When the pandemic struck, a recovering cancer patient and his oncologist decided to strike back, holding onto hope that he will stay alive and thrive.

“Rufino” (name was changed upon the request of the patient) is no stranger to life’s adversities, having survived three strokes, on diabetes maintenance therapy, and also battling stage 4 lung cancer in his 70s. After several starts and stops, his oncologist, Dr. Katherine Hernandez says Rufino’s cancer is now “stable.” Years ago, Dr.  Hernandez offered him another treatment option after his cancer progressed while undergoing chemotherapy.

She adds that “the results of his immunotherapy treatment are very encouraging because the pulmonary lesions have decreased in size. Already, Rufino’s quality of life has improved and so have his chances of living longer.”

A cancer patient amid a pandemic

Prior to the COVID pandemic, he was responding well to his treatment: his hair grew back, and he even decided to match it with a moustache, plus he was already grocery shopping from a wheelchair. Dr. Hernandez shares “There were no longer the side effects like weakness, fatiguability, alopecia, and others, as he previously experienced. And even as a stroke survivor, he was stronger, and even walking faster than before. He was very happy!”

Then 2020 came and the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic upended life as we know it. Rufino, a family man and businessman, is among the many cancer patients whose day-to-day lives were affected by the health crisis. “Madaming challenges, unang-una ‘di ka makalabas. Kahit na pasyal, takot akong bumaba,” Rufino recounts. “We had to enforce strict protocols at home, like we do not allow visitors, and everyone in the household wears a mask. Even in our business, we really made sure to follow safety protocols.”

Despite the anxiety brought about the pandemic, Rufino didn’t let COVID hamper his health progress. Ever the fighter, Rufino, guided by his oncologist pushed through with the treatments despite great constraints. “The threat of COVID-19 is real but what I’ve learned is that us cancer patients have to balance this with continued cancer care and not delaying treatment,” Rufino says.

Dr. Hernandez explains why this is so important: “Any delay or termination of treatment could mean ‘the end of the road’, so to speak. In medical language, no treatment would mean progression of cancer which could eventually lead to early death.”

The importance of implementing innovative, patient-centered strategies cannot be overemphasized given that cancer patients might be at increased risk for COVID-19 infection. To help ensure continued care, the delivery of cancer management needed meaningful adjustments, including changes in treatment protocols that prioritize patient safety, and fostering a health ecosystem that encourages coordination of care.

In Rufino’s case, since the hospital where he was receiving treatment before the pandemic suddenly became overrun with COVID-19 cases, Dr. Hernandez decided to look for a different hospital that would enable them to carry on with the therapy. She adds, “I continued to communicate with him and check his condition via teleconsult. He resumed his infusions in a secondary private hospital. He underwent RT-PCR prior to each treatment and received treatment in the outpatient department chemo unit.”

Digital media as public health tool

The role that digital media plays is also crucial. Telemedicine, which was not in widespread use prior to the pandemic, become a convenient tool to help patients receive health care advice while sheltering in place. Even with drawbacks like insufficient infrastructure, socio-cultural resistances, and legal considerations, ever since the pandemic happened, patients like Rufino have experienced the advantages of being able to talk in real time with their doctors in the comfort of their own homes.

Especially during this time of social distancing, social media somehow helps alleviate the loneliness and isolation that so many cancer patients feel. Rufino beams when he says that since the pandemic, he has become hooked on social media particularly messaging and online shopping applications. By connecting online with kin and friends who pray for hope and healing, he stays motivated to keep his eyes on the goal.

“Order din ako nang order ng food! Like other normal people, I search online to buy avocados, bananas, watermelons… Because of social media, kahit pandemic, may nakakausap ako at buhay na buhay ang isip ko. I don’t feel alone,” he shares.

From responsive and coordinated healthcare to teleconsultation and social media kumustahan, maintaining open lines of communication is paramount to the continued delivery of cancer care during an outbreak.

“Constant communication between the medical oncologist and the cancer patient is a very important mechanism to monitor the progress of treatment. And this can be achieved via telemedicine to lessen the hospital visits and hospital exposure,” Dr. Hernandez reiterates.

Keeping the hope from within alive

With or without pandemic, the most crucial lesson in navigating one’s cancer journey is to keep moving forward. Rufino said that his cancer experience enabled him to inspire other patients battling with the disease, sharing with them how he too grappled with his own mortality and ended up having a greater appreciation for life: “Talagang lumalaban ako. Kasama na diyan yung patuloy na pagpapagamot dahil gusto ko pa mabuhay.”

Rufino also wants to inspire other cancer patients to not lose hope. He says this is the reason why he takes time to put forward his story through the help of Hope From Within, an advocacy campaign spearheaded by MSD in the Philippines.

Rufino notes that the welfare of his family and his employees also serves as motivation for him to keep fighting the disease. “Iniisip ko, kung mawala [ako], ano nang mangyayari sa mga tauhan [ko] na may mga pamilya ring nakadepende sa akin.”

“I don’t yearn for what I used to enjoy before the pandemic,” Rufino reveals. “My attitude is to live in the present and look forward to tomorrow. When is my next schedule for infusion? ‘Yun ang priority ko. Lagi din ako nakikinig sa mga doktor.”

Dr. Hernandez describes the case of Rufino as a very encouraging story. “His continuous treatment has made him stronger and more alive. Mang Rufino is the perfect example of a cancer survivor who is full smiles and hope despite being challenged by Covid-19 pandemic.”

This coming December, Rufino will mark another personal milestone as he turns 75 years old. There will be ups and downs along the cancer journey especially during an ongoing pandemic, yet valiantly, he urges patients and their families to keep up the good fight. And it is an advice worth listening to, coming from a cheerful survivor of stage 4 lung cancer who now wears a bigger sized shirt from having regained appetite for food and for life.

For more details on how to reduce the burden of cancer-related mortalities amid the pandemic, visit http://www.hopefromwithin.org/ or like the official Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Hopefromwithinph/.