At 18 Sebastian was preparing to leave his family home in Asunción, Paraguay, for the first time to start a new life studying medicine at university. But his plans stopped abruptly when he was diagnosed with cancer.
His mother, he remembers, broke down in tears. Sebastian had to reassure her and his family and friends that he was determined to fight and beat the cancer; he had no intention of letting his disease stop him from pursuing his life-long dream of becoming a doctor. Despite his confidence, Sebastian faced long odds because of where he lived.
Sebastian is one of the 300,000 children and adolescents who are diagnosed with cancer every year. About 80% of them live in countries with limited resources, where cure rates are around 40%, falling to around 10 to 20% in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa compared to 80% in developed countries.
Childhood cancers are considered a rare disease and a cure is possible in most cases, provided treatment is readily available. However, early diagnosis and access to care can significantly improve the survival rate of children.
In Paraguay, medical services for cancer were extremely scarce across the country, even in the capital. The costly medicines required for long-term chemotherapy treatments were unaffordable in a country with an annual average income then of USD$3,000. These two factors made cancer one of the leading killers of children in Paraguay.
Fortunately for Sebastian his diagnosis came at the same time as Paraguay began seriously tackling the problem of childhood cancer mortality through 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 such as Paraguay and make access to quality care and support a reality for all children.
The program in Paraguay began in 2009 and trains doctors and other professionals to recognize the early signs of various forms of cancer to enable 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.
The My Child Matters program was created in 2005, in response to the question, "where can we be useful, where are there health needs that few people respond to?" recalls Dr. Anne Gagnepain-Lacheteau, Medical Director of the Sanofi Espoir Foundation and responsible for the My Child Matters program. One of the answers was: "pediatric cancers in low-resource countries. "When we look at the situation of pediatric oncology around the world, pediatric cancers are rare diseases."
The primary objective of the program has been to improve access to existing care by providing the opportunity for motivated teams in the poorest countries to develop projects in the field of oncology. The originality of this program is that it allows local teams to set up projects adapted to their specific needs.
Since its inception, My Child Matters has delivered 55 projects in 42 countries that have helped train 20,000 health professionals and treat more than 75,000 children.
"Childhood cancer is a prime example of health inequality. For the past 10 years in France, we have been able to cure 100% of retinoblastomas where in some countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the cure rate is less than 10%," says Anne.
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 in 2016 had 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 says. "In the program, though, the doctors are well trained, and they provide the medicine for free. That’s very important."
As a first-year medical student, Sebastian 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 and helping him study.
By the time he began his second year of medical school in the fall of 2010, Sébastian had decided to become a pediatric oncologist.
Today, he has completed his medical studies and has begun his seven years of specialization to make this dream a reality.
"I fell in love with oncology. I want to pay back for all the good things life has given me," he says. "For overcoming cancer, to fight for all the children who need to be cured and to remember the children who have lost their battle."
The support of My Child Matters over 10 years
To find out more about the signing of the partnership between the Sanofi Espoir Foundation and SIOP: http://fondation-sanofi-espoir.com/en/news-2018-01-25-siop.php
My Child Matter & Access accelerated: https://accessaccelerated.org/initiative/my-child-matters/