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AHB Dispatches: Celebrating Friendship and Hope in Nicaragua

 

In our semi-regular feature, AHB Dispatches, reader Maureen Monette opens a window into the courageous struggles of Nicaraguan women fighting cancer. The Women’s Cancer Project is rooted in bonds forged over two decades by the "sister communities" of Holy Cross parish in south Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and of Barrio El Recreo in Managua, Nicaragua.

Ms. Monette is a retired teacher and member of the project’s planning team.

AHB reached her at her home in Ottawa.

Maureen-Monette-and-Paula-Ríos-Alarcón


Ruth Dempsey: So what inspired your interest in Nicaragua?

Maureen Monette: I went to Nicaragua for the first time in 1988. My interest was sparked by a course I took at St. Paul University in Ottawa, the previous year. The course examined the concept of base Christian communities. Instructor Frances O’Gorman worked as a base community facilitator in the crowded slums of Sao Paulo in Brazil. She was an inspiring woman. I longed to experience this dynamic way of living my faith.

Not long after, I joined a small group of Holy Cross parishioners, who were on a two-week orientation trip to their sister parish in Nicaragua. We visited a poor barrio in Managua where Ana Maria Murcia, a sister of Our Lady of Sion, had helped to establish a small base Christian community. When it was time to leave, I decided to stay for another four weeks.

Ana Maria and I became friends. Surprisingly, communication was not a problem, even though she spoke very little English at the time and my Spanish was much worse. We connected through gestures and lots of laughter. I remember a long trek on horseback up a steep mountainside to do a census of people living in the scattered rural hamlets. This was my first time on a horse. Sometimes the horse’s feet would slip and I’d be yanked to the very edge of the slippery path with its deep canyons below. Ana Maria laughed. "No te preocupes!" she said. "Your horse knows!" And she began to sing. I relaxed.

That summer, I fell in love with the people of Nicaragua and it’s beautiful landscape.

RD: These two communities have accomplished much over the past 25 years . . .

MM: That’s right. Working on behalf of Holy Cross parish, the mission, peace and development group and friends have helped to build schoolrooms and libraries, playgrounds and basketball courts, we’ve funded water projects, lunch programs and eyeglass projects. One young parishioner and his friend even launched the community’s first microcredit bank. Many hundreds of women have taken advantage of these interest free loans to start their own businesses. We have also contributed to a host of other activities, most of which were initiated by the people of El Recreo.

It has been an amazing experience. It has shaped many of our lives, transforming us into world citizens and showing us how to live the Christian message.

RD: What led to the launch of the Women’s Cancer Project?

MM: In 2005, Ana Maria developed breast cancer. When she recovered, she initiated a women’s program, focusing on cancer prevention and early detection.

Cancer – particularly cervical and breast cancers – is a leading cause of death among the women of Nicaragua.

Volunteers canvassed women in the barrio. They found several women diagnosed with cancer. Most of the women’s cancers were in an advanced stage and some of the women were in urgent need of palliative care. Several of them were mothers and grandmothers caring for dependent children.

The community launched the Women’s Cancer Project, which they named Flores de Vida (Flowers of Life). The goals: to support women living with cancer and to educate the community about the disease.

RD: What about practical support for the women?

MM: The community organized several support programs. For example, volunteers launched a weekly arts and crafts group for the women and their caregivers. Each session ends with a wholesome meal, often the best nutrition of the week.

They also arranged for one team member to receive training in massage therapy. Right now, the women are meeting each Friday for health-based workshops and massage.

In addition, volunteers make frequent home visits to check on the women and drop off pain medicines and nutritional supplements. They encourage the women and listen to their stories. Dr. Don Warren, an Ottawa physician, has donated vitamins and supplements. This has been an enormous help.

Moreover, the women prepared a brochure illustrating breast-self examination. Volunteers deliver the brochures door-to-door in the barrio.

RD: This project has a special resonance for you . . .

MM: Yes, for women like myself, who have survived or are living with cancer, Flores de Vida offers a beautiful opportunity to express gratitude for the excellent care we’ve received. We can "pay it forward" in time or donations or by being present to those in need.

Women of the barrio react as we do when told they have cancer. They experience fear, anxiety, worry about the family and apprehension about the future. But they have no social net to help them feed their families when they become too ill to work, so that’s an added worry.

As Ana Maria says, "These women need friends who support and help them. They usually have very poor nutrition and so their energy is low, and often, they are unable to pay for cancer medications so we need to step in and help."

RD: You stress the importance of empowering patients. What’s on your own wish list?

MM: I suppose there are two things in particular.

Last year, I was driving through Ottawa during an annual Breast Cancer Walk. The sidewalks were filled with people of all ages, parents with strollers, kids on trikes, older folk, everybody chatting and laughing. Some wore pink caps and shawls; some carried pink balloons and signs that said, "This is for you, Mom." It struck me that all these people were walking for women like me. My mind traveled back to the narrow rock-strewn streets of the barrio, and I began to imagine a pink parade winding its way through the barrio, spreading words of support and love.

I have also wished that a penny from every dollar raised from a single cancer event could be donated to Flores de Vida. I know how wisely each penny would be spent and how much good it could achieve.

RD: So what’s next for the project?

MM: Right now, the community is looking for economical ways to work with the local medical system as well as liaise with local health clinics and organizations. We are also hoping to attract support from individuals and organizations overseas.

Perhaps I can give you one example. From the start, Flores de Vida has struggled to find ways to fund cervical testing and mammograms for the women. Thanks to the Austin Samaritans, we have made some progress in addressing the challenge. The group’s founder is a Texas oncologist, who gave up his practice to assist women with cancer in the developing world. I contacted him, and he hooked us up with a private clinic in Managua that is linked to his group. Today, this prestigious clinic offers free mammograms for barrio women over 40 and free treatment if cancer is discovered. Another clinic has agreed to provide cervical testing.

Meanwhile, I am collecting wigs from women who no longer want them. I am also contacting companies who might offer us free prostheses and bras. Like women everywhere, the women of the barrio treasure their femininity. Wigs and prosthetics are luxury items for them.

As well, we’ve purchased a website for the project. And right now, we are looking for volunteers to help us launch the site.

Finally, I am pursuing the idea of a benefit comedy show with the proceeds going to Flores de Vida. I remember the day I received my cancer diagnosis, I saw a presentation Cancer is a Word, Not a Sentence by Toronto oncologist and humorist, Robert Buckman. He had us all in stitches. Laughter truly is the best medicine.

If cancer has taught us one thing at all, it’s that we’re in this together. The people of Barrio El Recreo know what needs to be done to create a healthy community. So in 2011, we plan to redouble our efforts to help them secure the resources they need.