One year ago I publicly shared my breast cancer diagnosis. I decided to do this as I was documenting my personal experience in the biggest fight of my life. I had no prior knowledge of cancer as I am the first in my family and this generation to have this diagnosis. When I look back at my experiences over a tumultuous 15 month period I am so grateful for my journey and that today I am well. Although I have completed my cancer treatments, I have several years of post cancer maintenance to follow in order to remain cancer free. I want to write a few blog posts sharing my cancer journey. I will break it down into different posts as each will deal with a different phase of my breast cancer journey. I hope that this can shed a light on cancer and perhaps help someone better understand cancer or help someone going through this process. The steps that I followed upon my diagnosis were chemotherapy, mastectomy, surgery, radiation and now post cancer maintenance.
When I decided to share my story last year, it was in the hope of drawing attention to women’s health and wellness. Many women wear various hats as they balance family, home and work everyday. Often the lives of our loved ones take precedence over our own wellness and for many of us; there does not seem to be enough time in the day to complete the daily tasks. I was guilty of this and I neglected to do an annual mammogram which is highly recommended to women over the age of 40. I felt fine and therefore there was no need to do an annual check up or to focus intently on any seemingly minor issues. The stress of everyday life coupled with the Covid pandemic has taken a toll on mind and body in ways which are often incomprehensible. Lurking beneath the seemingly fine exterior of my body, the cells were metamorphosising and brewing a scenario which had not yet manifested on the exterior. I sensed that something was not right and I went to the doctor. The bottom line is that with illnesses such as cancer, each of us must be the best advocate for our health. If you feel that something is not normal, have it checked out. Early detection means early action and in the face of the demon that is cancer…time is of the essence.
In January 2021 while on a trip to Miami, I learned that I had breast cancer after receiving the results of a lumpectomy I had done in Haïti. Initially, there were no real signs that the node was cancerous. I also had not exhibited any of the typical symptoms often experienced by breast cancer patients such as pain in the breast, discoloration of the skin, depigmentation or dimpling. I could definitely see the lump which had grown under my breast, but it was never painful. The one big indicator which I distinctly felt in the two months prior to my diagnosis was excessive fatigue which was an effect of my swollen lymph nodes in my armpit. Typically, I have boundless energy and spend long, full and active days working on projects. I suddenly found myself noticeably drained by 4pm which was atypical for me.
I was initially diagnosed with stage 2 cancer and the parameters all seemed very favorable for a pretty routine cancer treatment. However, things changed quite rapidly for me after that initial diagnosis. I immediately sought treatment in the USA as I was visiting my family. I was very lucky to find an appointment with a well known oncologist at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Cancer center. I had very little in hand except a copy of the Immunohistochemistry report. I had the mammogram I had done in Haïti sent to me, but nothing was accepted by UM and so began a slew of tests, radiology scans and blood work. It took about two months to get a full dossier of my health for the oncology team to analyze my results and provide me with a concise plan of action.
My oncologist surgeon called me to cancel the surgery one week prior to the date which had originally been set for a lumpectomy to remove the remaining cancerous areas. I was told that the cancer had ramped up speed and my prognosis changed quite drastically. I received the news that the cancer had spread to most of my lymph nodes, my breast cavity and lung as seen by my latest PET scan and MRI. I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in a matter of two months from my initial diagnosis. The focus shifted to chemotherapy to try to stop the growth of the rapidly spreading cancer cells. It was devastating news for me and I felt it in the pit of my stomach. I could hardly fathom how fast things were transforming in my body. I truly was in the fight of my life and I knew that it would require all of my dedication and strength to overcome this situation.
When you have cancer, you quickly realize that you are not in control of your health or your future. I have experienced the importance of finding your inner strength and finding support with the love of family and friends. Positivity plays an immense role in dealing each day with the rigors of chemotherapy, radiation and the invasive treatments. The kind support of your close community can make your journey a great deal more manageable. Faith played a great role for me in my cancer journey. I am a Catholic but have always found myself to be a spiritual person finding happiness, peace and harmony in nature and in my faith. I can attest that in my deepest moments of uncertainty, prayer and my personal relationship with God the great architect has helped me get through my most difficult times.
