SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS -- Maria Sánchez, an indigenous woman from Chanal, Chiapas, battles against a huge, seemingly invincible monster. It planted itself inside her womb and spread roots throughout her body. Now, this woman with earth-colored skin who lives in a tiny house with a dirt floor, is fighting for her life against the number one killer of women in Chiapas — cervical-uterine cancer.
Sánchez says she first knew something was wrong in 1994, when she began to feel a bit of pain. Her pap smears came back negative time and time again, yet the pain worsened. Doctors insisted that she was healthy and even called her husband into the clinic to tell him that she was fine and needed to stop worrying. Finally, she found a specialist who confirmed her fears. Sánchez was sick. There was a tumor growing in the neck of her uterus.
Now, once a month, she travels to a treatment center in Tapachula, eight hours from her home, where she receives radiation and chemotherapy.
Cancer Treatment in Chiapas
In Chiapas, being diagnosed with cervical cancer means more than medical hardship. For Sánchez and thousands of others, the high cost of medical attention and long distance transportation to and from treatment centers, means many sick women must choose between food and medicine.
Sánchez pays 6,920 pesos, $692, a month for her treatment, transportation, chemotherapy, doctors visits and a bed at a shelter in Tapachula. Her husband is able to support her, but she says that some of the women being treated with her go hungry or take to the streets to look for food.
Twelve Mexican women die of cervical cancer every day, according to statistics on the Presidential Office’s website. Some independent nongovernmental organizations such as Cimacnoticias, a newswire service, estimate that as many as four women per week die of cervical cancer in Chiapas.
After years of mounting death tolls, women in Chiapas still have limited access to modern cervical cancer treatments. In 2007, Mexico approved the vaccine that protects women against three strains of the Human Papiloma Virus, which causes over 90 percent of cervical-uterine cancers. The vaccine, Gardasil, received European license on October 18, 2006 and has since become available in the United States. Mexican health officials say the vaccine could reduce the incidence of cervical-uterine cancer by 70 percent. The vaccine was applied for the first time to a 22-year-old Mexican woman in front of press, doctors and pharmaceutical company representatives. Yet, three years later, the vaccine is still not available in Chiapas.
Exerpts say there are other factors that make Mexican women particularly susceptible to the caner. A 2003 study conducted by the National Institute of Public Health found that the mortality rate of cervical-uterine cancer is related to poverty, lack of schooling, unemployment, residency in rural areas and a lack of effective access to health services. The Pan-American Health Organization reported that only 40 percent of women in rural areas of Mexico knew what a pap smear was.