Woman Recovers From Breast Cancer in Peru

PIH connects patients with medical care, social support

Posted on Oct 21, 2022

Marí Romero Sánchez, 50, accessed a diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer through support from Socios En Salud.
Marí Romero Sánchez, 50, accessed a diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer through support from Socios En Salud, as Partners In Health is known in Peru. Photo by Monica Mendoza / Partners In Health.

Marí Romero Sánchez first felt the lump while she was changing clothes. It was in her right breast—not painful, but hard and growing.

Sánchez, 50, had already faced a string of health scares over the past year, including COVID-19 and a motorcycle accident. She dreaded the thought of another. But, she and her daughter reasoned, it was better safe than sorry.

Reluctantly, she went to the Villa Clorinda Medical Center, about 15 minutes from her home in Cómas, in February.

There, an OB-GYN examined the lump and delivered some unsettling news: it could be a sign of breast cancer; she would need a mammogram.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer worldwide and in Peru, where more than 6,800 cases were detected in 2020. But 75% of cancer cases in Peru aren’t diagnosed until the advanced stage, resulting in deaths that could have been prevented with wider access to screening.

Mammograms—critical tools for early detection of breast cancer—are not available in impoverished communities like Cómas, a district in northern Lima. To access this service, patients must get a referral to a hospital—typically, hours away and fraught with complex referral procedures and long waitlists.

Socios En Salud, as Partners In Health is known in Peru, is determined to help as many patients as possible beat the odds—accessing screening, diagnoses, and lifesaving care.

Early Detection

Socios En Salud has worked in Peru for more than 25 years, ever since it responded to a deadly outbreak of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in Carabayllo. In the years since, Socios En Salud has expanded its medical care and social support programs and strengthened the health system in partnership with the Ministry of Health.

Breast cancer care has been part of that work for years. Through the Aceleración de descarte de Lesiones de Mama (ALMA) program, which began in August 2020, Socios En Salud dispatches its team of community health workers—locals hired and trained in basic health services—to proactively find women over 40 years old in Cómas and Carabayllo, two impoverished districts in northern Lima, and educate them about breast cancer and health services available to them. This outreach is conducted in markets, soup kitchens, neighborhoods, and clinics.

The impact is immense.

Last year, Socios En Salud provided breast cancer screenings to more than 1,886 women in northern Lima.

Sánchez was one of hundreds of women connected with a mammogram this year. The result was what she feared: breast cancer.

She would need several rounds of chemotherapy to treat the cancer, which was in stage two. Each session would be five hours long and in a city hours from her home, taking her away from her daughter and grandchildren.

“I suffered from depression during the first several months,” she says. “But life goes on.”

‘A Long Road Ahead’

The chemotherapy began in May. During her first appointment, she was so nervous that her blood pressure dropped. Fortunately, she was not alone.

María Rosas, a community health worker with Socios En Salud, was there to support her, helping her navigate the hospital and referral process and staying by her side for the five-hour session.

"She accompanied me and was with me during the first chemotherapy, giving me strength and encouragement,” says Sánchez.

After she completed the first round, Rosas continued to accompany her, checking in regularly. Socios En Salud also connected Sánchez with a therapist—care that its mental health team routinely provides for patients with chronic conditions, which can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions.

“Marí is a very strong woman,” says Rosas. “From the first day of treatment, she knew that it would be a long road ahead and that the medical team of Socios En Salud would be with her at all times.”

That support proved crucial for Sánchez, as the treatment took a toll on her physical and mental health.

“After the first round of chemotherapy, my hair started to fall out,” she recalls.

She began wearing a turban. She noticed a drop in her energy, too. In the morning, she felt dizzy and nauseous, leading her to take a pill to cope with the side effects.

It was a process that would more or less repeat itself every 21 days, when Sánchez was due for her next round of chemotherapy—a moment she dreaded, not just for the discomfort, but also for how it took her away from family.

But she knew she had support.

“Socios En Salud has been by my side, from the time I was diagnosed until today,” she says. “I feel accompanied.”

And the treatment was working. Month by month, she felt her strength returning to her. After four rounds of chemotherapy, the lump in her breast had shrunk from three centimeters to one.

For the first time in months, she felt relief—and hope.

“Many people think that cancer is synonymous with death, but science has come a long way,” she says. “I am confident that I will be cured.”

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