Vilma Salazar Mairena and her family

Recently diagnosed with cervical cancer, Vilma worries about being there for her family.

In rural Nicaragua, Vilma battles cervical cancer while PATH supports a new test that can protect other women from the disease

Vilma Salazar Mairena has short black hair, wide and rugged cheeks, a quick smile, and a sharp voice. She has given birth to eight children, the oldest just 15 years her junior, and endured the death of one. She and her partner live with their children in rural Tisma, Nicaragua, on a dusty plot of land marked by shade trees and bougainvillea, reached by a long and bumpy dirt road. They sleep each night in a one-room house made of plastic and burlap nailed to a wooden frame, a blanket serving as a door. Vilma washes the family’s laundry at an outdoor basin. Her youngest child, three-year-old Telo, follows her, clinging to his mother’s skirt.

Vilma, 33, has seen her share of hardships, and now she faces another one. Two months ago, doctors told her that she has cervical cancer. She reimagines the future she once saw for herself and her family, not sure what the next months and years hold.

“I want to be around for my children,” she says, “to be able to take care of them and to fight for them.”

Changing women’s futures

Almost unheard of now in the United States and other developed countries, cervical cancer is a major health problem for women in Latin America. With highly trained health workers and extensive laboratory equipment, doctors in rich countries can detect if a woman is at risk for cervical cancer years before the cancer manifests, and they can deliver effective treatment right away to ensure that the cancer never appears.

In Nicaragua, however, many women will never go to a doctor for a check-up once they finish having children. Even if a woman does get regular Pap smears to check for cervical cancer, poor diagnostic capabilities may prevent health workers from recognizing early warning signs.

“This cancer shouldn’t exist, because you can detect it very early,” says Dr. Indiana Talavera, director of oncology at Nicaragua’s only cancer hospital for women and one of only 15 oncologists in the country. “It’s curable. But women don’t get early detection here.”

Still from video 'Stories of Hope From Nicaragua'

The seven-minute Stories of Hope From Nicaragua video tells Vilma's story and the stories of Wilson, a two-year-old boy who survived a deadly bout of diarrhea, and Jonathan, who mentors boys and girls in the Entre Amigos Project.

PATH is working to change that statistic. In cooperation with the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health, we are introducing a new test for human papillomavirus, the primary cause of cervical cancer, designed for low-resource settings. The test can more reliably and quickly determine a woman’s risk of cervical cancer than the methods in use now. It will enable doctors to provide treatment for women long before the cancer grows in their bodies. It may prevent other women from going through the same anguish that Vilma and her family now feel.

A reason to hope

Vilma bleeds heavily, and sharp pain prevents her from harvesting corn, washing, ironing, and doing other work to support her family. Her partner, Justo, works in the nearby fields, clearing land. He is saddened that Vilma has cervical cancer, an illness he has watched his mother endure for four years.

Recently, Vilma underwent surgery for the cancer. Her recovery is going well, but the prognosis for her future is uncertain.

She speaks plainly, almost angrily, about the details of her cancer, the doctors’ visits and the pain, but her eyes fill with tears when she thinks about the future. “I hope that the doctors can help me,” Vilma says, “and I hope that they can give me some reason to hope.”

Photos (from top): Miguel Alvarez, PATH.