By: Nafeeza Yahya
Tessa Johnson-Rose stared blankly across the room, her recently shaved head glistened in the light as the camera flashes, her eyes welled up with tears as she recalled the moment she was told she had cancer.
“I was thirty-one, never had a child nor was I ever pregnant, I was married for about four years. Imagine having a diagnosis like that. The doctor is telling you that you have Breast cancer and they are advising me not to get pregnant – It was devastating. Just hearing the word ‘cancer’ sent chills down my spine, what made it worse was they told us that there was nothing they could do, I was in Stage 2. I was told I have to seek medical attention overseas”, she recalled.
Tessa’s story started in 1997 some twenty years ago, when her ex-husband noticed a lump in one of her breasts and brought it to her attention. She thought nothing of it and felt it would go away. Almost a year and a half later in December 1998, she decided to visit the New Amsterdam hospital where a doctor told her she needed to undergo a lumpectomy.
“I was worried because when you hear about cancer all you knew then was death, there was this stigma attached at that time that made you felt you were cursed and will face certain death.”
Immediately following surgery she was released and informed that the lump was a non-cancerous fibroadenoma. However, Tessa was forced to return to a private hospital in March as the incision was not healing. A second surgery was done and samples were collected for testing overseas.
She and her husband then returned to the hospital in May to discuss the results with the doctor. Tessa was far from prepared for the doctor’s prognosis. “The Doctor told me …. ‘You have been diagnosed with breast cancer, I’m sorry’. I suddenly felt weak like I was going to faint, I became numb, but refused to believe this would be the end of my life,” Tessa recounted.
Tessa was referred to an Oncologist in Trinidad, Dr William Dhanessar since she required urgent treatment which was not available in Guyana. She needed to provide US$5,000 for surgery and treatment in addition to her airfare and accommodation.
Following several unsuccessful attempts to raise the funds and with her condition worsening Tessa accumulated just US$2,500 and determinedly left for Trinidad.
“I was determined because I was young and wanted to live, reality was starting to step in and I was eager and anxious I just wanted to get better. I went to the doctor and after examining me the first thing he said was “Are you ok? Are you prepared?” Then he said, “I cannot even do tests on you, I have to go straight in surgery and correct what the doctors did to you in Guyana”
It was the fourth time in less than a year Tessa had to undergo surgery. Because of her determination and courage, Dr Dhanessar accepted only US$2,000 from Tessa after learning that she did not have sufficient funds.
Tessa’s journey of overcoming cancer did not stop there. She was told she could not have children of her own and if, by some miracle, she did they would not be normal because of the treatment she had received.
Against the most daunting odds, Tessa persevered and became a mother. Coming off treatment, suffering complications due to a ruptured uterus, suturing the uterus and spending 5 months hospitalised, suspended with her legs up and head down to allow the fetus to settle, before giving birth to a healthy baby boy, at the full gestational period. Remarkably she delivered another son not long after. These two miracles became her “reason, determination and purpose” to live.
Tessa was lucky because she was made aware of the cancerous cells in her breast and received treatment early. Had she not been attentive and left it untreated she may not have been here today as a role model and voice in the fight for cancer awareness.
Similar to Tessa, sisters Rajmattee Jhinkoo, 56, and Rajpattie Sheocharran, 62, of Tain Settlement and Miss Phoebe, Port Mourant, know the trepidation of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Ramjattie related after falling ill in 2004, she discovered a lump in her breast. Following subsequent visits to doctors and undergoing a biopsy, it was discovered that she had breast cancer. A surgery was performed to remove the lump followed by a mastectomy.
Her sister received her own grim prognosis just three months after. However, Rajpattie was much further along in her illness forcing her to undergo chemotherapy. Today, both are cancer free and advise other women to more cognizant of their bodies and have regular check-ups.
Hazel LaRose, 75, is currently in remission having battled throat cancer in 2015 and won. ‘Aunty Lorna’ as she is popularly known, is a mother of six residing at David Street, Rose Hall Town. A vendor for over fifty years, baking and selling pastries and snacks in surrounding communities; Hazel was able to acquire a permanent stall where she plied her trade before taking ill.
“I was very sick, unable to do anything for myself – when I had my first radiation treatment I thought it was going to be a hard procedure but I was surprised it was so comfortable and easy. After six cycles of radiation, I went on to chemotherapy… that was challenging but I was determined. My family and I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I wasn’t looking well to the point where I didn’t want to see myself. I asked my caregiver to the cover the mirrors, I was so frail and had suicidal thoughts. But after some time, I started to feel a little better and I told myself I will get over this”.
Today, ‘Aunty Lorna’ is taking life one day at a time enjoying it with her children and grandchildren. Her counsel to persons living with cancer is to overcome their fears of early detection and follow-up treatment as cancer is no longer a death sentence.
The World Health Organization (WHO) lists cancer as the second leading cause of deaths worldwide, being responsible for 8.8 million deaths in 2015; which translated to cancer accounting for 1 in every 6 deaths with 70 per cent of those coming from poor or middle-income countries like Guyana.
There is a need for more awareness and early detection signs since there is a projected global increase of 14 to 21 million new cases and 13 million deaths by 2030, the majority of which are expected to come from poor or middle-income countries.
PAHO/WHO Guyana Representative Dr William Adu-Krow, in 2015, at the launch of the 10-year Cancer Profile, called for more attention to be placed on preventative measures since, according to him, 40 per cent of cancers can be prevented while 30 per cent can be cured, if detected early and treated appropriately.
Tessa and her sisters in arms are calling for an open discussion on the subject still considered taboo in some sections of society.