Interview with Dr. Mae Dolendo

In her own words, Dr. Mae Dolendo, or “Doc Mae” as she is known amongst her patients and peers, stresses that you must be tenacious when it comes to building a team of dedicated doctors, nurses, and health care providers to care for the pediatric cancer patients in Davao City, Philippines. “You must be like a dog biting a juicy bone. You must never let go!”  As Megan Webber, Co-Founder of KnowTheGlow came to learn, that is exactly what Doc Mae has done with the Children’s Cancer Institute at Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC) in Davao City, Philippines.  

Megan agreed with Dr. Dolendo that cancer touches all of us in one way or another and discussed the importance of working together to make the path easier for families so that options are more promising as we find new ways for doctors and health care advocates to collaborate.  The Philippines offers unique challenges in building awareness and advocacy.  Dr. Dolendo took a moment to give Megan a little geography lesson to help explain the challenges that Filipinos experience when they live outside of the urban centers.  When you look at the Philippines, Davao City (where Dr. Dolendo is based) is located in Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines.  There are more than 100 million people in the Philippines with 25 million in Metro Manila alone and 25 million in the whole Mindanao island.  Mindanao is so widespread and sprawled out, you can go a long way and not see a single person!

After Dr. Dolendo completed her fellowship in pediatric oncology from the National University Hospital (NUH) in Singapore, she returned to Davao in 2004 inspired by getting good training and seeing children in Singapore being cured of cancer.  What greeted her working in a public hospital in Davao was a stark contrast of families unable to procure even the cheapest medicines, much more complete treatment. How could she cure cancer if there were no medicines? Furthermore, kids have no place to stay while on treatment and often will drop out from care.

Almost 80% of the patients she was seeing were presenting with late-stage disease.  When she first began, they did not have enough beds or the range of equipment needed.  The only option her team had was to provide chemotherapy.  With the help of experts from NUH and St Jude Children’s Research Hospital she focused on acute leukemias because this comprised most of the patients. Over time, a program for solid tumors was developed using the multidisciplinary platform of retinoblastoma as a model aided by a grant from Khoo Teck Puat Children’s Medical Institute, VIVA Foundation and St Jude Children’s Research Hospital. From these humble beginnings grew the Children’s Cancer Institute at Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC) in Davao City, Philippines, a state-of-the-art facility that is finding and treating children from all across Mindanao and the neighboring islands. Dr. Dolendo founded House of Hope Foundation for Kids with Cancer (HoHF), a non profit organization to help support kids with cancer and their families, provide transient homes and opportunities to continue school from a hospital based education program. A partnership with World Child Cancer supported shared care facilities and teams outside Davao City where kids can access acute care, prompt referral and early childhood cancer detection campaigns. 

When Dr. Dolendo began this endeavor, treatment abandonment was at 90% due to the costs and logistics of caring for children in treatment.  Today they would have brought that percentage to 20% if not for the covid pandemic. This  significant progress is due to government assistance, financial and non medical support by HoHF and the surrounding community. HoHF got its name from its transient home House of Hope that began as an old dorm that the hospital had given her to renovate in 2006.  It is thanks to the Rotary Club of Waling-Waling Davao (who are mostly women!) who helped renovate the dorms into the wonderful housing that exists today.  It was also through these same Rotarians that Dr. Dolendo came to meet another KTG favorite, Dr. James Muecke, co-founder of Sight for All.   Dr. Dolendo was visiting Adelaide and was introduced by one of the Rotarians to Dr. Muecke. In typical fashion, Dr. Muecke came into the clinic at 7am to accommodate Dr. Dolendo in a long conversation that included plans of forming a future partnership for kids with eye cancer.

Dr. Dolendo stressed that the success of the Children’s Cancer Institute after almost two decades is not a singular effort but that of many people and organizations working together.  Dr. Dolendo was excited to see the advocacy and awareness that KTG is doing.  She remarked that KTG’s presentation is informative and helpful without being frightening and stressed the great value in conveying the message of early detection and awareness in a non-threatening way. Megan agreed that collaborative advocacy is key. It is essential that there is a team ready to work together because just building awareness without being able to help guide these children to treatment does not accomplish the objective. “If you bring the right people together and share ideas there is so much potential,” said Megan, and Dr. Dolendo could not agree more.  She keeps working to become more encompassing and has even learned from the Covid-19 pandemic that there are many things we can do to further improve the system.  Watching the collection of real-time data on Covid-19, Dr. Dolendo remarks that healthcare providers in the cancer community can learn from that and feels it would be extremely beneficial to create a national cancer registry. 

There is still much work to do but Dr. Dolendo never stops finding ways to bring hope to her patients and families. In 2007, she started Survivors’ Day on December 8 as a way to help patients and families have a perspective beyond what they were seeing in the hospital.  She wanted to bring back former patients who had been treated or cured and gone on to live successful lives as a source of hope and inspiration.  Every year since 2007, they have continued this special day and it touches everyone from advocates, healthcare workers, to families.  For the last two years, due to Covid-19, they have not been able to meet in person as a group so instead, Dr. Dolendo and the HoHF team went to where the survivors were and brought them food, gifts and groceries.  Dr. Dolendo could never cancel Survivors’ Day as the children would be so disappointed! It is a very heartwarming event that shows not only how far the children have come but how far the program has come as well under the guidance of Dr. Dolendo and her team.  KTG is elated to share the enthusiasm and success of this extraordinary doctor.  As Doc Mae concluded with Megan, they must continue in the Philippines to train more pediatric oncologists, ophthalmologists, optometrists and other specialists to cure eye cancer.  She and her colleagues need to plan for the future and find a way to transfer their work so that they can pay it forward to a future generation of children.