As health care crisis deepens, Venezuelans turn to folk healing practices

Venezuelan breast cancer patients unable to access endocrine therapy tamoxifen

BOGOTA, Colombia – Oncologists worldwide know that patients with some types of breast cancers benefit from taking a daily pill of tamoxifen, which blocks estrogen from feeding cancerous cells. That was the prescription Noris Lourdes Viscaira, who lives in Venezuela's city of Guanare, received in tears. 

Unable to afford the treatment, the 42-year-old mother of two is doing what many Venezuelans are doing to deal with a collapsing health care system. They are relying on folk medicine. She has put her trust on the calabash tree, which a 2014 study in India shows has "significant free radical scavenging properties."

It's a risk. Even after a tumor is removed, breast cancer cells can wreak havoc in other parts of the body. Viscaria said the only way for her to access tamoxifen, which can rarely have a blood clot risk, is to be able to afford regular 7-hour drives to Colombia's border city of Cúcuta.

"I can't afford it and I don't have anyone to bring it here," Viscaira said. 

Earlier this year, Viscaira underwent surgery to remove the tumor from her right breast. She said her mental health has also suffered. Her biggest fear is that the disease takes hold and she is unable to be there for her two children. 

"I have a lot of faith in natural remedies," Viscaira said in front of her luscious garden, adding that if she had access to tamoxifen she would just take the concoction as a supplement. 

Viscaria boils the fruit along with a pineapple to make a dark paste that she keeps in a plastic container in her refrigerator. Researchers from the University of Rajshahi also believe the leaves and the stem bark of the tree have anti-nflammatory and antibacterial potential. 

Desperation in Venezuela has also prompted cancer patients to seek the help of shamans, or healers who call upon invisible spirits or energy to cure a disease. In the Venezuelan city of San Cristobal, a medium purports to channel the spirit of a doctor.

Venezuelan Dr. José Gregorio Hernández is a religious figure known in Venezuela for helping patients heal from diseases. File 2017 Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Many cancer patients also pray to Dr.  José Gregorio Hernández, a Venezuelan folk figure. The remains of the legendary physician, who died in 1919, are in a Catholic church in Caracas. Many Venezuelans claim that although he isn't eligible for sainthood yet, the spirit of the doctor is performing miracles. 

Here is how to help:

Noris Viscaira is asking the public for help. She said donors can send a transfer to the Banco Fondo Comun account 01510172514517216638. Her identification number is 13330730. For more information on how to help her, call 58-426-450-5671.