On a medical trip to West Africa nine years ago, Dr. Patricia Gordon had a wake-up call.
She had traveled with a group of medical oncologists to bring a new radiation device to a hospital in Dakar, Senegal. While there, she saw how many women were needlessly being killed by a preventable, treatable disease: cervical cancer.
“There are 350,000 women dying a painful, undignified death globally. And it’s almost 100% preventable,” said Gordon, a radiation oncologist and the founder of the non-profit CureCervicalCancer.
During their trip in 2012, the team had some unforeseen downtime and arranged to provide cervical cancer screenings for women in a remote and hard-hit area of Senegal.
Gordon, who had learned that cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer deaths among women in the developing world, had planned ahead.
“I came prepared with vaginal speculums and all sorts of supplies to screen women,” she said.
Treatable if caught early, cervical cancer is prevalent in remote and resource-poor countries like Senegal where pap smears aren’t readily available and preventative health care isn’t accessible.
Using a method Gordon and others call “See & Treat,” screening can be done without needing electricity and with a few transportable supplies.
“You spray vinegar on the cervix – if the cervix turns a little white in a certain light, then 99% (of the patients) will benefit from treatment,” Gordon said.
On their first morning of screenings, Gordon and the group of medical professionals were able to detect precancerous cells in eight women. Yet the clinic they were visiting did not have the necessary device to treat them.
Gordon had heard a rumor that an abandoned health center might have the equipment they needed. So, she set out on a three-hour expedition to find it.
“I got myself into this dusty clinic, and there’s this cryotherapy gun and this CO2 tank,” she said.
Gordon purchased a washer required to operate the device, and with the assistance of some locals transported the equipment back to the clinic where the women were still waiting. The machine worked, and the women were treated on the spot in a quick and simple procedure that destroys the precancerous cells.
It was a far cry from the way things operated in her Beverly Hills office, but the experience stayed with Gordon, whose own family history of breast cancer is a driving force in her work.
“What was so incredibly rewarding for me is that within a day, we can literally save 20, 30 lives depending on the number of women we screen,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to do this and see if I could make a go of it.”
Next, Gordon partnered with two other doctors and traveled to Ethiopia; this time they brought the cryotherapy devices with them. The results were similar. Using basic “See & Treat” techniques, the group detected and treated dozens of women and trained local nurses to do the same.
At the end of that trip, the team left a suitcase full of supplies with the trained nurses so they could take them to underserved clinics.
After 27 years, Gordon left her private practice in 2014 to devote all her time to CureCervicalCancer. She takes no salary.
She and her group use the “See & Treat” model along with what they call a “Clinic in a Suitcase” to deliver screening, training and supplies to clinics around the world. The organization has since worked in 10 countries, including China, Haiti, Guatemala, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Vietnam.
In the last nine years, the non-profit has also established 106 sustainable clinics to screen and treat women in remote and underserved areas.
“Most of the women that we treat live about an hour-and-a-half to two-hour walk from the clinic,” she said. “I’m always surprised when they get there that there’s smiles on their faces. They’re happy to be there, they don’t mind waiting in line.”
The non-profit has screened more than 150,000 women and treated more than 8,600 to date.
“That there are 8,000 women who are alive and well and able to provide for their families is honestly the most rewarding thing that I could have ever imagined in my life,” Gordon said. “I think I’m the luckiest doctor that ever lived.”
Want to get involved? Check out the CureCervicalCancer website and see how to help.
To donate to CureCervicalCancer via GoFundMe, click here.