Breast cancer is curable and the chances of being free of the disease reach 95% if the diagnosis is made early, soon after the appearance of the tumor. With this in mind, financial market executive Anna Gabriella Chagas Antici, after curing two episodes of breast cancer in two years, decided to found the Protea Institute and help other women to make an early diagnosis and achieve a cure.
“She thought that other women, who don’t have health insurance, should also have the chance to heal,” said Cristina Assumpção, executive director of Protea, a non-profit non-governmental organization created in 2018. The institution raises funds from society to pay the costs of exams, consultations and treatments at the philanthropic hospital Santa Marcelina de Itaquera, in the east side of São Paulo.
This unit serves women referred by the Unified Health System (SUS), and Protea complements the value of each service, fully covering the cost of the hospital (since the SUS table is outdated), so that the queue moves faster. “The idea is to unburden the system, because cancer does not wait”, says Cristina.
In these four years, the institute’s actions have already enabled the complete treatment – including surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy sessions – to 1,100 women and more than 25,000 exams and consultations by the mastology team. In 2021 alone, Protea raised and transferred R$6 million to Santa Marcelina. The intention, in the coming months, is to take the partnership to Salvador (BA), with Hospital Aristides Maltez.
Focus on patients
In addition to the cost of examinations and treatments, Protea also develops two other projects. One of them, called Cuida Mama, was implemented after the teams found that women arrived for treatment already with the disease in a very advanced stage. “The purpose of this project is to know the patient’s journey since the first visit to the UBS (Basic Health Unit) and why she arrives late for treatment”, explains Cristina.
The breast cancer mortality rate in Brazil today is 25%, “very high for a disease that is curable in 95% of cases, when detected early,” said Cristina. This rate, experts calculate, should not exceed 8%.
By detecting the reasons for the delay in seeking diagnosis and treatment — ranging from lack of information to delay and/or negligence on the part of health services — the institute, with teams involved in the process, seeks solutions that speed up care and treatment. This project is carried out with the support of the Tellus Institute and is sponsored by Roche, the Avon Institute and Sanofi.
Protea also has an artificial intelligence project, which, based on analysis of patients’ mammograms, estimates a woman’s chances of having breast cancer in up to five years. Developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in partnership with the Massachusetts General Hospital, the project was brought to Brazil by Protea and implemented at Hospital Santa Marcelina with funds from the Patrick McGovern Foundation. Thus, patients’ mammograms are monitored and early treatment is initiated, if necessary.
Breast cancer numbers in Brazil
The National Cancer Institute (Inca) estimates that in 2022, 66,000 new cases of breast cancer have already been detected in Brazil and, unfortunately, by the end of the year more than 18,000 women will have died from the disease. This amounts to an average of 50 deaths a day, an even higher number than before the covid-19 pandemic, when the daily average of deaths was 42 women. “Many women have stopped taking preventive exams and we are only going to lower these numbers by encouraging early diagnosis and treatment,” said Cristina.
She recalls that today mammograms can identify microtumors and that self-examination, although advised, should not, under any circumstances, replace mammographic screening, indicated to be performed annually by women over 40 years of age. “It’s not just older women who get breast cancer. More and more young women have had the disease; and also hereditary cases are less than 10%”, warned Cristina.
Donations and Pink October
Fully functioning with donations and non-profits, Protea relies on donations from individuals and companies. “There is no such thing as a small donation. Every donation matters and helps to maintain the project”, says Cristina, encouraging people to donate any amount, a procedure that can be done by the organization website.
In Pink October, when breast cancer prevention campaigns are intensified, the entity’s revenue grows a lot. In 2021, more than 60% of the financial resources raised by Protea came from the date.
This year, for example, the data is not closed, but more than 200 companies made partnerships, either by allocating financial resources or reverting part of the profit on certain products. “We are surprised by creative ideas that give incredible results for society’s engagement”, says Cristina.
Partnerships with companies
One of the sponsors is Le Lis Blanc, a women’s articles store, which, this year, launched a candle with the protea flower — which gives the institute its name — and all the profits will go to the NGO. Le Lis, a partner for three years, is the institute’s largest annual donor.
The companies Razzo and Zambon Bernardi joined together to produce 5 thousand units of Protea soap, initially. The idea was so good and everyone wanted to contribute. Within a week, the entire stock was sold out. And the two companies have already guaranteed the production of over 10,000 soaps.
In addition to these, more than 50 companies have created products to revert sales to the cost of treatments. This is the case of Havaianas, which, for the first time, created a product that reverts all sales revenue to Protea. And the pin with the Protea flower, which can be used attached to the brand’s flip-flops.
Another company that is already in its fourth year of partnership is the Marisa store chain. For three years, the company has held the Pink Day, in which it allocates part of the revenue from the entire line of feminine products to Protea. This year, it also created a calendar, in partnership with Editora Mol, which will allocate all sales profits to the institute.
When commenting on the importance of the month dedicated to the campaign against breast cancer, Cristina said that “it would be good if we talked about breast cancer all year round, and not just in Pink October”. “It is not acceptable that so many women still die from a disease that can be treated and has a cure,” she concluded.
‘There is life, there is treatment, there is a cure’, says patient
The endemic agent Regina Carvalho, 43, is in the middle of a treatment for breast cancer, which she suspected in September last year, when doing a self-examination while showering. For various reasons, she was able to go to the doctor only earlier this year, when she had a mammogram, and confirmed the tumor, in May. “It was a death sentence”, she summarized, when reporting the terrifying situation that many women go through when they receive the diagnosis.
With the delay of the public system, Regina made the first consultations and exams in private services, until she was referred to Santa Marcelina Hospital. There, everything went faster, she said. Surgery for partial removal of one of the breasts and lumps in the armpit was performed on June 30.
With part of the chemotherapy sessions and all the radiotherapy ahead of her, in August, Regina started to attend another Protea project – the support group that consists of meetings with women who are in the same situation, in addition to activities such as yoga, psychological and art therapy, developed by volunteers.
“When I started to attend these meetings, I didn’t know how to deal with it anymore, I didn’t know how to face it”, he said. So, hearing similar stories, about fear of illness, fear of death, acceptance of the body after surgery, self-esteem and the difficulties of treatment, his strength and hopes were renewed. “Without that support, I don’t know where I would be today.”
Away from work since May, Regina started chemotherapy sessions in September and her hair began to fall out. She assures that, with the help of the support group, she was prepared for this moment. “My hair started to fall out and it was my husband who cut it. He cut it with the machine. I was already prepared because Protea gave me this support. But not for him. He suffered more in that moment even than I did. But I said, ‘It will grow again soon and the important thing is for me to be cured,’ ” she reported.
After the chemotherapy sessions are over, she will have radiation therapy and vaccinations. But she believes that the key is to be emotionally well. “This support group and activities are our other injection, a remedy for the emotional state.”
She recently published photos and a text about overcoming the disease on a social network and was happy when an old colleague, who was going through the same situation, came to her for advice. “She was scared. We were all scared.”
Regina’s advice for women is that they do not miss periodic examinations and that they do not delay seeking a diagnosis and treatment. “The sooner treatment begins, the better the chance of a cure,” she advises. “There is life, there is hope, there is treatment and there is a cure. I see many women healed and it gives a lot of strength and hope,” she concluded.