She Survived Cancer in Venezuela— Now She Lives to Help Others

In a country undergoing one of the worst crises the region has seen in modern history, one woman proves that there’s value in helping those who have no one to turn to

A heart of bravery and hope pulsating in Vargas state.

Photo: Posada Aventurama

The beautiful seaside town of Urama is a two-and-half-hour drive from Caracas. It’s everything you could ask of a beach town: its residents greet you with a smile and while you have a cup of coffee watching the sunrise, you can faintly see the children with dark skin and golden hair burnt from the saltpetre diving into the sea, looking for snapper, octopus, parrotfish, mahi mahi, shrimp, and other sea creatures that can only be found in that everlasting deep blue.

With its turquoise waters, citric fruit crops and fresh fish just out of the sea, it has four inns. Fuel shortages and the high cost of going from Caracas to other tourist areas in Venezuela, like Tucacas in Falcón or Margarita island, have driven homeowners in Vargas State to fix their places up and turn them into lodgings.

One of them is Maira Cárdenas, a breast cancer survivor who decided to take the second chance life gave her and venture into tourism. In January 2020, with her husband’s help, she painted her home, a family property for over 20 years, and turned it into a seafront gem: Aventurama.

A Disease That Changed Her

Maira started feeling bad in late 2014.

She was weak, had no appetite, and had ruled out breast cancer because a mammogram done eight months before said everything was fine; she didn’t know how quick things could change.

“One night I stepped out of the bathroom and felt a lump under my armpit,” she says. “I went to the doctor the next day and they did some tests, finding something. The specialist who treated me said it was calcified, that they needed to do a biopsy to rule some things out.”

Studies then revealed she had breast cancer and her world came crashing down: In 2015, the country wasn’t dollarized de facto yet, door-to-door shipping didn’t exist, and access to medication was already limited.

“I had to receive my medication every 21 days and it simply wasn’t available. I had to work miracles to get them from Colombia. Even though I had insurance and they paid for the chemotherapy and radiotherapy, on several occasions I wasn’t able to have my medicine on schedule,” Maira says.

And not just that, there’s also the fuel problem, since public transportation is lacking and patients have to walk before dawn to the Luis Razetti Hospital, the only public place doing these tests in Caracas.

In 2017, the patient became a survivor dedicated to help other Venezuelan women going through the same battle. That’s why, at the end of that year, she created the Civil Association Conquering Life (Asociación Civil Conquistando la Vida, ACONVIDA), which supports, advises, and helps people with breast cancer, “because they have to feel that everything isn’t lost.”

Besides helping patients, they give them information about which clinics are less expensive, or which public facilities are easier for getting appointments. The task has continued during the pandemic, although with losses. Maira explains that since March, ten women who had asked for help from the foundation have passed away, because the collapse of hospital care since the arrival of COVID-19 has meant a delay in diagnosis and in the supply and administration of treatment.

“It’s truly rough being a cancer patient in Venezuela,” she explains. “Many women don’t have money for a mammogram, which costs around 3,600,000 bolivars (8.5 dollars), so, while they ask for help from organizations like SenosAyuda, who have agreements with hospitals, their diagnosis is delayed. And not just that, there’s also the fuel problem, since public transportation is lacking and patients have to walk before dawn to the Luis Razetti Hospital, the only public place doing these tests in Caracas.”

According to Maira, women in the Venezuelan capital aren’t the only ones treated there; people from nearby towns like Hoyo de la Puerta, Guatire, Valles del Tuy and even from other states, go to Caracas because “hospitals out there are in worse shape and have no supplies.” She says that the foundation she leads even helps with the bus fare. “We get calls from 10 to 15 women each day asking for medical supplies or money for the doctor appointment; we try the best we can, but we don’t have resources to help them all.”

Looking Out for the Children in Urama

What’s known today as the Aventurama Inn in the town of Urama, is a 27-year-old structure used every once in a while by their ownersits wooden front door remained closed for most of the year. In January 2020, that changed: Maira and her husband allowed those who wanted to sleep in their rooms, so they’d wake with the sound of the waves.

Urama is a farming and fishing community, where you can see the plantains and banana clusters in the mountains, as well as citric fruit trees like tangerine and orange. Tourism is a novelty to them. Maira explains that they haven’t had inns there for over five years, and the residents have always lived off fish and shellfish they pull out from boats they built themselves.

But this tourist development has pushed some neighbors into collecting their harvest for sales, children get up very early and, with the help of a spear, fish red snappers for tourists and inn owners, with parents that don’t mind them missing school so they take money home.

“In Urama, the school is far away and it has 10 to 15 children per classroom. There’s no transportation or anybody to take them, so they have to walk all that way, and many of them just quit. Since March, with the pandemic, children only go once a week to pick up the study guides because they don’t have cell phones to receive their assignments or send their homework.”

All of these hardships, which turn into apathy for the children, provoked Maira to start a small school that gets around ten children from Monday to Friday, to help them learn how to read, add and subtract easily.

“All they want is to take money to their houses,” Maira says, “so in the morning they go fishing and then they come to school. We also give them lessons in values, personal hygiene, and so much has been achieved. Tourists have found out about this and they help us with clothes, shoes, notebooks, so the kids can get dressed, because many of these kids go around with footwear that are barely shoes.”

Besides the warm sand, the bright sun and the turquoise sea, in Urama you’ll find Maira, a breast cancer survivor, who supports her foundation, the local children, and those who work with her at the inn, making visitors feel at home, you’ll taste the best fried red snapper and leave convinced that a few hours away from Caracas there’s a gem that you’ll want to visit again.

Daisy Galaviz

Journalist for El Pitazo and Monitor de Víctimas (Runrunes). Writes for Cosecha Roja, El Espectador, Revista Semana and Historias que laten.