FAYOLA K J FRASER
According to a study published by the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care (2021), Breast Carcinoma is “the leading cause of cancer among females in Trinidad & Tobago”, and T&T has the second highest breast cancer mortality rate in the Caribbean.
Today marks the beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is a month dedicated to education about and advocacy for breast cancer, with a special focus on the importance of early detection, and access to timely, high-quality care.
During this month, it is an opportune time for women to visit a healthcare provider to do their annual breast health screening.
Breast examinations and mammograms are critical for early detection of breast cancer, as when it is detected early and is in the localised stage, the five-year relative survival rate is 99 per cent.
Lizan Benjamin Reid is an incredible woman, who went through the journey of dealing with her diagnosis of breast cancer, beginning with early detection, supported by her doctors, family, and friends, and powered by her faith.
In July 2012, residing in Barbados at the time, Reid began feeling a lump in the lower left side of her left breast. Having been well informed about self-breast examinations, as her company had experts teaching staff about breast health during breast cancer awareness month, she was in the habit of regularly examining herself.
The lump was sensitive to touch, and she went to the doctor the following month to get herself checked. After performing a biopsy, the doctor called Reid into his office one week later to let her know there were cancerous cells found in the breast tissue. The cancer was in stage one and had not migrated elsewhere, and the doctor suggested that the best course of action would be almost immediate breast removal surgery.
As a 36-year-old at the time, the idea of removing one of her breasts seemed daunting and devastating to Reid, but her doctor reassured her that the surgery had significantly advanced, and there would be an opportunity for breast reconstruction. Remembering those tenuous days and moments following her diagnosis, Reid describes the way her family and friends rallied around her, with one of her closest friends flying to Barbados for the weekend to be at her side.
Her doctor suggested she undergo the surgery at home with the support of her family and referred her to Dr Rajen Rampaul, Surgical Oncologist, Oncoplastic and Reconstructive Breast Surgeon and Medical Director of the Pink Hibiscus in Trinidad, and the first diagnostic breast health centre to founded in the Caribbean in 2012.
Reid was comforted by the expertise of Rampaul, especially as he was able to remove the breast without causing undue scarring and perform the reconstruction at the same time. Fortunately, the surgery was successful in removing the cancerous cells, and Reid returned to Barbados three weeks later. She underwent chemotherapy for four months and subsequently took chemotherapy drug treatment for five years.
“My goddaughter, she needed her aunty to stick around,” Reid muses when asked how she stayed resolute during the battle with cancer. “That experience taught me that I had so many people who loved me that I needed to fight cancer for them.” Describing her mental state, she does not discount the many worries and concerns she had aside from survival, such as never getting married, having children, and having permanent scarring, but instead believes it was an opportunity for her to draw closer to God and be stronger in her faith.
She saw God’s hand in everything and became grateful for even the seemingly smallest moments. For example, when she chose to cut off her locks, as chemotherapy would cause hair loss, she received so much love and positivity from her dear goddaughter on her new look, and her co-worker even knitted her a head cap to keep her head warm in the office. It was these small moments of support and reinforcement that kept her going through the toughest times.
“I trusted my doctors to do their thing, and I trusted God to take care of the rest,” she says, “and I never claimed the cancer as mine.” Even now, Reid does not consider herself a survivor but sees breast cancer as a diagnosis she received and a journey she went through. “That phase is done,” she says. She also does not use the term “remission” as she has fully come through it to the other side. Reid now faithfully does her mammogram yearly, and encourages all women, regardless of their age and health conditions to do the same.
She did not have any family history or genetic indication of breast cancer, as none of the women in her family had it and was dedicated to an exercise and relatively healthy routine when she was diagnosed, meaning that it can happen to anyone. “If anything feels strange, don’t put it off,” she says, because ultimately if something is wrong, the early detection can quite literally save your life.
Drawing on the strength of her faith during her experience, she “never stopped smiling, never stopped living”.
During October, raising awareness for breast cancer and promoting its early detection is crucial.