The ULC/Brazil Connection
Upstage Lung Cancer was one of 14 agencies that participated in a Fellowship Exchange Program with Brazil, sponsored by the US State Department. In October, we were fortunate to have two wonderful Fellows to work with for two weeks. Marcelle Domingues from Rio de Janeiro and Joana Jeker from Brasilia brought their own expertise to our work while they learned about issues that face lung cancer research, treatment and fundraising. In turn, this past January, a representative of each of the participating US non-profit organizations went to Brazil to learn more about women’s empowerment and health issues in Brazil. As the president of Upstage Lung Cancer, I was fortunate to be the representative of our organization.
Upstage Lung Cancer was part of an international exchange program sponsored by the US State Department to foster the empowerment of women in addressing health issues. There were contributions by the Brazilian fellows working in Massachusetts with our organization and there was great satisfaction in sharing our expertise and experience with them. This ongoing exchange in the US and in Brazil opened a dialogue about how to best foster research and treatment for lung cancer and other forms of cancer. The ultimate take away is that every person’s efforts matter! My experiences in Brazil caused me to see my work, my community, and my country differently. These experiences were complex. a) I went on this trip filled with conceptions and misconceptions about Brazil from previous travelers and from tour books. b) Living my entire life in the United States, I brought the perspective of East Coast US with me. c) Finally, I went on this journey having created a wonderful relationship with the two Brazilian Fellows, Marcelle Domingues and Joana Jeker.
I confess that I started my trip with preconceptions about the safety (physical and medical) I would encounter in Brazil. After spending two weeks in Brazil, and being with Brazilians in three cities, I returned with very different perceptions than those I began with.
Clearly, the locations we visited were chosen carefully for their safety and for the greatest opportunities to observe the communities where each of our Brazilian counterparts work and live. I appreciated spending time in Rio with Marcelle’s family. I was impressed with the closeness and importance of family. It is clear that this family gets together often and regularly to share food, fun and the challenges of life. I was moved by the warmth, generosity and affection expressed by every Brazilian I met. It was even more striking when I returned to New England where people are kind, but definitely less demonstrative. Originally I was a Midwesterner where people are more outgoing. I hadn’t thought about our own regional differences for a long time. Our country is also large and people vary enormously by region and circumstances.
I know that what we Americans shared with our Brazilian counterparts was a dedication to make a difference, a genuine interest and passion in helping others and great ability to open our hearts to one another. In a relatively brief period I formed friendships and attachments to women, Brazilian and American, who will remain friends and colleagues. It didn’t change my view of my work, but expanded my view of colleagues and sources of support.
There were many experiences in Brazil that made a lasting impression; however, three major events stand out. First, in Sao Paulo, we had opportunities to see what work the Woman’s Council was accomplishing in healthcare and women’s safety. The Council is made up of women in government, health care and police. They work together to benefit women’s health and safety in a powerful way. The second experience was in Brasilia with Joana Jeker (a breast cancer survivor at 30 years old). One way of learning more about how cancer is addressed in Brazil was by a visit her plastic surgeon at a major public hospital. Seventy-five percent of Brazilians are treated in a public hospital, and they vary significantly in quality. Joana started her own non-profit organization as a result of her own experiences trying to get reconstructive surgery following a mastectomy. There continues to be a long waiting list of women who need and want this surgery. Because of this situation and Joana’s having had to wait two years to have a fully reconstructed breast, her doctor encouraged and supported her efforts to push for legislation that now guarantees women who have had a mastectomy to have reconstructive surgery in Brasilia. We met with a current patient who proudly showed the results of her recent surgery. I didn’t expect the tears that I had as we left the hospital. I was so profoundly moved by what Joana was able to accomplish.
Third, in Rio, I was impressed with Marcelle’s and her cousin Christina’s efforts to create a workshop on breast cancer in Vidigal Favela in Rio. This is in one of the poorest sections of Rio. They attracted a roomful of women who now had an opportunity to openly discuss breast exams, mammography and personal questions. This event may save many lives. There is a strong impetus to address breast cancer by FEMAMA (The non-profit Brazilian Federation of Philanthropic Breast Health Institutions, a Non-Governmental Organization, organized to bring a reduction in the breast cancer death rates in Brazil) which is supported by Susan B. Komen For The Cure from the US. In addition, it is very significant that Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, has launched a nationwide program for the prevention of breast and cervical cancer. Sadly, there is no such program for lung cancer in Brazil.
All of these situations underscored the power of what a determined person can accomplish.
Because of this experience, Upstage Lung Cancer has gained a large number of Brazilian “Friends” on Facebook. I was able to share my experiences working on the problems that face lung cancer patients, clinicians and researchers. My professional bonds with many Brazilian health care advocates have allowed us to expand Upstage Lung Cancer’s resources to smart, experienced and passionate people in Brazil. On a personal level, my life is so much richer in having so many wonderful women in my heart and life. Seeing what has been accomplished, we are re-doubling our efforts to get the word out about lung cancer and do everything possible to raise funds to end the number one cancer killer world-wide.