Sus­pect­ing, treat­ing and sur­viv­ing breast can­cer

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This year’s Breast Can­cer Aware­ness Month is be­ing ob­served lo­cally un­der the theme, ‘The Best Pro­tec­tion Against Breast Can­cer is Early De­tec­tion... Take Ac­tion!’ Through­out Oc­to­ber, All Woman will be am­pli­fy­ing the need for women to get screened, shar­ing more in­for­ma­tion about the con­di­tion so that women can know the signs, and telling the sto­ries of Ja­maican women who are fight­ing, have suc­cumbed to, or have sur­vived breast can­cer.

This week we will fea­ture the sto­ries three women, each at dif­fer­ent stages of their breast can­cer jour­neys. Though their cir­cum­stances dif­fer greatly, all these women agree that early de­tec­tion and ac­tion are crit­i­cal to beat­ing breast can­cer.

Pre­can­cer­ous lumps and pregnancy — Anna-kay’s story

About four years ago, just as she had entered her

30s, Anna-kay

Whyte no­ticed a small lump at the bot­tom of her left breast. When she no­ticed that it was not go­ing away, she de­cided to visit the health cen­tre clos­est to her.

“I was told it didn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean it was any­thing se­ri­ous, be­cause a lot of women have them,” she shared with All Woman. “They told me that I would need to do a mam­mo­gram and ul­tra­sound to con­firm it, so I told my­self that even­tu­ally I would.

Though she had it in the back of her mind to visit the can­cer so­ci­ety some­day, the mother of three kept putting off the visit to deal with more press­ing mat­ters each day. “How­ever, I started feel­ing the lump get big­ger and big­ger, and I be­gan to feel lumps not only in my left breast, but also in the right.

They were even more no­tice­able right be­fore my menses.”

Af­ter years of silent sus­pi­cion, Whyte fi­nally shared her fear with her part­ner, who urged her to visit the doc­tor and check it out, while promis­ing to sup­port her re­gard­less of the out­come.

“So he took the day off work ear­lier this year to take me to the Ja­maica Can­cer So­ci­ety, but the of­fice was closed to the pub­lic due to COVID-19,” she re­called.

“I was also told that I was not el­i­gi­ble for walk-in test­ing, as I am only 35-years-old, but I could come back with a re­fer­ral from a doc­tor.”

Whyte’s doc­tor con­firmed that ab­nor­mal lumps were present in both breasts, and re­ferred her to have fur­ther test­ing done.

“The ul­tra­sound con­firmed our sus­pi­cions for one breast, but didn’t show the lump in the other. I was told that the lumps seemed pre­can­cer­ous, and I was re­ferred to do a biopsy. Upon vis­it­ing the sur­geon, I was told it would cost $185,000 to re­move two of the lumps, and the third would be done as a favour from the sur­geon... and those would be just the larger ones, but there are oth­ers…”

Just as Whyte was con­sid­er­ing how she would re­spond to this fi­nan­cial hur­dle, she dis­cov­ered that she had some­thing else grow­ing in­side of her… a baby.

“The process came to a halt due to the dis­cov­ery of my pregnancy,” Whyte, who is now four months along, said. “I wanted to get them out to avoid the risk of them be­com­ing can­cer­ous, but now I will have to wait un­til af­ter I de­liver.”

Though she is in limbo for the next few months and uncer­tain of how dire of a predica­ment she might find her­self in, the Chris­tian has faith that God is walk­ing with her through the val­ley. She also has the sup­port of her fam­ily, best friend and spouse to hold her hand, come what may. Hav­ing de­nied what she felt for a long time, Whyte wishes to en­cour­age other young women who sus­pect an ab­nor­mal­ity to get it checked out as soon as pos­si­ble.

“I’ll tell you what some­one told me: life is life, noth­ing is more than just that,” she said. “Don’t be stingy with your­self. Put your health first if you want to be here to do the things you en­joy do­ing. In other words, if you have to choose be­tween go­ing to the doc­tor for a check up or buy­ing a pair of new shoes, choose the doc­tor.”

