SHADES OF PINK
Suspecting, treating and surviving breast cancer
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
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.”
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
Kaydia Mckoy Odell Mullings