Bertha and Manolo, Dealing with Painful Surprises

By Yudarkis Veloz Sarduy  (Progreso Semanal)

Couple on the Havana malecón seawall.

HAVANA TIMES — Bertha used to love cooking and Manolo would open his eyes wide in a “Mmmm” with his lips firmly closed which meant that he was in front of her unrivaled breaded steaks. I used to watch them and believe, with all of my heart: “Nothing bad will ever happen to these two,” and I was just a little girl who couldn’t explain why I thought that to myself.

Years later, Bertha was diagnosed with breast cancer and she had to have a mastectomy, and it had been a long time since I had seen her because ever I since I grew up, I stopped seeing my parents’ friends to make my own. But, there she was the day my first book was launched, fresh out of the doctor’s office where they had just taken out her surgical stitches, with Manolo, both of them smiling, looking at each other with that same spark that I caught onto on my Sundays with breaded steaks, holding hands, like boyfriend and girlfriend.

Since the end of January, there’s now a graffiti on the great fence of the lower floor of the Habana Libre Hotel which preaches: “Give me an A and I’ll move the world,” and of course, that “A” refers to Amor (Love). And the first time I saw it, I also thought about Bertha and Manolo, who have built a life together with love, where they have been able to tackle even the most frightening of diseases.

Concerning cancer, we know that there are over one hundred different kinds and that any part of the body can be affected. The five most common types of cancer men suffer on a global scale, and in order of frequency, are lung cancer, stomach cancer, liver cancer, bowel cancer and oesophageal cancer. In women, the five most common types of cancer are, in this order, breast cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer, bowel cancer and cervical cancer; and the most common cancer in many developing countries is cervical cancer.

The cancers which most affect public health services, such as breast, cervical and bowel cancer, can be cured if they are detected and treated in time. Tobacco consumption is the number 1 preventable cause of cancer in the world (22% of cancer-related deaths are linked to smoking) and over 30% of all cancers could be prevented mostly by staying far away from tobacco, eating healthily, doing some kind of physical exercise and moderating our alcohol consumption.

Bertha has never smoked, Manolo hasn’t either, so she isn’t a passive smoker – at least directly, because here in Cuba we all end up breathing smoke from somebody else’s cigarette. She doesn’t drink a lot either and well, with regard to exercise and diet, it’s a special issue for any Cuban who from not having many options, feels that eating meat every day, pork, which is what is more readily available, is what they have to stuff into their mouths.

Cuba has a Comprehensive Cancer Control Program and its basic steps are prevention, early detection and speedy treatment and temporary care. Out of the 115,000-120,000 people who are affected with this disease in this country, all receive the right medical attention and treatment as prescribed by the family doctor, the polyclinic and hospitals who specialize in different areas, two of which are nationally renowned, the National Institute of Oncology and Radiobiology of Cuba (INOR) and the Ameijeiras Brothers Hospital. Meanwhile, the National Medicine Program has increased the number of patients covered by including a greater list of medicines: in 1999, there were only 28 kinds of medicine, in 2014, the figure had increased to 67.

With regard to childhood cancers, approximately 300 new cases of malign neoplasms are diagnosed every year, which make up the third main cause of death in children aged between 1-4 years and the second cause of death in the 5-14 year old range. In the face of such a situation, a multidisciplinary team who not only work in diagnosing cancer, but in taking up the patient and their family’s pressing needs. Living conditions at home are taken into consideration, their need to have equipment such as wheelchairs etc., a necessary diet in such cases and the psychological support they need.

Linked to this is the Cuban strategy to recognize and promote healthy habits at school, improving general attitudes and the population’s health, which will lead to prevention and cancer patients’ quality of life, to the extent that, according to doctor Teresa Romero, leader of the Program against Cancer at the Public Health Ministry, “people could live many years and then die because of other causes, like may happen with diabetes and high blood pressure.”

In 2013, the publishing house Oriente published “How to tackle cancer”. In spite of the creeps these things give us that seem ugly from all angles, I bought this book at Havana’s Book Fair thinking about Bertha, because I also flicked through it and saw an explanation on one of its pages similar to my thought that nothing bad would ever happen to Bertha and Manolo. That emotional support and love are two of the fundamental factors in tackling this disease and in healing from this serious illness…

Love might not cure cancer, or it might not prevent it, but maybe biodecoding, which is so popular nowadays, can’t cure or prevent it either. Maybe we need more than an “A” to pull strings in the world, but I love the fact that they wrote this on the wall and I hope that more than a couple of people pay heed to it. They might also not publish any more books about cancer at this year’s Cuba Book Fair – which will take place between the 9th and 19th this month – taking people’s indifference into account when very few people pick up these titles, or maybe they will.


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