Fight­ing for my fam­ily through chemo­ther­apy — Kay­dia’s story

What many peo­ple fear the most about a breast can­cer di­ag­no­sis is the treat­ment, and the toll it can take on the mind and body. Kay­dia Mckoy, who dis­cov­ered her breast can­cer ear­lier this year, is do­ing 16 rounds of chemo­ther­apy, which will then be fol­lowed by ra­di­a­tion treat­ment. What keeps her go­ing is the sup­port she has from fam­ily and friends, and know­ing that she has her hus­band and four-year-old daughter to live for.

“I’m get­ting one of the strong­est doses of chemo­ther­apy, which I will be get­ting four rounds of, then 12 rounds of an­other.

If all goes well I will be fin­ished with chemo­ther­apy in Fe­bru­ary, then I have ra­di­a­tion,” Mckoy, 31, shared with All Woman. “For my first round of treat­ment, I got some nau­sea med­i­ca­tion, but noth­ing seemed to work. I suf­fered from nau­sea and con­sti­pa­tion for the first treat­ment. Within a week I felt bet­ter. But af­ter that I started hav­ing some pains, and it turned out that my white blood cell count had gone right down. I al­most wasn’t able to do the sec­ond treat­ment.”

Since she be­gan treat­ment in July, Mckoy has been feel­ing pro­gres­sively worse af­ter each ses­sion. She has been weak, de­hy­drated, and in pain very of­ten, and has had to be hos­pi­talised for some of the symp­toms aris­ing from the treat­ment.

“There are times when I feel like I can­not do it... I can’t do any­more chemo... But by the time I start feel­ing bet­ter, I say

OK, I’m ready for an­other one,” she re­lated. “When they say we should re­spect the war­riors and sur­vivors, and even the ones who didn’t make it, I have to agree, be­cause you have to be strong to make it through chemo­ther­apy.”

Hav­ing done an oophorec­tomy, hys­terec­tomy, nip­ple-spar­ing mas­tec­tomy and re­con­struc­tive surgery a few months ago, she knows that her body has been through a lot, so she an­tic­i­pates that the rest of her treat­ment will be even more tax­ing phys­i­cally.

“But it’s also hard on you men­tally, es­pe­cially know­ing that I am so vul­ner­a­ble in this COVID-19 pan­demic,” she added. “It’s one thing to try to pro­tect my­self by stay­ing home, but what about my fam­ily? What about my hus­band who has to go to work? It’s scary.”

It was also dif­fi­cult for her to ac­cept the loss of her beau­ti­ful hair, es­pe­cially be­cause of her daughter’s re­ac­tion to it.

“My daughter said, ‘Mommy, I don’t want you to cut your hair, be­cause ev­ery­body will laugh at you and you won’t be my mommy..’. She still has not seen me bald headed,” Mckoy, who re­cently de­cided to do away with what was left of the thin­ning hair, shared emo­tion­ally. “I just try not to tell her or let her see cer­tain things, be­cause she is quite sen­si­tive to me. I try to be strong around her, be­cause if she re­alises that I’m sick it will worry her.”

But even while she is weak to her daughter, the lo­qua­cious lit­tle girl re­mains her great­est source of strength.

“She once told me that it’s be­cause I must have eaten too many sweets why I have can­cer,” she chuck­led. “But it’s know­ing that I have to live for her that keeps me go­ing. So, be­fore ev­ery treat­ment now, when I’m feel­ing well, I just try to do some­thing spe­cial with my fam­ily and make ev­ery day count.”

Mckoy is most grate­ful for the out­pour­ing of sup­port that she has re­ceived from her im­me­di­ate fam­ily and ex­tended fam­ily.

“My sup­port sys­tem is great,” she said grate­fully. “I have my fam­ily, my friends, my in-laws. Ev­ery­body is just root­ing for me and I couldn’t ask for more. My hus­band, my daughter’s god­mother Candy, my step­daugh­ter Am­ber, and my cousin Michelle have all been there for me, as well as my Face­book fam­ily and friends. I have some re­ally good peo­ple in my cor­ner.”

