How the Crisis Endangers Breast Cancer Patients

One of the most common kinds of cancer among women is extremely difficult to prevent and treat in Venezuela and it has a severe impact on thousands of people

Photo: Examen ONU Venezuela

The ongoing humanitarian emergency in Venezuela is putting breast cancer patients at risk. Treatment can be highly effective when breast cancer is diagnosed early, but the crisis makes it very difficult to obtain treatment in Venezuela. 

In the Americas, more than 462,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, making it the most common type of cancer among women in the region. Nearly 100,000 die annually from the disease, according to the Pan American Health Organization. However, as with other epidemiological data, there are no reliable official figures on breast cancer cases or deaths in Venezuela. 

Available data from the Global Cancer Observatory, a platform of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research of Cancer, estimates that 3,000 to 3,500 women died of breast cancer in Venezuela in 2020—approximately nine women every day. And this may be a gross underestimate, given that it’s based on a model that doesn’t take into account the most recent dire changes in the country’s public health system. 

Even if it’s an underestimate, Venezuela’s age-specific breast cancer mortality rate of approximately 19 deaths per 100,000 women is nearly 30 percent higher than the average for all other South American countries.

According to the Venezuelan organization Funcamama, while the life expectancy of women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in the region is five years, 80 percent of women with metastatic breast cancer in Venezuela who received the group’s support between 2018 and 2021 lived less than three years. This includes 10 percent who died within the first year. 

Regular screening with mammograms, which PAHO recommends for women ages 50-69 in well-equipped systems, is simply not possible for many women in Venezuela. Mammography equipment is in short supply in the public health system and getting a mammogram in a private facility is prohibitively expensive for many. A mammogram costs more than US$50, which means a woman who earns minimum wage (of approximately US$2.50 monthly) would need to work for more than a year and a half to pay for it. Funcamama provides some mammograms at a subsidized cost of US$20, but many still can’t afford them.

The shortage of medical equipment in Venezuela has also undermined access to treatment in the public healthcare system. Over the past five years, 22 radiation therapy units have reportedly closed, leaving only one operational unit to treat breast cancer nationwide. A second one reportedly opened recently. The waiting lists are so long that women are waiting up to a year just to start treatment. The cost of private treatment can reach nearly US$10,000, according to Funcamama.

There are other obstacles in accessing treatment. For example, one of the three main hospitals in the country for cancer treatment, in Carabobo, closed its radiation therapy unit in March 2016. It hasn’t been providing chemotherapy since 2019 either, due to a nationwide shortage of necessary medicine. This year, it stopped providing surgery or even regular medical appointments. 

More than 25 medications necessary for breast cancer treatment aren’t available at the pharmacies of the Venezuelan Institute of Social Security (IVSS).

Tamoxifen, which is listed as an essential medicine for breast cancer treatment by the World Health Organization, is only available irregularly. These pharmacies can be out of this medication for months. Women are forced to find and buy it on their own. Some have even crossed the border with Colombia to do so. Treatment with Tamoxifen requires medical follow-up, which is very difficult to obtain in Venezuela today.

In 2020, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered Venezuelan authorities to protect the life and health of 12 women with breast cancer who weren’t receiving appropriate treatment or access to essential medication. They are still waiting for authorities to contact them. One of the women died, and another left to get treatment abroad. Three of them required Tamoxifen but had to find it on their own. According to CEPAZ, the organization representing these women before the commission, the spread of cancer worsened the health condition of at least four of the women and others had to pay for private treatment before it became too late. 

The end of another Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a stark reminder that nobody should be dying when death is preventable. Early detection and treatment can save lives. To protect Venezuelan women’s right to health, it is key that the humanitarian response in Venezuela prioritizes support for early detection programs and adequate treatment for breast cancer, particularly outside of the country’s capital.