Cuba’s Oncology Congress and Campaigns Abroad

Rogelio Manuel Diaz Moreno

Oncology Congress in Havana
Oncology Congress in Havana

HAVANA TIMES — I recently had the pleasure of participating – albeit in a rather accidental fashion – in the Oncology Congress held at the Havana Convention Center this year. This scientific gathering is one of Cuba’s most important anti-cancer events in our country. Some of my experiences there are worthy of being shared, as mild curiosities.

These examples may be directly related to the nature of the Congress as such. Like the day I was surprised to run into a sign, next to the entrance to a lecture hall, reading “Colombia Peace Talks”, is a case in point. The newspapers have reported that the Colombian government and FARC guerrilla are holding talks in Havana, but reading about it and running into the place these talks are being held cause very different impressions.

Another time, I walked by a large table holding coffee mugs, clearly prepared for a parallel meeting of a different nature. I played dumb and asked whether it had been prepared for participants, like myself. I caused a certain degree of confusion among the waiters, while I began to hear the distinctive voice of Cuba’s Minister of the Economy Marino Murillo, issuing from behind the door next to us.

According to the sign posted next to this door, those who were to receive lessons from our Reforms Tsar were the provincial chairs of the People’s Power Committees. On our side, a gentleman wearing a traditional Cuban dress shirt (clearly in charge) reacted with a lot of tact and instructed the waiters to serve me a cup of coffee, with a chocolate included. I drank the coffee, courteously thanked the man and continued on my way.

I should mention something about the gathering per se. Incidentally, I met some health technicians who were unhappy about being left out of the conference because they weren’t medical doctors, nurses or any other professional entitled to participate. This awakened my subversive side and I’ve begun suggesting they put together a union, so that they can defend their rights more effectively in the future.

The congress had good moments and others that were simply ridiculous. The most notable of the latter that I witnessed was a remark made by a Cuban Ministry of Health official. During his boring closing speech, he took demagogy to the extreme by affirming that the lifestyle of the Cuban people was improving or becoming healthier. Even Granma, Cuba’s major official newspaper, acknowledges that, regrettably, smoking and poor nutrition are gaining ground among our population.


I had another interested experience connected to the issue of smoking. It was during a presentation of some research work on throat cancer conducted by some friends of mine. Contrary to what my friend Erasmo Calzadilla might think, cigarette smoking and tobacco consumption are a serious part of the problem. Of the nearly one thousand cases included in the study, nearly 90 percent were smokers.

Science is making progress, though not always as we would want it to. Without any false triumphalism, I will say that some encouraging progress in this area has been made. It is a fact that patients who contract cancer last longer today. Some are even cured, or least suffer a bit less than they did in the past. Dr. Agustin Lage offered a number of master lectures on this. We even run into contradictions of this nature: we are seeing a rise in the number of patients who survive their first cancer, spend several years free from the disease, and then develop a second cancer.

The results of another study that I took part in were presented. Those afflicted with brain metastases are beginning to benefit from new medical resources and lead longer and less painful lives. Gaining two or three years of life may seem insignificant for an outside observer, but very few patients would waive such a benefit.

A very big problem in the field is the issue of resources. As was reported during different sessions of the congress, the time it takes for a patient diagnosed with cancer to begin receiving treatment can sometimes be extended to deadly extremes. These sessions were open and many foreigners participated, so I gather no State secret was revealed with those statements.

The country’s lack of resources is a fundamental problem. Cuban authorities will blame the embargo. It is true it has a huge impact on the field, and I am aware of the consequences of that policy, but there are other factors also at play.

Parallel to the congress, a Cuban delegation took part in the Central American Games. Hundreds of athletes – nearly a thousand if we count auxiliary personnel – took part in those games. It’s certainly very nice to be able to say we won the most medals, but the fortune of resources spent in that pointless political gesture are scandalous in light of the needs we face in the battle against cancer. There are sports that are almost completely unpopular and highly expensive, like cycling, archery and others we saw at Veracruz. Our sport victories there are ultimately as costly as those of Pyrrhus, who battled the Romans using elephants. That is why we need to rid ourselves of all monarchies – that is the concluding thought I walk away with.