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MANILA, Philippines - Noemi Toledo’s condition nowadays is a far cry from what she used to look like a few years ago. Bubbly and always ready to lend a hand before, Noemi now needs someone to carry her to the bathroom as she cannot lift her legs that have become swollen from a liquid build-up. Noemi has breast cancer, which has metastasized to her bones and liver.
She was diagnosed with the illness in Hong Kong in 2007 and had a breast removed. Even then, Noemi remained with her employer and performed her duties as a domestic worker. She does not have her own children, but Noemi raised all her employer’s three children aged 20, 17 and 14. Their closeness to the 49-year-old Filipina once almost cost Noemi her job, but the kids pleaded with their parents to keep her.
She returned to her hometown in General Santos province this March, drawn by fears that she would eventually become a burden to her employers. They wouldn’t let her go. The children kept begging their parents not to let her go. They promised to take care of her treatment and have someone else do her work.
Earllier, her employers had sponsored Noemi’s husband to Hong Kong to assist her during treatment and help out in the house. But he only caused more problems for her, staying out drinking with other Filipinos till the wee hours of the morning. Eventually he got into trouble and a court case was filed against him, prompting Noemi to send him back home out of embarrassment for her supportive employers, who had paid for all her husband’s expenses and allowed him to take a part-time job.
“Naisip ko pag bigla akong namatay mas malaki ang gastos nila sa akin. Ayaw kong maging pabigat. Umiyak nga si amo kase naisip ko pa daw sila [I realized that if I suddenly died I would be such a huge burden to my employers. My bosses cried and said they were touched I thought of them that way],” she said in an interview. Now, however, Noemi regrets that decision to come home.
Paying through the nose in PH
In Hong Kong she only paid HK$100 (roughly P600) each time she went for chemotherapy. Here back home, she first paid P40,000, later a total of P80,000 in a hospital in General Santos City that had only one oncologist. She couldn’t go for a second chemo session which was supposed to be done last April, because the money she brought home from Hong Kong is gone.
With her chemo treatment now delayed for months, Noemi is left to taking painkillers to ease the excruciating pain. But the painkillers were not cheap at all as they cost her P11,000 per week together with other medicines. “Di ako makapaniwalang ganyan kabilis maubos ang pera dito [I couldn’t believe money here could be lost just like that],” she said in a frail voice.
Noemi is just one of many overseas Filipino workers who have returned home from Hong Kong after getting sick with cancer. Despite their condition, many of them choose to stay in the former British colony because Hong Kong enjoys a socialized healthcare system and most medical procedures, like chemotherapy, are relatively cheaper than in the Philippines.
Pillar of hope: Buhay Ka
Some, like Noemi, are fortunate to have kind employers who keep their workers despite their illness. Most others are terminated on account of being sick and face the horror of coming home because they knew they could not afford treatment. Hong Kong immigration policy allows terminated domestic foreign workers and those whose contracts have expired only 14 days to find work after their visa’s expiration. It is more lenient with cancer survivors, who can extend their stay as long as they provide a referral letter from the hospital that they are undergoing treatment.
But without work and income, most are left without a choice but to return home after completing their six-cycle chemotherapy. Others bravely stay on with the help of some charity and faith-based institutions that provide them shared accommodation while they are on treatment. But they too, eventually, come home—and die here.
Fr. Robert Reyes has seen these survivors’ ordeal from the beginning. He visited many of them here. Some he buried. Reyes, known for his social advocacies, was the founder of Buhay Ka, a group of cancer survivors he formed back in 2007 while working in Hong Kong.
“Nothing prompted me (to form the group). I just kept bumping into cancer survivors in my rounds, and I kept wondering why so many workers have cancer here (Hong Kong). I ended up counseling all of them. Then I realized I can’t be doing this on my own,” said Reyes of his experience with survivors including Noemi.
