The realities of life with any kind of debilitating illness are of little consequence to a person who has never experienced the other side of optimal health. Thankfully, efforts centred on generating awareness and increasing support for people with chronic and even terminal conditions have helped foster a culture of understanding. It has been a long-fought battle, but factors determined to eradicate the suffering caused by diseases and surrounding stigmas persevere. In most cases, advocacy efforts are aimed at saving lives through knowledge and early intervention.
For many of the people affected and their families, it is a glaring reality that the fight is less about winning, or losing, but coping, acceptance, and living as well as possible, despite. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. As part of the observance, advocacy groups like Faces of Cancer are once again using the opportunity to encourage Saint Lucians to move beyond awareness, and into action. Purpose oriented thinking that includes getting screened and being informed. While notable strides have been made in recent times, representatives of Faces of Cancer still believe there is a disconnect when it comes to pertinent information being filtered down to the masses.
Paula Alfred, who holds the post as secretary of the organization, says their efforts include visiting schools and targeting people young and old in order to share information. They provide support and financial assistance to women affected by breast cancer in particular, with limited funding. “We want people to know the facts, and be educated,” Paula told the STAR. “Persons tend not to want to support. The support for cancer is not where it should be.” Lack of information remained a challenge, and Alfred related instances where patients opted for bush remedies to cure cancer, even in the advanced stages. “They don’t want to do chemo;” she said, “they want to go the natural way, which is not always effective.” Rather than seeing cancer as a death sentence, Alfred, a breast cancer survivor herself, stressed the importance of early detection. “I was diagnosed at 46,” she said. “I knew something was wrong based on what I felt. When you hear cancer you automatically think you’re going to die. I just knew I had to do what I had to do. At first I felt a bit down, but I was determined to live.” This year marks her sixth year in full remission.
Today, Paula recounts one of the most difficult moments along her journey to recovery was losing her hair. After undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, and a mastectomy, she now relies on annual check-ups to monitor her health. “I definitely appreciate life more,” she said. “You tend to take advantage of things more, and live every moment, because you know at one point you were facing that and had to go through so much. You learn to appreciate people, and be more generous.” Paula, now 51, still appreciates all the support she got from family and friends as she progressed back to good health. From the perspective of Faces of Cancer, she spoke about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, which include ‘a lump that feels like a hard knot or a thickening in the breast or under the arm’, or changes in the size and shape of the breast, as well as other physical changes.
This month, Faces of Cancer has also made a point of debunking the most common myths associated with breast cancer. Completely fictitious were the notions that only women with a family history of breast cancer were at risk, that most breast lumps were cancerous, and that men did not get breast cancer. In reality, 60 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors for the disease. Causes are often spontaneous, and include environmental influences. Breast lumps also are not always cancerous; 80 percent are benign. And finally, while rare, men can also be affected by breast cancer. Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to removing the crippling fear that often prevents people from being tested for breast cancer.
Last year at a Massy Stores event held to launch the company’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness campaign, Cheryl Francis, another Saint Lucian breast cancer survivor, shared her journey with a captivated audience, relating how she refused to allow cancer to derail her life, and focused instead on being positive amid unwavering love from family and friends. She spoke about love as a beacon of strength, at a time when she could not understand how a person as health conscious as she could be, was handed such a life-altering diagnosis. Cheryl was in her 30s at the time of diagnosis, with two children and, for her, death simply was not an option. Her story was familiar to that of another survival account of a Trinidadian woman who received her diagnosis at 26. At a time when her life should have been blooming, the locks she’d always dreamed would grow to waist length were falling off her head with every chemotherapy session.
Yet, she ushered in her diagnosis with grace and dignity. Amid the highs, lows, and moments in between, she was able to find a new perspective. She now shares her story publicly, reminding women that help and support are available. “Know that you’re not alone,” was her advice to anyone on a similar journey. “Surround yourself with positive people.”
Breast cancer survival stories all incorporate the common thread of love, hope and support. Advocacy and research are paramount, as is support from governments and other philanthropic bodies particularly for persons who cannot foot the cost of a single doctor’s check-up, something cancer advocacy groups on-island say is all too common. With still existing financial constraints that mark the difference between life and death, it is now time to wear more than just a ribbon to commemorate the awareness of something as real and raw as breast cancer. It’s time to support in every way the efforts aimed at saving a life that could one day be your own. Here’s how you can support Breast Cancer Awareness initiatives: Think Pink Friday Get in on the action and support the cause by bringing Breast Cancer Awareness colours to the workplace.
The initiative is part of efforts to increase awareness, and raise funds to be donated to Faces of Cancer, to benefit lower income Saint Lucians affected with cancer. To get involved, companies can set a fee for dressing in cancer colours (pink for female breast cancer, and baby blue for male breast cancer), with proceeds to be donated to Faces of Cancer. Prizes will be awarded to the company that collects the most donations. Another option is placing a decorated box or water container in the reception area of your office, and encouraging visitors and employees to empty out their small change to be donated to the cancer-affiliated charity of your choice.
Provide Support Organisations like the National Community Foundation (NCF) provide support for women who rely on their organisation for assistance to manage breast cancer related issues. Contact them directly to find out how you can help. Massy Stores Saint Lucia has also been a powerful advocate through its annual Breast Cancer Awareness campaign which includes the Yoplait Walk for Cancer. This year the walk is scheduled for 5 November. Health Fairs There are a number of health fairs scheduled for Breast Cancer Awareness Month (more details are available from Faces of Cancer). The events are free of charge and open to the public.