At the end of the year 2010 I arrived at that juncture in my life where I knew I had to make drastic changes in the way I lived and worked. I was plagued with a number of debilitating health issues and so I gave serious thought to the option of relocating to my country of birth, Jamaica. I visited the island with a view to seek out employment prospects.
Whilst in Jamaica I felt privileged to offer emotional support to my lifelong friend, Yvonne Rankine-Drum as her husband was undergoing treatment for cancer. I had some information about cancer and how it impacted the patient and the extended family and was able to share with her what I gained from supporting another girlfriend of mine who had succumbed to breast cancer in 2008 and my own sister who had only recently completed treatment for breast cancer. I found that my knowledge and experience from being a trained counsellor helped our friendship as we were able to apply established principles of dealing with chronic illnesses and bereavement.
Unbeknown to me, I was also preparing myself for a personal encounter with breast cancer. In December 2010, I observed that my left breast had gotten rather lumpy. I however was not particularly perturbed as I had always had lumpy breast tissues. With time, I noticed that the lump in my left breast was rapidly growing and I was constantly having extreme burning sensation in the left breast. I rejected any thought that this could be anything more than hormone changes, as in my mind, what would be the chances of two sisters having breast cancer simultaneously?
During those six to eight weeks I shared the information with no one, but waited for a miracle to happen. I kept reminding God that he needed to change his mind that this time he just didn’t get it right. It was my mind that was however changed as one night I was violently woken from my sleep with excruciating pain in my breast and a deep inner feeling that I had to act NOW. I went to see a doctor the following morning and told him about the symptoms I had been having. I had my eyes fixed on him as he examined my breast and knew beyond any doubt that it was cancer.
I however, was not alarmed as the night before I had come to terms with the fact that I had breast cancer and as a result of this, I spent the greater part of the previous night in prayer and meditation. I emptied myself of all feelings or claims on having power over my life. I confessed to God that I did not understand why he allowed this disease to inflict my body but was confident he had a reason. I absolved myself of everything relating to the disease excepting that I would completely avail myself for whatever purpose he intended to come from me being unwell. My responsibility was that I would seek the best medical care, follow medical advice given and maintain the best possible mental and physical state of mind.
With that mind set I was able to chuckle when the doctor said the lump felt unusual but did not necessarily mean it was cancer. He sought to assure me that it was possible I had squeezed my breast somewhere and as such he prescribed a course of antibiotics. He also sent me to have a mammogram done but I told him I would prefer an ultra sound as the lump was so pronounced and I dreaded the pain. I had the ultra sound done the same day and the radiographer showed me the images on the screen.
He pointed out the differences between the two lumps in my right breast in comparison to the “splash” of the left breast image. He suggested there and then that I should have the mammogram done as it would give a different dimensional view from the ultra sound. In keeping with my commitment to take on the best medical advice I agreed. I will always remember that pain…. The hurling sound of my scream as the pain ripped through my chest when he clamped my tiny breast between that mammography machine but I was committed to do whatever it took.
Over and over I read the report from the lab…..urgent biopsy recommended. Even before I consider the biopsy I had to think about my mother and my only child. How could I tell my mother that yet another of her daughter has breast cancer? I called her; she was travelling with her colleagues to Portland to do a school inspection. Thankfully, she was not the one driving as she wept uncontrollably. I then contemplated how do I break the news to my son?
He had seen me through so many illnesses in the past but how much do you ask one child to take on? I decided to tread softly with him, so I called him and told him I had done a scan on my breast and they needed further investigation so I was going to send him the report for him to take it in to my doctor in England. I could hear the fear in his voice when he asked, what are they testing you for mom? All I could say to him was, son, we will wait for the results!!!!!.
I scanned the report from the lab and immediately sent it off to my GP in England and within two days I had an appointment to see an oncologist there. I also had to call my girlfriend, Yvonne and tell her about my diagnosis. By then her husband had died the week before…..the ending of one phase of her life, was the beginning of mine. I remained in Jamaica to be with her for the burial of her husband as I believed by then we were more than friends…we had forged a kindred spirit. I attended her husband’s memorial service and thereafter headed for the airport for my trip back to England to face the unknown.
Back in England I was diagnosed with one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. I had a mastectomy, went through a second surgery to remove my lymph nodes as the cancer had spread. There was even the fear that the cancer had started to metastasize. According to my medical team, I defied medical science by overcoming the surgeries followed by intense chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment. I am currently on hormone treatment for a period of eight years. I have suffered permanent organ damage from the treatment and seem to have had every known adverse side effect to the treatments I received. Through it all though there has been one emotion I am yet to experience: FEAR.
For me it was crucial to ACCEPT the diagnosis. Having done that I did what I knew best…RESEARCHED. I think sometimes members of my medical team became wary of me, as I passionately sought information about every drug they used, I needed to understand why they made the decisions they made. As a trained Nutrition teacher I set out to feed my body with the necessary foods as I knew the importance of proper nutrition. At no point did I blame myself nor anyone for my illness and as such I was able to talk about my feelings and my experiences.
I had the support of family and friends and significantly, the support of trained personnel from cancer support groups. For eighteen months I attended a day hospice for support which was priceless. There are some people who never get the chance to truly know how loved they are as that out pouring of emotion usually happen at their funeral. I however had an out pouring of love and support from my high school alumni group (St Elizabeth Technical High school) and other lifelong friends that has left an indelible mark on my heart. It is often said that it is when you are down and out that you know who your true friends are….I can safely say I have the BEST friends ever.
Throughout the period of my treatment I lost about four friends who became victims to cancer. I had made a promise to myself during my darkest moments that at the end of my journey I must give back something from what I had gained. For three years I prayed for God to guide my mind in choosing the right project and the right people with whom to work. In February 2015 I ended up as an emergency patient at Savannah la mar hospital with complications from one of the conditions I developed following my cancer treatment. Whilst lying on the X ray table in the radiography department I had my “lightning bolt” experience.
There and then I started asking the radiographer attending to me, questions about the facilities they had at the hospital to treat cancer patients. Within days I requested an appointment to speak with the SMO and I called upon all my friends who had said repeatedly during my illness,” if there is ever anything you need, don’t be afraid to ask.” I am now in the process of cashing in on those chips. I want the citizens in my parish, WESTMORELAND to have even a fraction of the support and treatment I received during my illness. It is my dream that through this foundation lives will be spared, be made better, a change will come about in the way cancer is detected, diagnosed and treated in Westmoreland and by extension, in Jamaica.
“If we must die, o let us nobly die” and “…not die like hogs hunted and penned in an inglorious spot” (Claude McKay).