Members of a PIH/ZL breast cancer support group discuss their challenges with the disease in Cange, Haiti.

In Haiti, the stigma women with breast cancer face carries an emotional weight, but it also can keep them from seeking help before it’s too late.

This year, Partners In Health's sister organization Zanmi Lasante began hosting regular support groups for women with breast cancer. During a recent meeting for mastectomy patients in Cange, oncology social worker Oldine Deshommes encouraged the dozen women attending to share their experiences and challenges with the disease, and their hopes for cancer prevention. One woman who is undergoing chemotherapy following a mastectomy in May told the group she “feels like a new person, rich in life.”

Their courage is remarkable given the fear and misunderstanding about cancer that exists within many communities. Every woman in the group had encountered some kind of resistance from loved ones while deciding to undergo a mastectomy. One 52-year-old patient received phone calls from family, friends, and neighbors pleading with her to decline the surgery, insisting she would die. Women in the group nodded their heads in agreement. One young woman explained how she was abandoned by her family following her diagnosis.

Deshommes encouraged the women to educate others about breast cancer and tell them about their own experiences. “We see women come to us too late, because others tell them they’ll die from the disease,” she told the group. “If women wait too long, cancer can spread. This is why coming in as soon as you find a lump is so important.”

Deshommes led a discussion about staying healthy and reminded the women to regularly check their other breast, demonstrating the proper method for a breast self-exam. The women enthusiastically reported that they already conduct breast self-exams and that they encourage women in their families and communities to do the same or to visit the clinic.

This kind of community outreach is working. Dr. Ruth Damuse, PIH/ZL’s oncology program director, now screens an average of 50 women each week at the breast cancer clinic in Cange—an increase from 15 women a week just one year ago. While some women are referred to the clinic by their doctors, many have begun visiting the clinic on their own. Perhaps most encouraging is that many of them arrive with less advanced stages of cancer.

The women in Deshommes’ support group are living proof to those around them that a breast cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to be a death sentence. From September 2011 to August 2012, ZL surgeons performed 158 cancer-related surgeries—the majority of them breast-cancer related. And access to chemotherapy is increasing—25 patients are currently on IV-administered chemotherapy. ZL also is treating 52 more patients with oral medications, both chemotherapy and other cancer treatment drugs.

As Deshommes brought the group to a close, she distributed breast prosthetics and bras to the most recent mastectomy patients. The women were glowing while they helped each other select the appropriate sizes and reclaim a piece of their self-confidence. “We are all each other’s mothers,” one woman pronounced.

The PIH/ZL oncology program is made possible largely with support from the Avon Foundation and the LIVESTRONG Foundation.