February 14, 2018

From the healed to the healer

Childhood cancer survivor is inspired by his doctors to follow their path

 

From the healed to the healer
Childhood cancer survivor is inspired by his doctors to follow their path

Sebastian

In seven years, if everything goes according to plan, Sebastian will be a pediatric oncologist working to diagnose and treat children with cancer.

It’s a dream born of – and nearly unrealized – because of his own experience of childhood cancer.

In November 2009, Sebastian  was an 18-year-old living with his family in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, and about to start his first year of medical school. His biggest worry was well on his exams when his long-time pediatrician referred him to one of the few oncologists in the city – in fact, in all of Paraguay. Sitting in the consulting room with his mother, he learned from the oncologist that he had cancer.

His mother, he remembers, broke down in tears. 

Sebastian had to reassure her and his worried family and friends that he was determined to fight and beat the cancer. He also told them that he had no intention of letting his disease stop him from continuing his first year of medical school and realizing his life-long dream of becoming a doctor.

Despite his confidence, Sebastian faced long odds. Medical services for cancer were extremely scarce across the country, even in the national capital. The costly medicines required for chemotherapy, with its months-long series of treatments, were unaffordable in a country with an average income then of USD$3,000 per year.

Those two factors were major reasons that cancer was one of the leading killers of children in Paraguay.

Encountering a Network of Care
While the odds were against him, Sebastian was diagnosed in the same year that Paraguay began seriously attacking the problem of childhood cancer mortality, by embracing an approach called My Child Matters. A global Sanofi Espoir Foundation initiative, My Child Matters seeks to improve the survival rate of children with cancer in limited-resource countries like Paraguay.

Working with health care systems and government agencies, the program provides training for health professionals in order to create an extensive care network of doctors, nurses and others who can diagnose and treat children with cancer. These networks can provide not only diagnosis and primary cancer treatments, but also pain management and palliative care to patients, psycho-social support to patients and their families, and nationwide information campaigns.

The program in Paraguay began in 2009, training doctors and other professionals to recognize the early signs of various forms of cancer to make earlier, life-saving diagnoses. It also worked to set up what today is a series of four regional pediatric cancer clinics to treat patients like Sebastian.

Saving Lives Through Access to Healthcare
Without My Child Matters, Sebastian doubts he or people like him would have much hope of being treated successfully for cancer in Paraguay, where 30% of the population has no access to the healthcare system.

“Paraguay is a poor country. There are very few good doctors, and the medicine for chemotherapy is very, very expensive,” he said. “In the program, though, the doctors are well trained, and they provide the medicine for free. That’s very, very important.”

Another aspect of the program he credits with saving more lives is social assistance, provides support to patients, their families and health personnel in an effort to reduce the number of treatment “dropouts.”

“It’s very important to follow up after the disease to prevent a recurrence of the cancer,” he said. “First you need to be seen frequently, every month, then every 3, 6 months for the next 5 years. Certain types of childhood cancer need minimum 2 years of treatment so the percentage of dropouts of the treatment is quite high. Thanks to My Child Matters, the drop out fell to 0%. “

While cancer remains the second leading cause of death among children 5-19 in the country, thanks to the stepped up efforts to fight the disease, the survival rate has doubled since the program’s inception.

Inspired to a Curing Career
It was during his treatment under the My Child Matters program – beginning with five days confined to a hospital for initial chemotherapy, followed by numerous visits for repeat treatment over the next five months – that Sebastian’s interest turned toward oncology.

“I was not the typical patient,” he recalled. As a first-year medical student, he peppered the medical staff with scientific questions about his cancer and the disease in general. In response, the doctors and others caring for him spent hours answering his questions, helping him study, and in the end develop an uncommon knowledge of cancer for an 18-year-old.

“I fell in love with oncology,” he said, because of those interactions, and by the time he began his second year of medical school in the fall of 2010, Sebastian had decided to become a pediatric oncologist.

While he has finished medical school, Sebastian must put in another seven years of training for that dream to become a reality. He’s planning to move to Spain soon to begin a four-year residency in pediatrics. He hopes to follow that with three years of residency in oncology in France.

Meanwhile, he has been involved in the My Child Matters program, putting his medical education to work in a hospital in Asuncion.

“I want to pay back for all the good things life has given me,” he said. “For overcoming cancer, to remember the children who have lost the fight and to fight for all the children who need to be cured.”