For Jojo Flores, communication was his bread and butter. After graduating from college with an electronics and communications engineering degree, he landed a job and rose through the ranks of a multinational semiconductor manufacturing company. All his roles, particularly as a manager who handled global corporate accounts in North America and Europe, required some level of speaking, communication, and presentation. It was a fast-paced, stressful role, but one that he happily fulfilled.
But in February of 2009, Flores was diagnosed with tongue cancer, one type of head and neck cancer (HNC).
“Many people would say that stress could have contributed to my cancer,” Flores shares.
Around 7,000 Filipinos are diagnosed with HNCs each year. Although this only made up around 4.7% of the new cancer cases in the country in 2020, HNCs continue to be a burden on Filipino patients and their families.
Early signs and treatment
As early as October 2008, Flores recalled having what he thought was a simple mouth sore which would eventually go away. Later on, he found out that he should’ve gotten checked if the sore didn’t heal for as long as two weeks. He instead waited three months.
“I took it for granted. I even went on a business trip to the U.S.,” he recalled. He also relayed that he already had a difficult time eating.
By the time the lump in his tongue was taken for biopsy, the results already showed his tongue cancer in its advanced stages (Stage IV). His prescribed treatment was surgery, along with six cycles of chemotherapy concurrent with 30 sessions of radiation therapy.
In March 2009, Flores had 90% of his tongue surgically removed. A flap of skin from his front right thigh was permanently sutured to the floor of his mouth in place of the tongue.
“I couldn’t chew. I couldn’t use my voice for meetings and presentations at work. I also lost the ability to sing,” he said. “With my manner of speech permanently altered, it dawned on me that I would have to quit work because my assets have been affected by my medical condition; either that or I would be replaced anyway.
“With a quick internet search, one will find out that Head and Neck Cancer is a disfiguring disease.”
Flores also shares that, in 2009, his entire treatment journey and medication costs went up to around PHP2.5 million.
“Cancer is synonymous with suffering. Suffering in all facets of life – physical, emotional, psychological, and financial.”
Life after head & neck cancer
With any cancer diagnosis, life may never be the same again. This holds true for Jojo Flores.
“Cancer is a life-changing event,” he said. “Any cancer patient wants to get treated. But what happens next? How will you manage living after cancer knowing fully well that life will never be the same?”
Flores was able to answer that for himself, though. After leaving his corporate job, he applied his skills as an engineer and a manager in his own pursuits. Through it all, he maintained trust, gratitude, contentment, and faith.
“Part of my orientation as an engineer and manager is to always look at options when dealing with any situation,” he shared. “Mahirap magkaroon ng cancer. Kailangan mo ng tibay ng loob. It’s either harapin mo o sumuko ka. Minsan gusto mong sumuko, pero gusto naman lumaban ng pamilya mo. Kaya lalaban ka din talaga; if not for yourself, for your family. That definitely sounds easier said than done, but that’s the reality.”
Flores turned to his loved ones for emotional support. From the beginning, he also trusted his physician. He had also heard about head and neck cancer support groups; he joined a California-based one as there was none in the Philippines at the time.
“Not everyone has family, nor can they provide the needed support, so patient support groups are important,” he said. “HNC is one of the top five cancers in the Philippines. HNC patients tend to clam up. I say that from my own experience. Up to now, 13 years as a survivor, I am still working on opening up.”
Today, as a HNC survivor, Jojo Flores continues to advocate for HNC cancer patients in the Philippines and helps them open up to talk about their experiences with HNCs.
Call for NICCA implementation
Flores also advocates for the full implementation of the provisions of the National Integrated Cancer Control Act (NICCA), which is a law designed to help cancer patients from all walks of life.
“As far as the cancer patient journey is concerned, NICCA can help address the whole of cancer care. The law provides not only treatment but awareness, diagnosis, prevention, and survivorship,” he noted.
One important provision under the NICCA is the establishment of a hospital-based cancer registry to complement the population-based National Cancer Registry. This robust cancer registry can also be linked to the PWD registry. Diagnosed cancer patients and survivors are considered persons with disabilities in the Philippines, and are subject to the same rights and benefits.
Flores, along with many other private and public stakeholders and Filipino cancer patients, remain hopeful about the speedy implementation of the NICCA.
“I know there are a lot of competing priorities, but we have the law, and it has been there for three years. What we need is complete and thorough implementation,” he emphasized. “Cancer is a race against time. The government is not alone in this fight. Private entities are willing to help. We just need to harness this.”
Hope from Within (HFW), a multi-stakeholder cancer advocacy campaign led by MSD in the Philippines, continues to organize events to bring together experts from the head and neck cancer space, representatives from the Department of Health, and HNC patient ambassadors to raise awareness about these cancers, and provide reliable information about its risks, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options. Through this partnership, HFW strengthens its commitment to renewing hope and reinforcing the fight for Filipino patients suffering from HNC.
You can be part of this advocacy, too. Learn more about the Lights of Hope campaign that’s hoping for the full and proper implementation of the NICCA for the benefit of every Filipino cancer patient and survivor.