Sometimes people choose to hide their illness and just go silent and disappear from sight as they deal with their sickness. This is obviously a personal choice, but I think that there is so much positive healing which can be found through prayer and the kind support of others collectively joining together to manifest healing and strength to overcome cancer. I was so lucky to be held in daily prayers and good wishes from so many. I am forever thankful to my family and friends for the messages of support, the flowers, gifts and the expressions of genuine love which I received. I truly can say that this accounted for a big part of my successful journey through my year of battling cancer. A heartfelt thank you to everyone for this…you lifted me up and made me fight hard everyday for a win!!
I realized as I stepped into my first seance of chemotherapy that this 6 month period would be a true test of my mettle. I had no health insurance so one way of reducing costs was by opting to do the chemotherapy intravenously instead of having a port surgically installed into the body to channel the drugs via infusion. In retrospect, I would encourage anyone embarking on this process to opt for the installation of a port if your budget permits. The reason for this recommendation is that as the chemotherapy sessions progress, the once healthy veins become brittle and severely affected by the chemical process and they are likely to explode. Not only do you have an intravenous needle inserted into your veins for chemo, but you must also consistently do blood work to ensure that your blood levels can support the treatment. This means that the more veins that are burst, the fewer are the options for chemotherapy. Finding a good vein to work with became my Achilles heel in the process. My arms were black and blue throughout the months of chemotherapy. I developed a condition in my veins which made small balls under the skin. To this day, my arms still exhibit tell-tale signs of past infusions.The pain afterwards was inexplicable and strength and use of my arms and hands were so severely impaired. I could not grasp objects as my hands and fingers were often swollen. The simple action of opening a bottle or jar and using a knife and writing was hindered. With time these effects would subside, but I still have some limitations with my hands.
Needless to say that my ability to cook and prepare food was impacted. Simple food prep became almost impossible as I could not apply pressure on my hands to cut onions or hard vegetables. I have learned to appreciate days when things are “normal” compared with that time last year when pain was a part of my daily experience. Something I tuned into was how perspectives can influence your life. I found that focusing on something positive everyday, made my experience better. I knew that I could not change my health situation without doing the chemotherapy and that there were known side effects which I would experience throughout the process. I realized early on that for me to be able to make it through that I would have to shift my focus and thoughts on things that could bring me an outlet of happiness instead of focusing on negativity. I found reasons to get out of bed and function with a smile everyday. It was my personal choice to do this and it worked incredibly well for me. On days when my hands were less swollen I sewed and quilted. It was an extremely prolific quilting time for me. I honed in on this beloved craft and pursued projects making quilts for my children and graduation presents for my nieces. I missed my daughter’s high school graduation and could not accompany her to help her move into Cornell University. Although it was sad to not be able to attend these special occasions, I had to focus on my wellness and getting through cancer. The whole objective was that the sacrifices made were so that in the end I could enjoy future blessings with my family. Fortunately my loved ones all understood that this was the best thing to do.
This is what I call putting things into perspective. It’s about being able to weigh the current situation and hardship with an alternative view. I refused to be weighed down by cancer and it’s negative effects. I chose each day to fight hard and look forward to better time to come upon completion of my treatment. I never got angry or defeated by my health. Why did I get cancer? What did I do to deserve this? I have no answers for this, I just had it and had to deal with it, full stop. I was not blaming anyone including myself for this situation. It was my reality and I was going to fight it with all of my being. Some days were harder than others but my motto was “ the Sun will come out tomorrow”. I will never forget one of my worst days when I was too weak to get out of bed. I lay there feeling sick to my stomach and exhausted. I looked out of my window and it was a grey rainy day. I muttered to myself, “ so this is what it feels like to be dying”. I could feel my cells shriveling up and my energy being sapped from my body. I never wanted to feel this feeling again and made sure that I got out of bed the next day. I did not want to wallow in negativity or sadness and I realized that I could easily feel defeated if I let myself fall down that rabbit hole of darkness. I decided to make a little garden and focused my energies on planting herbs and flowers which brought me joy to sow and reap.
