Civil society campaigns to improve cancer care in Georgia
Ana’s story: campaigning to improve cancer care in Georgia
“I’m like a social worker and I try to use my experience to help other cancer patients to believe that they will survive. They need to know that a cancer diagnosis is not the end.”
A passionate advocate for greater awareness, Ana Mazanishvili runs the Pink Space Centre in Tbilisi, Georgia – a charity offering free advice and support for breast cancer patients. She recently contributed to the launch of a new WHO initiative to guide countries on how to reduce breast cancer mortality by improving early breast cancer detection and access to quality and effective breast cancer care.
Ana explains that treatment options in Georgia at the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 were expensive and cancer patients weren’t offered any psychosocial support. While waiting at a clinic for treatment one day, she met another woman who was in tears, having just received a cancer diagnosis. She realized it was within her power to help.
“I was inspired to work with people and show them how to live with cancer. I became a campaigner to improve the quality of life for every cancer patient and their family members. People need someone to talk to and doctors don’t always have enough time to do that.”
Providing rehabilitation services
Ana began by volunteering at the S. Khechinashvili University Hospital in Tbilisi, Georgia, while she herself was still undergoing treatment. She talked to patients there and provided a shoulder to lean on as they processed a lot of new information. Her work was noticed and in 2018 she became an official Psychosocial Rehabilitation Specialist at the Todua Clinic.
Ana’s commitment to improving support for women diagnosed with cancer is not just a 9-to-5 commitment. She is an active advocate and president of a patient organization that advocates for greater cancer awareness and access to care. Ana set up the Pink Space Centre, which is run by patients for patients, to improve cancer patients’ quality of life and mental health.
“At the clinic, we work with psychologists, and we offer art therapy and special activities for cancer patients. We joined the dance of life during Pink October, and we promote our survivors’ stories, which are aired on TV in a series titled ‘I beat cancer’. In addition to increasing awareness, we provide information about treatments and side-effects. As far as I’m aware, it’s the only organization of its kind in the Caucasus.”
Ana has become an expert at advancing patients’ rights, making enough noise to be heard and using the media to convey information about patients’ needs to government officials. Her daughter Mariam describes her as passionate and driven, and says she has succeeded by surrounding herself with experts in cancer care and building a strong following in the country.
“When she has success or achieves a goal, it only spurs her on and she doesn’t stop there. She has plans and projects back-to-back, and that is what makes her such a great role model,” she explains. However, Mariam also concedes that Ana puts everything into her much-needed work to fill a gap in cancer care, leaving little time to relax. For example, her phone always rings during walks or family outings.
“I will always answer because patients need to know that there is someone they can talk to, especially when they are just recently diagnosed. We often have to calm them down and guide them. It is emotionally taxing but also rewarding to be able to help.”
Successes and goals
Ana laughs when told she is very busy but admits things have changed a great deal for her over the last 10 years. Before her diagnosis, she was a stay-at-home mom of 2 young children. These days, she says, her campaigning and advocacy work often take her away from her family, but she emphasizes the importance of reaching out to help others, as well as making connections with other organizations and policy-makers.
“We have had many successful campaigns and the Government of Georgia now fully funds chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy for all cancer patients in the country. However, metastatic breast cancer patients require immunotherapy, which is very expensive, and the Government does not cover these expenses. We currently have a petition with 6000 signatures and we have written to the Government about this.”
Ana says she will always fight for patients’ rights. A typical day might mean she finishes her work supporting patients at the clinic at 5 o’clock and heads straight to the Pink Space, where she usually works late into the evening, making sure that no woman feels overwhelmed or alone.
“We still have many gaps in our health-care system in terms of funding for diagnostics, access to more expensive treatments and setting up rehabilitation services in hospitals,” she notes. “I would like to see other centres like the Pink Space open across the country to help cancer survivors to rebuild their lives. We also need full coverage for all cancer treatments from the Government. I have promised my patients this will happen.”