BY PENNY DICKERSON
Palm Coast resident Alberto N. Jones organized a trip to his native Cuba last month and included breast cancer survivors, physicians and well-wishing comrades. His wife, Silvia, is a survivor and served as motivation for the trip. In homage, Jones titled the voyage: “Pink to Pink” tour.
Clinicians from the United States whose advocacy for the pastel color of breast cancer hope traveled to Havana with Jones in October to both commemorate and learn more about Cuba’s fight against breast cancer.
The tour was as much an act of solidarity as a humanitarian gesture to provide the necessary care to women in rural areas who cannot access medical care due to lack of funding or localized facilities not having adequate equipment.
Jones shared the highlights from the groundbreaking tour with the Daytona Times.
The group left Tampa on a Saturday and immediately upon arriving in Havana met with a women’s support group called “Alas Por La Vida,” and professionals involved in cancer treatment and research.
“At 9:30 a.m. on Monday, we arrived at the Comandante Manuel Fajardo Clinical-Surgical Hospital in the Vedado neighborhood,” said Jones, who additionally shared that they were greeted warmly by physicians and members of Alas Por La Vida.
“We spent two hours going over a detailed description of the incidence, prevalence, mortality rate, diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and the critical lack of post treatment,” added Jones.
Critical cancer in Cuba
Medical advances and non-profit organizational support for breast cancer in Cuba pales in comparison to the plethora of grants, support groups and oncology specialists that are available for women in America.
“Even today, breast cancer screening has been drastically reduced,” shared Jones. “Cuba lacks mammography machines, spare parts or re-agents. These discoveries brought some visitors to tears.”
Tour participants served as a captive audience as Cuban patients and survivors shared moving testimonials regarding their initial diagnosis. Universal among patients in any country is high anxiety and a level of despair.
In Cuba, the latter was compounded by the lack of basic resources to treat many patients during what is known in Cuba as a “Special Period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Moreover, the psychological aspects of cancer in Cuba were discussed, including the toll the disease takes on a woman’s aesthetic appearance. There is limited access to prosthesis, medically appropriate bras following surgery procedures like mastectomies, wigs to transition the effects of balding from chemotherapy and more.
Cuban Ministry of Health
One of the trip’s highlights was a visit to the National Institute of Oncology and Radiobiology where they were received by some of the highest- ranking leaders. Among them was the Cuban Ministry of Health – who serves as the head of Mastology – the leader of the group fighting breast cancer, physicists and nurses.
The group viewed a wider, deeper PowerPoint presentation of this malady in Cuba with worldwide comparative statistics, which was followed by intense question-and-answer discourse.
Due to time constraints, they were unable to tour the entire hospital facility; however, they did peruse the radiology department.
Florida oncologist joined tour
Dr. Anand M. Kuruvilla, an oncologist with the First Radiation Oncology Group at the Cancer Center of Putnam, joined the “Pink to Pink” tour. He shared that most profitable for him was the unique opportunity to meet Cuban professionals in his field, including Dr. Maria Caridad Rubio (ministry of health), Dr. Dagmar Alfonso Estevez, radiation oncologist at Cuba’s National Institute of Oncology and Radiobiology in Havana and Jose Alonso Sampler, radiation physicist and others.
“I came away with the following impressions: Cuba has a population of approximately 11 million and has achieved a mind-boggling literacy rate exceeding 99 percent,” said Kuruvilla.
“Cuban infant mortality rates are less than 4.63 deaths per 1,000 live births, (better than the U.S.) and adult life expectancy is almost the same as ours (approximately 78 percent) and their cars for sure, clearly last longer!”
More mastectomies in Cuba
According to Kuruvilla, huge potential for improvement exists in increasing breast conservation rates for women in Cuba. Barriers to the latter include the embargo, which he hopes will soon be lifted. In the interim, the tragedy is that the lack of readily available emulsion chemicals has made it challenging to detect breast cancer.
As a result, over 50 percent or more women are faced with the inevitable choice to have mastectomies due to being diagnosed with advanced disease at their initial presentation.
Radiation equipment woes
“Due to the expense involved, it is not practical to develop the infrastructure to set up radiotherapy facilities that are as ubiquitous as in the States,” Kuruvilla explained.
Kuruvilla further stated that Cuban surgeons clearly have the surgical skill-sets to tackle lumpectomies and their radiation oncology teams already have HDR (high dose rate) capabilities and skills.
The Florida-based oncologist is seeking assistance from his U.S. peers to set up digital mobile units for preventive screenings in rural Cuban communities. He and his staff also are willing to return to the country and offer free training.
Free med school in Cuba
On the outskirts of Havana is the Latin America School of Medical Sciences where more than 2,400 medical students from across the globe receive free medical training.
The educational center was created in 1998 and, to date, students from more than 120 countries have entered and graduated from their classrooms.
A presentation led by the head of International Relations extensively explained how the school successfully operates.
“It is structured free of any race, gender, age, sexual or religious divisions,” explained Jones.
“No student has ever been injured in Cuba due to violence coming from others and all students’ needs including free housing, meals, books, laboratory, transportation and monthly stipend is covered by the Cuban government,” Jones added.
12 American students
Members of the “Pink to Pink” tour met with approximately 12 students from the United States who are first and second-year students currently enrolled.
Students openly shared their feelings regarding studying and living in Cuba, the challenges of developing and mastering language skills, inter-student relations with peers and of course, being homesick. The only out-of-pocket expenses the students incur are the cost of their airline tickets to return home during their summer vacation.
Honoring their efforts
“These beautiful youths far away from home are working hard to become physicians. They are committed to returning to the United States and offering their services to those in underserved communities,” said Jones.
“For those of us who are tired of going to vigils, protests, memorials and shedding tears over violent deaths among our youths, these students represent a unique opportunity for Americans to pool our resources and extend moral support to encourage them to study harder,” Jones added.
Suggestions offered by Jones included sending them an e-mail, stethoscopes or a gesture as small as a ballpoint pen. On a larger scale, stateside professionals can assist students seeking to identify an internship opportunity at a local health care facility or a post-graduate residency.
Joyful return home
The “Pink to Pink” tour members have returned home more engaged, energized, committed and determined to strengthen this bridge of love between the U.S. and Cuba. Their united efforts will benefit men and women on both sides of the Florida Straits.
“The fight against breast cancer with our peers in Havana, Cuba, turned out to be far beyond our wildest dream,” shared Jones. “We embraced, laughed, promised to stay true to the struggle and left them with a symbolic donation of cancer-ware items.”
Jones proudly reports that they have been invited to return on March 8, 2016 for the commemoration of Woman’s Day and the 15th anniversary of Alas Por La Vida.