We all know that we should ‘think pink’ and ‘feel for bumps’ to ‘save your lumps’ during the month of October. There is no doubt that the observance of breast cancer is widely celebrated in Saint Lucia, and the abundance of pink clothing, decorations, pins and ribbons at schools and businesses cements this statement. This is no surprise given that over 250,000 women and upwards of 2,400 men would be diagnosed in the US with breast cancer for the ongoing year. With an estimated 41,070 persons (as per Cancer.net) in the US to die from breast cancer in just one year, it is necessary to honour the lives of those suffering, and those who have passed. But what about November through to September? Is breast cancer the only one worth going all out for?
Forgive me if I may come across as jealous or wanting, but I do long for an inclusive society where we so grandly remember those suffering from the dozens of other cancers – from colon cancer to cervical cancer and lung cancer. It is safe to say that everyone knows about the existence of other types of cancers but how many of us know that blue is worn to commemorate colon cancer in March? I certainly did not. Neither did I know that February 4th is observed as Cancer Day every year. Perhaps my thirst for knowledge on the issue at hand comes only because I have suffered a great loss because of cancer, and that’s okay – we all know at least one person who has fought this tiring battle.
When my best friend was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2012, I had no idea that it was even a type of cancer. Admittedly I was only 13, and my knowledge on a lot of poignant issues was not as broad as it is now. I know now that leukaemia is a cancer of the blood or bone marrow, where the patient’s body produces too many white blood cells. Although leukaemia is one of the most common childhood cancers, the diagnosis of my sickly best friend took years.
Late diagnosis usually means that cancers have developed into larger tumours and that the person is likely to succumb sooner rather than later. Yet it also means that the patient has lived for years with their illness, which is a feat in itself. In Saint Lucia late diagnosis is usually due to the ineptitude of our medical services and the failure of persons to make concerted efforts to check on the status of their health. The former, sadly, leaves persons with no options other than to travel overseas for medical attention. My best friend’s family had to pool their own money to travel to Barbados to see a doctor there. They had to scrape up their own funds, and even fundraise, to have her condition treated in Martinique.
The proximity of health institutions in Martinique makes it a wonderful alternative to the lack of amenities in our local hospitals. The University Hospital of Martinique’s Cancer Centre provides cancer treatment services including surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It was the home of my best friend for a while, until her situation became too dire to handle and she was subsequently transferred to a hospital in Paris.
I could only imagine how frightening it must have been to be 13 years old, away from your family in a foreign country, with constant medical procedures being carried out on you. I may never understand the pain of being probed in the spine in the efforts to carry out bone marrow transplants or the greater pain her family bore when she was never healthy enough to actually go through with the transplant. I did understand, however, the sheer disappointment when she was sent back to Martinique, and subsequently to Saint Lucia, all because it was too late to treat her successfully.
After she died on March 2nd, 2013 we still only wore pink in October. We did not commemorate leukaemia with orange in September at school. We simply put up a framed photo in the resource room, and that was the end of it.
Dealing with cancer is extremely difficult. Notwithstanding the physical and emotional turmoil, the cost of treating cancer easily beats the price of tuition at an Ivy League university. In Saint Lucia medical insurance is – in some sorts –seen as a luxury, and isn’t a privilege affordable to everyone. Cancer, however, doesn’t exercise the decency of plighting only those who can afford to pay for costly treatment. Consequently we are used to being invited to barbecues, dances, bingo, among other events, just to raise funds to cover medical costs. It is hardly uncommon to see persons pacing sidewalks with pictures of the ill, armed with donation sheets, seeking assistance from the wider public.
It would be unfair to say that patients and their families are alone in this battle. Although few, NGOs do exist to offer some assistance – monetary or otherwise – to those most in need. To make a donation to a cancer patient, the National Community Foundation only requires the provision of a medical report and a pro forma invoice of the expected costs before the case is brought before the medical board.
As of 2009, Faces of Cancer became a household name in Saint Lucia. The organisation offers support to newly diagnosed cancer patients, patients in treatment, survivors, the terminally ill and their families. Although there are financial limitations to the kind of aid it can provide to patients, the organisation seeks to provide emotional support, which is just as important. The toll that cancer takes on the psyche of not just the patients, but persons close to them, is deserving of constant physiological aid.
Equally important is its mandate to educate citizens of Saint Lucia on cancer on the whole – to dispel myths and to provide information on the many other types of cancer that affect us, apart from breast cancer. In fact, Faces of Cancer St Lucia lists prostate, colorectal, lung and metastasized cancer before breast cancer as the main types affecting Saint Lucians. It frequently hosts educational fairs at schools and other public outreach initiatives, all the while ensuring its brochures and bi-annual newsletter are readily available to debunk any misconceptions. Free health fairs, where breast, prostate and cervical screenings are offered, create the opportunity for early diagnosis – something that can save a person’s life.
In a country where 160 deaths per year are caused by cancer, with 65% being male, dialogue on cancer needs to be more open. It is only by doing so that we will really be able to rally financial support, either from our own government or outside bodies, to fund the installation of key pieces of equipment at hospitals to aid in cancer diagnosis. In order to undergo radiation therapy, a patient would have to travel to Martinique, Trinidad or Barbados – all expensive options. For a breast MRI a patient would have to hand over even more money to receive the service in the United States.
Indeed, if you ask any person on the street if they know someone who has dealt with breast cancer, the answer may be yes. However, the fact that one form of cancer directly affects our lives is no excuse to be ignorant of the 100-plus forms of the illness.
Admittedly, I mostly have qualms with the status quo in terms of commemorating forms of cancer because I felt like no recognition was given to the plight of my best friend. To learn from the mistakes of others – in this case, my own – is one of the best ways to prevent a recurring cycle of ignorance.