Feeling sadness during cancer is something which is inevitable. My body was battling to survive and the effects of the chemo drugs were harsh both physically and to my mental health. Although these poisonous drugs were helping me to defeat cancer, they were also killing my healthy cells. Since the drugs cannot differentiate and separate the cells, they systematically kill everything in the targeted area. This is why cancer patients struggle with extreme fatigue, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, bruising, stomach and digestive issues and become severely immunocompromised. Having cancer during Covid caused a more heightened stress as any cancer patient was immediately in a high risk category. I had to be extremely careful not to get Covid and as such limited my visitors and my outings so as to mitigate the risk of contracting Covid or any sickness. Even a cold during this time could land me in the emergency room. One of the saddest things was that I would have appreciated having someone with me for doctor’s visits and procedures but due to strict COVID restrictions, no one could accompany me to any consultations or procedures. It was a scary time of worrying whether I had asked all of the right questions or heard things correctly from my doctors. It is also a good thing to have a second pair of ears and eyes with you for important consultations. I was unable to do this, so I had to become stronger and independent through my organization. I had to make lots of notes and after each procedure or test came home and wrote journal notes to account for everything. I filed everything and took the time to organize all of my health information and receipts.
My family took extreme precautions to not come close to me if anyone was sick or had been exposed to anything that could be life threatening to me. They fully understood the delicate situation which I was going through. During this time I could not travel home and had to spend a full year away to receive treatment. It was difficult and a sacrifice for my family and myself, but it was necessary to get through this process.
Chemotherapy was an extremely painful process which got more difficult each time. I was extremely lucky that there had been an immediate impact on my tumors which could be felt after the first round. Knowing this encouraged me to push through to the end despite the difficulties I faced with the infusions.
The necessity of working with a viable vein is primordial as any leakage of the poison chemicals into the bloodstream during the infusion by exploding veins could mean an emergency room scenario. Every session I endured the most painful process of trying to find a “good vein”. There were countless moments of frustration both on my part and on the part of my amazing nurses in the chemotherapy center. Each time we vowed together to make it work and despite the aggravation and tears which were often shed during these most trying times, I made it through every single session successfully, even though on a couple of occasions the nurse team came close to calling it off. God never gives us more than we can bear. I dug deep into my soul and clenched my fist and said each time…”mind over matter; you can do this!” and I did. Thankfully after I concluded this portion of my treatment plan, the PET scan revealed that the invasive procedure had worked well in containing the spread and shrinking the tumors. This is exactly what I was hoping for and was ecstatic that I could now move onto the second phase of my treatment…Surgery/ mastectomy.
In closing, I will stress on the importance of a good diet during cancer treatment. As your body is depleted, you need a healthy diet to support your body and to give you the strength needed to handle cancer treatments. I chose to eliminate sugar from my diet as cancer is attracted to sugars. Although my doctors never told me outright that I had to do this, I knew that a sugar solution is injected into your bloodstream prior to a PET scan which will attach to any cancerous cells and illuminate during the scan. I decided to exclude sugary foods from my diet to reduce the proliferation of cancerous cells. I adopted a healthy diet of lots of organic fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and cereals. I reduced my consumption of meat and dairy and moved to a plant based diet. I was also very conscious of my fat, salt, alcohol and sugar intake. I had to eliminate raw foods like sushi and raw seafoods and had to be very aware of cross contamination of foods due to my susceptibility to low platelets. I had to ensure that my fruit was cleaned properly and chose to peel fruit and vegetables cleaning them carefully before consuming. The diet of a cancer patient is an important part of the journey and should not be neglected.
As I celebrate my birthday today and another rotation around the sun, I can look back to a year ago when I was in a different stage of my life and feel a depth of gratitude. I am blessed to be living a healthy life and am doing everything that I can to remain cancer free. I never take my health for granted and I know that it is a gift. I am grateful to everyone who supported me this past year. Thank you for all being the wind beneath my wings, for helping me to fly high and for helping me to find purpose in my cancer journey. I am ecstatic to be celebrating another milestone in my life with grace.
May God bless you all and Happy Easter to you and yours.