By Ainhoa Costas Chavarri, MD, MPH, FACS
Last week I gave a chat on breast cancer to a Rwandan women’s sewing cooperative group. As I spoke, via a local surgery resident who acted as translator, the women listened but remained steadfast at their wooden stations, cutting fabric, threading needles, and throwing stitches. When we got to the part where I touched my hand to my chest, mimicking a breast exam, however, they all immediately stopped what they were doing and began giggling. “What is it?” I asked Grace, the resident translator. “Well,” she said, smiling, they are saying, “you want us to check ourselves?”
February 4, 2017 was World Cancer Day. Under the theme of #WeCanICan people all around the world showed their support in real life and online by hosting events, posting on social media, sharing stories and spreading awareness. Many of you might have noticed while scrolling through your twitter or facebook feeds. Some of you may have even participated in activities at your clinic or hospital, supporting patients, promoting cancer awareness and treatment. But be honest with me- how many of you paused on that day to think about yourselves?
As surgeons, we spend our lives caring for others. We barter our sleep, meals and even personal time for the wellbeing of our patients. We pride ourselves on being tough- faster than a speeding scalpel, stronger than an internal prosthesis, able to leap a trauma bay in a single bound! But the problem is that cancer doesn’t care how strong we think we are. Cancer affects us all. Each year, 14.1 million new cases are detected and 8.2 million people die of cancer. The statistics are staggering, and yet personal. In those numbers we find our colleagues, our family members, and sometimes even ourselves. It’s time then, that we surgeons start taking better care of each other. World Cancer Day is a chance to reflect on what you can do, make a pledge and take action. This year I ask that you make it a self-pledge and take the time to ‘check yourselves.’ Get that mammogram, start that exercise routine, schedule that colonoscopy. Enlist a friend or colleague- bonus points if you join forces with another busy superpower surgical colleague.
Back in the sewing room, I asked, “how many of you have children?” An almost unanimous show of hands. “And do you notice if something happens to your child?” I continued. Grace translated and the women laughed. “Even the smallest thing,” one lady who spoke English ventured, “even a scratch, we notice.” “And who is checking on you? This is why I need you to check yourselves. If no one is checking on you like you check on your children, then you have to check yourselves. Your lives are just as important.” The women nodded, the message understood.
Dr. Ainhoa Costas Chavarri is a General Surgeon and Hand Surgeon who does full-time academic #globalsurgery. She has been living and working in Rwanda for the past four years, teaching Rwandan surgery residents and medical students as part of the Human Resources for Health Program. Much of her practice involves taking care of patients with breast cancer and gastric cancer. She enjoys foreign films, modern art, poetry and the beaches on her home island of Puerto Rico. (twitter: @ainhoac63)
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