God brought me through — Odell’s Story

When Odell Mullings fi­nally com­pleted treat­ment for stage two breast can­cer in Novem­ber 2018, she thanked God pro­fusely. Hav­ing dis­cov­ered the can­cer in early 2017, the re­tired phys­i­cal education teacher was happy that she was re­gain­ing her strength, and look­ing for­ward to life af­ter breast can­cer.

“It was an ex­pe­ri­ence, but af­ter I fin­ished I said Lord, thank you,” Mullings, who is now 63, shared. “Be­cause when I looked at my­self and I saw what the treat­ment did to my hair and nails and so on, and I re­alised that I re­gained my strength, I knew it had to be God. At one point I could not even stand up for long… I had to hold on to some­thing… I said thank you Lord! You have brought me back, and you have brought me back for a pur­pose. I am giv­ing God thanks be­cause if it wasn’t for Him, I wouldn’t be here…”

Mullings had been do­ing her reg­u­lar mam­mo­grams each sum­mer since she be­came el­i­gi­ble, and each year her re­sults had come back nor­mal. But in De­cem­ber 2016 she no­ticed some ten­der­ness in one of her breasts, and then a small lump.

“It was sug­gested that I do an ul­tra­sound, so I did in March 2017, and I was re­ferred to do a biopsy, and it was pos­i­tive,” she re­called.

Mullings went about find­ing a doc­tor and hav­ing a sin­gle mas­tec­tomy done, then went straight into re­tire­ment af­ter her surgery that May.

“Af­ter the surgery I started the first round of chemo. That was the most de­press­ing one,” she gri­maced. “That’s when you start los­ing the hair and all of that, but I just went ahead and trusted God, be­cause I am a firm be­liever in the Lord.”

By the time she started the sec­ond batch of treat­ment, of which she had to do 12 rounds, Mullings had to dou­ble up with an­other treat­ment that was ad­min­is­tered by in­jec­tion.

“It was dif­fi­cult for me be­cause I was a bit scared, but I took it one day at a time. When my hair was fall­ing out, I didn’t comb it. I cut my hair very low, so in the morn­ings I just rubbed my hand over it and took off what­ever came out. Then it was com­pletely bald and I started wear­ing wigs… But with God’s help I came through,” she said.

With God lead­ing the way, she also had sup­port­ive friends and fam­ily to hold her hand through the val­ley.

“I have to thank my fam­ily and friends, es­pe­cially Au­drey Fran­cis, who was there with me through most of the treat­ment,” she said gra­ciously. “I also had my sis­ter and other fam­ily, and later my church fam­ily sup­port­ing me.”

Now can­cer-free for al­most two years, Mullings still does her reg­u­lar screen­ing, and tries her best to stay as healthy as pos­si­ble.

“I changed my diet dras­ti­cally when I was di­ag­nosed with can­cer,” she shared. “I stopped eat­ing chicken. I had only fish and beans and fruits and veg­eta­bles. Now I will eat a lit­tle chicken ev­ery now and then, but not much. I also ex­er­cise reg­u­larly.”

She en­cour­ages women to be in tune with their bod­ies and get screened reg­u­larly so that they can get on with life.

“Can­cer is not a death sen­tence, so it’s best to get screened and de­tect it early,” she said. “Some­times peo­ple worry, and it’s the worry that kills. Hav­ing the sup­port of fam­ily and friends and trust­ing God makes all the dif­fer­ence.”

AW: FEA­TURE (Photo: Karl Mclarty)

BREAST can­cer is the most com­mon can­cer to af­fect women glob­ally. In Ja­maica, it is pro­jected that one in ev­ery 21 women will get breast can­cer in her life­time. At least one third of these women will be di­ag­nosed be­fore they are 50 years old. Un­for­tu­nately, only about 10 per­cent of the el­i­gi­ble pop­u­la­tion is be­ing screened an­nu­ally, and as such, breast can­cer is be­ing dis­cov­ered in the more ad­vanced stages in many women. An­nakay Whyte

(Photo: Joseph Welling­ton)

Kay­dia Mckoy Odell Mullings

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