Surviving Breast Cancer in Cuba: A Tribute to Courage

Vicente Morin Aguado

Enna Ferrer Carmona

HAVANA TIMES — Being diagnosed with breast cancer or told one must have a radical mastectomy is not a death sentence, Enna Ferrer Carmona, a woman who faced such a reality 22 years ago, tells me.

She is one of the founders of Alas por la Vida (“Wings for Life”), a project launched by mastology professionals working in the Manuel Fajardo University Hospital in Havana.

I met Enna when, without knowing I was a journalist, she approached me and began to explain her work to me, while enjoying an art exhibition that opened October 5 in the Quinta de los Molinos gallery located near the intersection of Carlos III and Infanta streets in Havana.

As I soon learned, all of the works exhibited were authored by women who had undergone operations for breast cancer. The exhibition will be open until November 5.

This is one of the many different collective and individual activities undertaken as part of the project, whose foundational document explains that “project members perceive that their needs are not or cannot be satisfied by existing social institutions.”

I can only imagine the impact that the first encounter with this so-called “bad friend” must have had on my new friend (today 59), having been diagnosed in the prime of life – a condition that still seems to shine in her face, thanks, to a great extent, to the Wings for Life project.

The project encompasses a great many of Cuba’s municipalities (in at least 11 of the country’s 15 provinces, counting Isla de la Juventud). There are roughly one thousand members, mostly women (as is to be expected from the particular characteristics of the condition).

The chair of the association, Dr. Alexis Cantero, considers that the membership continues to be too small, for some three thousand women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the country every year and breast cancer is one of the three main causes of death in Cuba.

Enna tells me that members are taught about bioethical issues, sexuality for their new lifestyles and nutrition, while being encouraged to have an active life and to become engaged in life-affirming activities, both individually and within groups.

She explains that group meetings are essential, as group therapy helps individuals cope with stress and the psychological traumas that stem from the role female breasts play within the socially constructed image of women.

I have seen the exhibition at the Quinta de los Molinos gallery several times. It contains paintings, photographs, knitted pieces, small and varied crafts and other forms of artistic expression, fashioned by women whose experiences are a testament to the power of optimism. One of the artists wrote: “She lost a wing and gained life.”

It’s been hard for me to say goodbye. I’ve been back several times and talked with different representatives of the association. Their smiles, telling me not everything is lost when people are willing to open their hearts, always encourages me.

I didn’t have time to meet Dr. Cantero in person. In the photos at the gallery, she is always in the background, not bringing any attention to herself. The affection people feel towards her and her work, however, becomes more than evident when one speaks to the members of the association, who have no doubts about her modesty and total commitment to the Wings for Life project.

Other photographs tell us of the support different artists have given the project, including the initial boost given the initiative by the prolific and dynamic painter Zaida del Rio. The project has also enjoyed the express support of different cultural, culinary, medical and educational institutions and different newspapers around the country.

Dr. Cantero and the other members have expressed their wish to promote their help line, one of the main doors open to individuals in search of aid. The telephone numbers are 836-9936 and 836-9937. The help line operates Tuesdays and Thursdays from two to four in the afternoon. Project members also dream with having a promotional spot on Cuban television on a permanent basis.

I want to close my post with the lines written by Enna’s husband:

“When I help her get dressed, I do not see a scar marking an absent breast, but a medal to a woman’s courage, to the merit of overcoming all adversity and continuing to struggle for life.”
Vicente Morín Aguado: [email protected]