Avon Breast Cancer Scholar Becomes a Force for Change in the Philippines

Herdee Luna, from the Philippines, was selected by the Avon Foundation Scientific Advisory Board and program mentors as one of 23 physicians to come to the U.S. to participate in the second class of Avon Global Breast Cancer Clinical Scholars. The program trains breast cancer specialists living outside the United States at 12 leading Avon Foundation-funded U.S. breast cancer centers. She was assigned to Massachusetts General Hospital under the mentorship of Dr. Paul Goss. Herdee says that even from a young age, she knew she wanted to make a difference in oncology.  

From Mother to Daughter – An Inspiring Legacy

My mother, Dr. Gloria R. Cristal-Luna, inspired me to become a physician. When I was a kid, I even had a toy stethoscope to listen to my cousins’ breathing whenever they were sick. I’d place cold compresses over their feverish foreheads and stay with them until they got better – just like Mom did for me and my sister.

At the time, Mom was one of the few oncologists working in the Philippines. Her patients greeted her as if she were a famous TV personality. They talked about how she put magic into her work, and that she was a source of strength for them. Seeing her patients’ sincere joy and gratitude, I said to myself, “Hey, this is an awesome job!”

My mother taught me what it means to be a doctor: being selfless and extending God’s healing powers through our hands. With her example, I found hope and beauty in what was seen back then as a “hopeless” field. And that wasn’t all. My mom also established two oncology training institutes, truly advancing Filipino cancer patient care – and I vowed to continue her work.

A Vision for a Cancer-Free Philippines

Because I’m basically an idealist who envisions a cancer-free Philippines – and breast cancer is my primary field of interest – I decided to apply to the Avon Foundation for Women’s Global Breast Cancer Clinical Scholars program. It was my chance to learn from institutes that have already established effective breast cancer health care systems.

I began working in Boston alongside Dr. Paul Goss, Director of the Avon Foundation Breast Cancer Center of Excellence at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Chairman of the Avon Foundation Scientific Advisory Board. MGH has many outstanding international collaboration programs committed to training, supporting and guiding physicians and nurses in treating cancer patients in developing countries.

Dr. Goss and his multidisciplinary team at MGH continue to connect and share the latest information on managing challenging cases from around the world through GCI’s Live Tumor Boards, a bimonthly webinar series where doctors from low- and middle-income countries present their challenging cases to a team of world renowned breast cancer experts. I believe that, in this small way, we are starting to strengthen our global cancer care commitment and improving clinical outcomes in different parts of the world.

As a Global Scholar, I learned more about patient navigators and their critical role in getting patients to follow their prescribed treatment plans. I also saw how the team structure of a specialized breast cancer center works. This knowledge helped me identify strengths and weaknesses in our own cancer unit at home – and see the value of collaboration in wider patient assistance and care. I learned that bringing about change is a team effort and that it takes time.

While in the program, I also got to know fellow Scholar Dr. Cynthia Villareal-Garza from Mexico, who’s an advocate for many of the same causes. Although she lives thousands of miles from me, she will never be far from my heart!

Big Questions, New Answers

When I think about creating change, I ask myself three questions:  “How do I make patients happy?” “How do we give them hope?” and “How can we make these efforts sustainable?” I’m still exploring these issues. But what I learned from MGH and Dr. Goss inspired me to think more creatively when developing BRCA screening and education programs.

The team at my institute continues to refine and enhance patient advocacy and education initiatives. And, along with my younger oncology colleagues, we’re bringing forth and establishing multidisciplinary practices in our respective provinces nationwide. In addition, I continue to support investigator-initiated Filipino research and serve as an adviser to my younger colleagues.

Hopefully, in the future, we can inspire philanthropists to engage in these causes and provide resources for patient support. Getting government funding for cancer-related projects (screening, medication/financial support) and policies would be also be a huge step in achieving sustainable programs and long-term improvements in my country!

Reaching Out to Make a Difference

Back in the Philippines, the learning continues. I’ve reached out to other Filipino Avon Global Scholars, including Dr. Sarah Datay-Lim, Dr. Frances Dela Serna and Dr. Dorothy Danao. With a shared goal of improving quality of care, we continue to update one another about relevant scientific sessions in the Philippines. We are also discussing ways to improve patient databases and strengthen collaboration and networking among Philippine Avon Breast Cancer Scholars.

We all participate and represent our country in Dr. Goss’s monthly Live Tumor Boards and echo what we discover in our respective local practices. And I’ve found that being an Avon Global Scholar is proving to be a lifelong education that can help us change the lives of cancer patients.