The woman behind PATH’s small but mighty program in Peru

November 23, 2015 by Laura Anderson and Ines Contreras

In Peru, one extraordinary staff member leads a breast cancer screening program, and her work is helping thousands.

A group of hospital volunteers in a circle.

Hospital volunteers attend a patient navigation training session in Lima, Peru. They will help guide cancer patients through the complexities of the health care system and help them overcome barriers to care. Photo: PATH/Tara Hayes Constant.

Since 2006, Ines Contreras has contributed her experience and warmth to many roles at PATH, including a breast health project in Peru. Although small in size, the project is making a big difference in the lives of thousands of women.

Ines Contreras and Elena Moreno

Ines Contreras (right) with Elena Moreno (left), a volunteer, cancer survivor, and advocate. Photo: PATH

Q: Can you tell us about PATH’s work to improve breast cancer screening in Peru?

Cancer is a public health problem in Peru; it is responsible for around 17 percent of deaths in the country. Without action, the impact will increase.

PATH started its breast cancer work in 2011 in a region of Peru with a high rate of breast cancer mortality. We supported the implementation of the Breast Health Community Program project. The objective is to reduce the increasing morbidity and mortality caused by breast cancer in Peru. The project focuses on community awareness, prevention, and screening approaches, including clinical breast exam, fine needle aspiration biopsy, and ultrasound. National and international experts support the program.

Women from the rural area where we worked are now more confident accessing resources close to their homes, and they feel they will receive the same professional services they would get if they go to a specialized hospital. Volunteers working in the patient navigation part of the project are helping a lot. What is remarkable is that most of them are women survivors of breast cancer.

The project is so successful that it is being looked at as a model for similar contexts.

Doctors practice clinical breast exam techniques in Peru.

Doctors learn to conduct clinical breast exams using a curriculum PATH created. Photo: PATH/Daniel San Martin.

Q: You’re involved in “patient navigation.” What is that, and why is it important?

Patient navigation is a one-on-one service for patients, families, and caregivers. We orient them to the hospital as well as to clinical and social services, and we help them overcome any barriers to care. The service helps patients start and finish their treatment following medical recommendations. And it helps them feel, even in the hospital, the comfort of home—receiving clinical services with quality and warmth.

Q: What are Peru’s challenges and opportunities when it comes to preventing and treating breast cancer?

The need to implement more prevention centers and improve their infrastructure is one challenge.

It is important to work with community workers in their communities. We also need to have social workers or health personnel available to work closely with these communities to connect women to the closest place they can get screening and medical attention and to coordinate care.

Workers should also know that they have the support of the Peruvian government through the Plan Esperanza—an innovative national commitment that supports Peru’s poorest people by financing their cancer treatment.

Two familes stand with their children in their arms.

Two women who were diagnosed with breast cancer and received treatment are accompanied by their families for a meeting with PATH staff to discuss their experience. Photo: PATH/Tara Hayes Constant.

Q: What further improvements would you like to see in the next ten years?

In an ideal world, no woman would get cancer. More realistically, I’d like women to be more aware of the importance of prevention activities and good health—because nobody but they themselves can do that. More education and prevention will empower women to tackle the disease with less fear.

Q: You spend a lot of time with women facing a difficult health issue. What helps you stay centered?

Thinking about their feelings, empathy—and the most important, for me, is listening to them. They have so much to tell you and they need a space to do it. When you make the connection, people tell you so many deep and personal feelings. That makes you more human, and allows you to take note of the great people they are.