems that cross all boundaries. Unfortunately, breast cancer is one of them.
"It is not for us to complete the task. But we must begin it." (Rosa Meneses)
- Breast Cancer Fund www.breastcancerfund.org/site/c.kwKXLdPaE/b.43969/k.CAFE/Home.htm
- Philippine Breast Cancer Network pamphlet
- Rosa Meneses’ Address to a Plenary Session at the 2nd World Conference on Breast Cancer Advocacy www.philsol.nl/A99a/RosaM-mar99.htm
For more information on the Philippine Breast Cancer Network E-mail:email@example.com or The Breast Cancer Fund: http://www.breastcancerfund.org/fuji_rosa_tribute.htm (Note: invalid link)