Ask your doctor or local clinic when gynecologist appointments are available.

Costa Rica has the highest rates in Central America. While prevalence here is still low compared with the rest of America and the world, breast cancer is a real possibility for many Costa Rican women.

As a health tourism mecca for foreign patients taking advantage of affordable dentistry and surgeries, Costa Rica offers well-trained doctors with state-of-the-art medical facilities. The Central Valley is bursting with these visitors recovering while on vacation.

The expansion of health care services outside San José in recent years has been encouraging. That includes Guanacaste, where growth in the number of local clinics is a welcome change. We’ve come a long way since the days when even a checkup would require a one-hour drive to Liberia. Access to women’s health care in the area has never been better.

Detection possible sooner and closer to home

Early detection has long been recognized as the key to breast cancer survival rates and methods of treatment. In that regard, women in Guanacaste have come a long way. Only five years ago, seeing a gynecologist required a trip to Liberia. Today, visiting gynecologists from San José are making monthly visits to local clinics in Guanacaste communities. Ask your doctor or local clinic when gynecologist appointments are available. As for breast sonograms, most doctors continue referring patients to CIMA in Liberia. However, the exams are now also available at the recently opened Metropolitan Hospital in Conchal. Mammograms are still only available in San José.

For all the strides that have been made towards detecting breast cancer sooner and closer to home for Guanacastecan women, there are limits beyond that point. Local mammograms, chemotherapy and surgical treatment remain unrealized goals for the future.

As for right now, what happens if a test comes back positive? What can the local health system offer you? Unfortunately not much … at least not yet.

All breast cancer cases are sent to San José for further testing and treatment. Even the CIMA hospital in Liberia refers all cancer cases to San José.

Once your breast cancer has been diagnosed, you will be referred to one of the many treatment teams in San Jose. That’s when your care becomes a multi-disciplinary effort. San Jose has a number of hospitals with knowledgeable staff and the necessary equipment. Which hospital you use will largely depend on the doctor who refers you. Your local doctor is your first line of defense, working with the San José team to coordinate screening, checkups and surgical procedures.

Fortunately, Costa Rica’s capital city offers women with breast cancer a very high standard of care at a fraction of what the same procedures cost patients in the United States with health insurance. This may be of some consolation to women living further away than the Central Valley, whose bigger reality is the added physical, emotional and financial burden of long travel hours, hotel stays and separation from loved ones.

Private vs. public treatment options

Breast cancer treatment through Costa Rica’s public health care system is free. La Caja (national health insurance) covers the costs of all doctor’s appointments, medications, tests and procedures. The downside is long waiting times. With San José having the mammography facilities in the country, it can take months to get an appointment. Once cancer is diagnosed, you are placed on a waiting list according to severity. Chemotherapy or surgical appointments can take years to get.

Private breast cancer treatment options are also available. San José has many state-of-the-art private hospitals offering a full range of treatments. Most hospitals work with each patient to create an economical plan for tests, appointments and treatments. Some hospitals offer private rooms, healthy and delicious meal options for both patients and family visitors and even beds and rooms for family members. Such hospital services can be comparable with a stay in a luxury hotel.

Join the fight

A large-scale breast cancer awareness and fundraising initiative in Playas del Coco is supporting at-risk women using La Caja who need mammograms, chemotherapy and surgery. The organizers have partnered with Banco Nacional, artists and local Coco businesses in featuring a series of events during International Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.

The Anna Ross Foundation’s 14th annual Walk/Run Against Cancer takes place in San José on Sunday, October 8. Close to 100,000 people participate each year, making it the largest event of its kind in Latin America.

Whether you decide to be part of the action in Coco Beach, San José or any place else where pink champions are joining forces, remember breast cancer does not discriminate geographically. It affects millions of mothers, sisters and daughters in Costa Rica every year. These are women like us, or women we know, in all parts of the country. Don’t they all deserve the best fighting chance we can give them?