Today is Tuesday, September 23rd. It is a day that I’ve been waiting for since we finalized our itinerary several months ago. We have one last day in Cusco before we head up into the mountains for our trek to Machu Picchu. Today we will be visiting a cancer center in Cusco in order to learn more about cancer in Peru and cancer care in Peru. Our 17 cancer survivors are also looking forward to an opportunity to share experiences with cancer survivors in Peru.
We pull up to a house a few miles from the city center. It has been converted to a medical clinic. As we enter the clinic, Dr. Ramiro Tupayachi greets us. He’s one of only two medical oncologists in the Cusco area – a valley with over one million inhabitants. He and his partner have the impossible task of providing cancer care to the entire valley. He explains that this home, now his office, was once his family’s home. He has remodeled it so that it now also serves as his clinic. He also sees patients in at least two hospitals in Cusco, a private hospital and the public hospital. He greets us warmly and we introduce the Above + Beyond Cancer team to him. He is obviously surprised and inspired by the 17 cancer survivors from the United States that have come to trek through the mountains of Peru. He gives us a quick tour of his clinic and then we head over to the hospital where he has a surprise in store for us.
Waiting for us at the hospital are a group of 10 Peruvian women who are breast cancer survivors. They have prepared a lunch for us and are eager to share their stories. Marina is the first of the women to speak. She tells us about her cancer journey. She was diagnosed with cancer of the breast at age 30. She underwent a radical mastectomy followed by chemotherapy. She is now cancer free. She jokes that she has only one breast, but that “one is enough”. It seems clear to me that she likely didn’t have the options that American women have in regards to breast conservation therapy or reconstruction. After describing her cancer journey, she gets a bit emotional when she says that cancer has had a positive impact on her life. She said that she no longer asks, “Why?” Instead, she asks herself, “What can I do to help others.” She then talks about the importance of living her life fully and reaching out to help others who are going through difficult times. She could have been giving an Above + Beyond Cancer stump speech! Cheers were loud and plentiful.
After Martina spoke, one of the Above + Beyond Cancer survivors shared her story. Leah Dietrich is a breast cancer survivor from LaCrosse, Wisconsin. She’s also a medical oncologist who specializes in taking care of women with breast cancer. She tells her story of having both of her breasts removed and of undergoing months of difficult chemotherapy. She then speaks from the heart when she says, “The chemo was difficult, but the worst day of my life was when my daughter asked me, ‘Mommy, are you going to die?’” She reminds all of us that cancer affects the whole family. As for Leah, she did not die. She is a living testament to the power of modern medicine and the strength and courage of the human spirit.
Leah, Martina, and all the cancer survivors in the room exchange hugs and tears. Although they come from different parts of the world, they remind us that we are essentially the same. We deal with the adversity that confronts us with a combination of fear and strength. In fact, it’s the fear and vulnerability that becomes the source of our strength. Martina and Leah also teach us that coming through an experience like cancer can inspire one to live a life filled with generosity and compassion.
Dr. Tupayachi takes some of us on a quick tour of the oncology ward at the hospital. We have 4 doctors and 6 nurses among our Above + Beyond Cancer team. We have the opportunity to meet some of the Peruvian doctors and nurse and share experiences of cancer care in our respective countries. In the end, we all know that we are doing the best we can with the resources we have to provide kind and compassionate care to individuals and families in need.
We take a group photo of the entire Peruvian and American teams together in front of the hospital. We then exchange hugs, hugs and more hugs. It’s obvious to all that a hug is understood to all, regardless of the language we speak.