Reyes discovered a pattern in the minds of cancer patients. “In their desperation and in their fear they start thinking of death morbidly, that death is coming very soon. That’s when I decided to challenge them; that they have to change the script, the tape in (their) head. Instead of telling yourself ‘I’m going to die, (say) I’m alive now,” he said.
Reyes also observed the lack of government help being given to sick OFWs. While they get cheap medical treatment in Hong Kong, there is not much help coming from the homefront. So in 2009 he invited some government officials to Hong Kong to speak to Buhay Ka members. One of them was Sen. Pia Cayetano, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health.
A flood of complaints met the legislator, mostly concerning health coverage offered to OFWs by the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) and assistance from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration.
Cayetano’s visit encouraged many at Buhay Ka, so that some even wrote her after she left Hong Kong. One of them was Edessa Aguila, who failed to meet the senator because she was too weak to walk after undergoing chemotherapy.
“Tinawag kaming Buhay na Bayani ng bansa ngunit binabalewala kapag nagkaroon na ng karamdaman. Nawa po’y sa katayuan ko eh mabuksan ang mata at puso ng mga namumuno sa aming lahat ng OFW na bigyang pansin ang aming mga hinaing. Ang Bayani pong ito ay tiklop ang tuhod sa inyo, humihingi po ng tulong kung sakaling umuwi ako ng Pinas pagkatapos ng visa ko dito sa Hong Kong sa darating na February 24, 2009,” said Edessa’s letter. She indeed came home after her visa expired. She died four months after returning to the Philippines.
The activist priest recently wrote a book about Buhay Ka members and will present it to Cayetano who promised to do something about the problem of sick OFWS.
Reyes said returning Buhay Ka members not only face the burden of paying for their treatment here in the Philippines. Sometimes their families even blame them for getting sick because that means that remittances will also stop coming in.
“If the relationship with the family prior to coming to Hong Kong was already dysfunctional (and) problematic, when they come back it’s even worse. Inaasahan na mag-uuwi ka ng biyaya di ka uuwi na pabigat [They expected you to bring home the material rewards, not come home as a financial burden],” he explained.
This was the very reason why another Buhay Ka member, Medeliza Salunoy, chose to stay and work in Manila after leaving Hong Kong, instead of coming home to her family in Basilan. Liza, as she is fondly called among other OFWs in Hong Kong, was known as a fighter. She is currently on remission from cancer and is working at a printing press in Pasay.
4 cancers in one family
Flor Tejada or Nanay Flor as she is called in Hong Kong, is at least fortunate on this area. She enjoys her family’s support as she undergoes treatment for lung cancer. But Nanay Flor’s situation is probably worse than what money could measure. She already lost three of her five children to the big C.
Two of them, Armyn and Nene, died while working as domestic workers in Hong in 2008 and in 2010. Nanay Flor took care of them and witnessed firsthand how cancer slowly took their fruitful lives. After Nene’s death, depression took a toll on Nanay Flor so she decided to come home in November 2011. By that time too, her eldest son, Arnold, was diagnosed to have liver cancer. Arnold died a month after his mom came back home to care for him.
Caring for all of her sick children may have taken a toll on her, according to Nanay Flor. “Sobrang stressed ako. Di ko na nakayanan lalo na yung pagkamatay ng pangalawang anak ko. Noong Dec. 8, 2011, na-diagnose akong may lung cancer,” recalls the 70-year-old mother who worked in Hong Kong for 20 years.
Nanay Flor is presently undergoing weekly chemotherapy and spends about P55,000 a month. Fortunately there are some relatives willing to help. She was also able to set up a small chicken and vegetable store in one wet market in her hometown in Laguna where she gets money to sustain her treatment. Despite her age and the continuous chemotherapy, Nanay Flor refuses to be a burden to her family and helps out doing chores at home.
For someone who had lost three of her five kids to cancer and being sick of the same illness herself, Nanay Flor maintains her strong faith in God. “Wala naman tayong magagawa. Lahat naman tayo papunta doon (death),” she ends.