Minister of Public Health, Volda Lawrence calls herself a “cancer warrior” because she believes she has fought for her life and for the opportunity to live another day to inspire others.
Minister Lawrence was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer in January 2017. This diagnosis came at a time when she was settling into a new appointment, as a senior Public Health Minister.
Partaking in a routine annual feature, the Minister took a pathology test for breast cancer cells; the results of which returned negative for estrogen receptors (ER-), progesterone receptors (PR-), and HER2 (HER2-). Testing negative for all three means the cancer is triple-negative. That is, the growth of the cancer is not supported by the hormones, estrogen and progesterone, nor by the presence of too many HER2 receptors.
Triple-negative results account for About 10-20 per cent of all breast cancers.
Ever since that diagnosis, Minister Lawrence has submitted herself to the many changes that came with her new health status. She shared her story, as a Cancer Warrior instead of a survivor with DPI.
The public servant has fought to be an inspiration and a pillar of strength to others, often at their low point, after confirming their status of cancer.
“Survivor has its own meaning, its own connotations. I believe that anyone who would have been able to beat cancer, would have had to war (fight) for it. You can’t just sit down and believe you are going to survive.” Minister Lawrence said.
First reaction to diagnosis
Minister Lawrence’s diagnosis of breast cancer came as a surprise since there was no history of cancer in her genealogy. She questioned the doctors as to how she could have missed this and then realised that the usual mammography examination wasn’t enough.
“In most cases, persons with the type of breasts that I have should do an ultrasound as a backup.”
As she moved forward, preparing to bravely take on the battle against breast cancer, Minister Lawrence decided to be her own source of encouragement and relied heavily on her faith, in God, which kept her positive.
“I sought God and one may say why would you do that? You are told that you have something that could kill you, how could you do that?… I sought God because I knew He is the author and finisher of my faith so I thought if this is what He is going to give to me it has to be for some reason.”
While many would regard telling friends and family as a means of having support, Minister Lawrence did the opposite.
“I spoke to many of my relatives and friends, but not all of them. I carefully selected those who I wanted to speak to at that time and the persons who I chose also had strong faith. Believers, who I knew would not pity me and wouldn’t treat me like an egg,” she said laughingly.
Cancer Warrior: Game plan
After diagnosis, Minister Lawrence took some time out and engaged in soul-searching and rediscovering herself, but she also found herself questioning God about her situation. However, being a woman of strength, she quickly bounced back, recognising that she could touch many lives with her testimony in hand.
“I wanted to know, what can I do with this situation, how best can I use whether I have three months, four months or four years or even one hundred years, what is it that Volda Lawrence can use this experience for, how can I touch other persons lives?”
During treatment, “I talked to a lot of persons, I read a lot of books about persons who shared their stories and I realised that they all had their own stories to tell and I had one of my own.” She added.
In her quiet moments, Minister Lawrence began to charter her own course and devised a game plan to deal with her diagnosis of breast cancer; something she never imagined would affect her.
“I did make some changes, but I didn’t have too much change to make because many years ago I started to take stock of my lifestyle, I started looking at my eating habits I started exercising and all of that. Two things I said to myself,” She added, “one, I will do what the doctor says; I will eat and drink whatever the doctor says to and two, I will not bother with all these things that people will tell you.”
Even as she followed her doctor’s orders, she remembered her commitment to her country, to serve the people of Guyana. After three surgeries, she would still go to the office and work.
“In 2017 I had three operations and I would still turn out to work; that had my Doctor going crazy, he would call saying tell the Minister to go home, she needs to rest…”
“When you are taking chemotherapy, your fingers tend to get black… Medical people would know this and I have been dealing with a lot of medical people so I would be in a meeting and they would notice my hands. It would always attract someone’s attention and all I would do is smile inside.”
Triple-negative breast cancers respond better to chemotherapy than breast cancers that are hormone-receptor-positive. This meant Minister Lawrence spent adequate amounts of time in the office even as she was recovering.
“I had my chemotherapy, and I would come to work in the morning, leave at midday go and have my chemo at home then I’ll get up in the afternoon and either come back to work or go and do something, once I got a good rest I was good to go again.”
During the radiation treatment phase, the Minister made lots of new friends all who related to her fight against cancer. This gave the non-medical professional who had just been appointed a public health minister, better insight into how she could represent women and health issues.
“I met persons from all walks of life, I met persons young, old, in between, I met persons who had family support and persons who had no family support, I met persons who were on their third round, having gone into remission… so I made a lot of friends.”
Thankful for life
From the time of her diagnosis, throughout recovery and to date, Minister Lawrence has received spiritual upliftment from those at her church who pray for her continually.
“A lot of strength came from those church elders, my mother…” This is where her confidence to move on grew. She says now that, “every morning I wake up is just a privilege.”
Minister Lawrence has taken the firm stance to advocate for women to know their status relating to cancers and seek urgent treatment once they have tested positive. She said it is better to know than to be unaware of important life-threatening diseases like these.
“Once you know, you can have corrective treatment. If you don’t know you’ll continue to go down that hole and your health will deteriorate, it may cost you more and you will be more of a burden to your family because you are sick all of the time.
As the Public Health Minister, Volda Lawrence desires to see women of all ages have access to screening services for cancer, free of charge and once they receive a positive diagnosis move on to government-funded treatment which will give them hope as this year’s cancer awareness theme suggests. (DPI)