WHEN 52-year-old Jane Doe first felt a lump, although she was advised by her workmate that it might just be her ‘end-of-the-month cycle’ doing its duty, she knew to herself that it was more serious and that she had to move right away…
Jane’s mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer some 28 years ago, and so for her the possibility of being placed in a similar spot was far from imaginary.
Born in the mining community of Bartica in Region 7 (Cuyuni-Mazaruni), Jane vaguely recalled her childhood there, but remembered that she had moved to Georgetown with her mother at the tender age of six. Jane’s mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer in her 50s. Jane never lived in fear of the disease, since she was unaware that it could affect her. She however said it was customary for her to check herself to see if there were any strange developments in any of her breasts.
“2011, in June month, I believe it [was] like the 28th of June, I was right here at the work place and…as customary, checking the breast, because my mother is a survivor for 28 years; so, as customary, I check it and I feel the lump,” Jane said.
She recalled that although she was concerned about the lump, she first sought the advice of her co-worker. Jane works at a senior citizens’ home in the heart of the capital city.
“Anyway, I go and tell a workmate and she said don’t worry, sometimes it’s just nothing, because you know there are different changes in your body at month end.”
Jane took the advice of her workmate, but was once again alarmed by the presence of the lump almost two weeks later.
It was at this point that she realised her best option was to seek professional help. “I didn’t tell nobody, I said it’s time for me to get up and move, because I know my mother have it.”
After placing a phone call to her 30-year-old son, she said that they sought the advice of a doctor at the Woodlands Hospital in Carmichael St, Georgetown.
Jane said that after the doctor had examined her and had conducted a needle biopsy — a nonsurgical procedure for determining whether a lump is cancerous — “he said it’s cancerous!”
Jane knew that her life had been changed in a split-second, and she couldn’t hold back the tears. She immediately summed up her courage and asked the doctor what the next step would be.
Jane was determined not to let the disease keep her back. She was lucky to have taken action while her cancer was at stage 2. Jane said her doctor told her surgery would be the next step.
During an interview, Jane burst into tears as she reflected on how she felt when she first got the news that she had breast cancer. “I was mad!” she said, as tears rushed down her face. “I was so upset because I said Why me?!” Jane recalled gaining strength from her son, who gave her continued assurance that she was going to live.
Jane said that although her son remained emotionally strong in her presence, “he used to be crying with his friends [while] telling this story.”
Jane did not hesitate in getting time off from her job. With the support of her son and husband of 20 years, she was put under the knife the very next day of her diagnosis. In secrecy, Jane went into the surgical theatre after speaking with her mother that morning, not informing her of what was about to happen.
“I didn’t even tell my mother, because I know that if I tell her she would break down, because she knows what it is, she passed through it.” Jane gave instructions to her son to not let his grandmother know what was happening, in fear of what the worrisome news would bring to her health. Jane’s mother, now 82 years old, found out about the surgery after Jane had awoken and had requested the presence of her mother.
“…the day that I was to come out of the hospital, he [Jane’s son] go and bring her (Jane’s mother), and when he bring her, he tell her.” During the drive down from the East Coast of Demerara, Jane’s son broke the news to his grandmother that her daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. Jane’s mother could not bear the thought of her daughter being in the position that she was in for 28 years.
“When she came, she said, ‘Man, why is it you didn’t tell me?” Jane said, as she recalled her mother questioning her. Jane told her mother she had preferred to be alone because she also could not bear the thought of seeing her mother grieve.
Jane said her other family members were kept in the dark on what was happening. “About a week or so after I did my surgery, then my sister [found out]…. I didn’t want to disturb anybody.” Jane was saddened that her mother was putting the numbers together at the time, and realised that they had spoken over the phone the very day she had gone into surgery.
“I called her when I was going into the theatre and I say, ‘Mom, don’t expect another call from me until tomorrow, because you know today is Friday and I would be very busy’.” “She said, ‘Yes’, and I said, ‘Okay then, bye-bye’, and that was it. And they rolled me into the theatre and I did what I had to do.”
Jane’s mother accepted it. At the senior citizens’ home where Jane works, she normally purchases goods on Friday for the residents and staff of the home, and Jane’s mother was well aware of this routine.
While entering the theatre, Jane recalled being gripped by a sudden onset of doubt and fear. She said she began praying that, by the grace of God, her operation would be successful. Jane’s operation was in fact successful, as she was discharged three days later. She was not in the best of health however, but returned to work in December of 2011.
Jane received chemotherapy treatment at the Georgetown Public Hospital, but the effects of the treatment were more visible than she had hoped.
“When I take the chemotherapy, I used to be so sick. The chemotherapy make me start wear the wig,” Jane said as spoke of her hair falling out during treatment.
A woman whose character is as strong as her faith, Jane’s greatest fear was to be pitied and persecuted for her condition. She spoke of Guyana as a society in which the wider population would number the days left for someone diagnosed with breast or any other form of cancer.
Asked why she held her condition a secret, Jane said: “The reason for me not telling people is because some people are too negative. Because they tell themselves that as soon as they hear somebody diagnosed with cancer, well, they dead already! So I didn’t want nobody to break the spirit I had, because I tell myself [that] if my mother could make it, then what happen to me? I could do the same thing.”
Jane was comforted that with the advancements in medical technology, her chances proved better and better. This was not the same for Jane’s colleague, who was also a survivor. “I had a friend, we took the surgery same time, but she died last year June.” Jane’s fellow survivor had already reached stage 5 in her cancer when she decided to go under the knife.
Asked whether it was because her friend had waited too long, Jane said: “She didn’t know; the thing is ‘a silent killer!” Jane recalled that when her friend visited her doctor, she was informed that the cancer had spread rapidly, but she took the risk anyway.
Jane has fortunately returned to her everyday routine, and has a message for women: “I would like to say to any woman out there to make sure, because every day on the television they tell you [that] as soon as you find there is a lump there, move! A lump is not the only sign. Check yourself, because there is hope!”
Jane Doe is currently undergoing treatment and continuous check-ups at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation. She has never missed a check-up, and has an appointment every three months. With a shimmer of pride in her eyes, Jane said: “I am a survivor, and I am proud to be a survivor!”
This story is an account of the experience of one breast cancer survivor in Guyana who was brave enough to tell her story. However, in fear of being persecuted by a culture that is not alien to such, she prefers to withhold her identity. For the sake of this piece, she was renamed Jane Doe.
Written by Derwayne Wills, it was first published in the Guyana Chronicle on November 9, 2014.