The case for investing in women's cancers in Asia Pacific

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Published: 4 Sep 2023
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Dr Heather White - Executive Director, TogetHER for Health

Dr Heather White speaks to ecancer at SEABCS 2023 about her talk on 'The case for investing in women's cancers in Asia Pacific'.

She presents findings from a report commissioned by the women's cancer coalition. The report findings look at presenting a policy scorecard for readiness to tackle breast and cervical cancer according to WHO global initiatives.

Dr White mentions that it is also important to have the patients perspectives and their lived experiences reflected in global cancer policies.

She concludes by highlighting the work of the TogetHER for Health organisation, which aims to is mobilise a global movement to end cervical cancer deaths.


I am here to present findings from a report commissioned by a new coalition just formed called the Women’s Cancer Coalition. The report findings are looking at presenting a policy scorecard for readiness to tackle breast and cervical cancer according to global initiatives. The report was actually developed by the Economist Intelligence unit, so I am presenting their findings today. 

The report covers six countries here in the Asia Pacific region, and those include Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Malaysia. The report actually is the development of a readiness scorecard that looks at what are the policies that are on the books right now in each of these countries and how do they align with global initiatives from WHO? What are certain opportunities and challenges faced by each of these countries and how can we support as a coalition? Really, I would say that the report is just a conversation starter, if you will, to understand working with ministries, working with healthcare providers, working with civil society in each of these countries. How can we come together and build an ambitious but feasible agenda looking at the opportunities that these global initiatives present?

What were some of the parameters you were looking at?

The scorecard actually looks at five dimensions, and those are policy and planning, prevention, diagnosis, capacity building, treatment, and education and awareness. So really looking at, what are the existing national cancer control programmes – are they aligned with the newer global health initiatives? What do things look like across the entire patient journey or continuum of care? How and to what extent are patients themselves reflected in policies and programmes? Then looking across each of those dimensions, there’s a rating checklist, so we can see along a continuum how each of those dimensions compare both within each country and then across the region.

What are some of the findings so far?

Each country, probably not surprisingly, has its own challenges, its own successes, within each of those dimensions. I would love to see countries look across and learn from each other to the extent that there are opportunities for learning and cross-country collaboration. I don’t know how feasible that is but I would say this group of individuals in this conference obviously has done the hard work of bringing together like-minded experts, researchers, clinicians, patient groups, advocacies, civil society. So this is probably an ideal platform to look at building those cross-country collaborations.

Will you be talking to governmental organisations?

We will be hosting activation events, if you will, launching events, in each of these countries, bringing together what we hope is the right group of stakeholders and decision makers. Again, using this report to serve as maybe a first step in a conversation to say of these very large, high level opportunities that are presented in the report, which one or two could we really look at diving deep on, and trying to build forward real momentum around. To me, I lead a policy and advocacy organisation but I’m always very cognizant of the fact that talk is cheap. Everybody can get up and talk and talk and talk, and it really does come down to what are you willing to do behind positive discussions, rich discussions? That’s one thing and it’s very necessary, but what’s the action behind it? So that’s what we’re really hoping to get to.

Can you give an example of some actions that can be taken?

Bringing together civil society voices. We do a lot of work at TogetHER for Health around communication and awareness raising. So having a great policy on the books is great, and if you’ve got an implementation behind that policy, that’s great too, but of course understanding what is the demand side and how do you create informed demand? How do you bring together all of civil society components to work alongside the health system? So engaging with media and journalists, engaging with researchers, finding patient support groups to work with. When we talk about cancer it really does affect everybody. If we were to walk into that audience and say ‘Do you know somebody with cancer?’, everybody would raise their hand. That level or magnitude of a health issue really does require all of us to jump in. So any example of a positive or impactful initiative is one where we can really rise the tide to raise all ships and really bring everybody along.

From a patient perspective, what would be the ideal outcome of this report?

From a patient perspective, I would say, first and foremost, that patient perceptions and patient experience, lived experience, is reflected in any national policies. It’s really easy to get siloed and look at things just from a clinical lens, and the fact is, yes, those are important first steps, but unless those clinical guidelines and that continuum of care really does represent what’s feasible, what’s acceptable, and what’s possible from a patient perspective, then we’re not really being successful, not really being as impactful as we could be. Most of all, it’s really having that lived experience reflected in policies, guidelines, and ultimately in actions.

One of the other pieces is really understanding referral pathways and how do patients navigate the continuum of care. Having your educators and supporters that can be useful to women who are themselves taking on a journey and having to understand what’s happening with themselves personally, what’s happening with themselves in their family context. Any support that we can offer women as they start to weave their way through the health system, which we all know, no matter where you live, is challenging in its own right. That’s a real win, and that’s an important part of building effective policies and action plans for both breast and cervical cancer.

What does your organisation do?

So we are an advocacy organisation, we work to increase awareness, to put effective policies in place, and to mobilise funding and resources, particularly for cervical cancer prevention in low and middle income countries. When we have the opportunity to couple breast and cervical cancer prevention initiatives we certainly do; we understand that women are whole beings and don’t necessarily think of themselves within the context of a disease. In many parts of the world we do a grants programme every year where we offer small-scale grants to trial innovative strategies towards improving screening, early diagnosis, early treatment and/or vaccine for cervical cancer. We do a lot of work engaging with policy makers and with influencers particularly in the US on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. to really share what is a fantastic opportunity that these global initiatives afford us if they are rightly supported by policy makers, stakeholders within government, so we do a lot of one-on-one dialoguing. Then lastly we do communications campaigns around the world, again to share the experience, not only of women, but also of frontline health workers, and really what it’s like to tackle this disease, both from a patient perspective but also those who are working really hard on the front lines every day and seeing the effects of these diseases.

Where does your funding come from?

A little bit all over the place. We do have private philanthropists who support us, we do work also with NGOs, particularly NGOs out of the US and they support. We work with industry colleagues as well and we also work with other nonprofits. So we manage to cobble together, I would say, modest but very effective funding, and try to make it go as long as we can make it.