Surviving breast cancer

 It is something you think always happens to someone else. Then suddenly it happens to you and the world changes. What Paula Macartney remembers about being told she had breast cancer is the shock and fear. “Other than death, the death of either yourself or a loved one , I don’t think there is much out there that stops you in your tracks quite as effectively as a doctor telling you that you have cancer.”

She describes the experience as literally taking her breath away.  Then came the shock, fear, disbelief, and an “overwhelming feeling of being totally alone….and did I mention the fear?”

Paula’s cancer was discovered in May 2008 and from the initial diagnosis which, shockingly, was delivered by email, in the space of two to three weeks she had to deal with the emotional issues surrounding her diagnosis and make a decision on having a double mastectomy.  “At the same exact time you don’t think you can breathe from the fear, you have to deal with the physical side such as what further diagnostic tests might I need?”

It does not stop there. There are considerations like finding the best doctor the best facility and   the best course of treatment.

Added to that can be financial worries of whether health   insurance will cover treatment and whether an   employer is going to be flexible in allowing time off.

Another difficult aspect for cancer patients in Cayman is that many are referred or choose to go off island for treatment.

It can be a lonely experience for some when they do not have the support of family and friends popping in to see them. Penny Williams, another breast cancer survivor, admits to feeling very homesick and lonely during this time and she looked forward to visits from   friends flying over to see her at weekends.

Both Macartney and Williams believe that  the emotional impact of being told you have  breast cancer is huge and  how you approach your diagnosis psychologically is vital. Macartney goes as far as to say that “how you survive this disease is 98%mental and 2%physical. Doctors can address the physical nature of this disease but how you heal and survive is up to you.” Williams recalls making a conscious decision that the cancer was not going to beat her. “I was determined to fight as hard as I could, and win through. Physically I pushed myself every single day, and I guess it became my coping mechanism to deal with the tough emotional stuff involved with this disease.” Penny’s determination saw her back at work less than a week after her surgery in Miami.

For both women having cancer has changed the way they view life. Pauline says that before her diagnosis she might have had too many expectations of life and people around her whereas now she tries to just “enjoy experiences.” She also realises how unique her family and friends are and how much they enrich her life “and I try to return that blessing.” She also says that she does not dwell on the negative.

“I try to deal with negative issues immediately and then put them away – no stewing, no grudges!”

It does seem that both women have gained   something positive out of   their traumatic experience, Wilson does charity walks to raise money for cancer research and is now attempting things   she never dared before,   like throwing herself out of a plane!” Two days before the Cayman Breast Cancer dinner I will be doing a tandem skydive in Tampa, she explains.  “It is something I have wanted to do for years so now I am finally going to take the plunge…. literally!”

Both Paula  and Penny will be attending the Cancer gala  for the first time  and  believe  it’s  important not only  in raising awareness of the issues surrounding cancer in Cayman  but because it can inspire and support everyone who has had a diagnosis  of cancer.  Susan Pereira who has also had breast cancer can vouch for that. She attended the Gala last year and came away filled with fresh hope after hearing the guest speaker, who she says was inspirational. “It was one small statement that was very profound for me when she said. “It’s been 13 years.” At the time I did not need to hear anything else because that one line offered me an immeasurable amount of hope.”

Many of us might not like to think about it but the reality is that either we will get cancer or someone we know will.

Macartney thinks that this is another reason why the gala is so important because it is not just about people who have been diagnosed but the ones in the future who might be diagnosed.  The ways she sees it  “Cancer awareness is not for the diagnosed…..we get it, we got it, we are unfortunately, already hyper-aware!  Cancer awareness is for those who are going to be diagnosed in the future, so they can benefit from ongoing research to assist in finding new procedures, better procedures and treatments to more effectively and more completely cure their particular disease.”

The Future
All these women have learned the hard way about living with the realities of cancer and they want to pass on their experiences to help others, and what they all say is this: yes cancer turns your world upside down; yes it is frightening; yes you can feel so alone, but you can survive it and surviving it can teach you valuable lessons.

Pereira decided not to take life for granted and to try and live in the present she says she realises. “Life and those around you are truly a gift and not something that should be taken for granted. I’ve learned to live life in moments rather than deny life in long term plans.”

Macartney hugs her kids more and stops to smell the roses.  “Nowadays I don’t care if I don’t “get it all done.” She adds  “I take more time for myself.. I listen more.  I am more patient. I exercise and take care of my body more…..and I thank God more.”

For Wilson   it is about getting out there and just doing it.

“My experience taught me that life is incredibly precious and that you should grab it with both hands and live it to the full.”

Breast Cancer Gala dinner
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women today.

The Breast Cancer Gala   Dinner   takes place on17 October at the Ritz Carlton. This is the second year for the Gala Dinner which was originally meant to be a one off event. Because it was so successful and because of the  need for funds to help the work of  Cayman Islands Cancer Society and the Lions Club of Tropical Gardens , Kim Lund and James Bovell of RE/MAX Cayman Islands decided to make it an annual fundraiser.  “Many in the Cayman Islands have been affected by breast cancer and with the event we want to make a difference,” says Bovell.

Funds raised at the gala will provide financial help to breast cancer patients and support long term projects related to breast cancer such as  the Lions Club of Tropical Gardens awareness, prevention and mammogram programme.  One of the main drives this year is also to establish a local cancer registry.

Cancer registries were first introduced in Britain and America during the 50s and have become a crucial tool   in most countries for collecting and analysing data on cancer. Currently Cayman has no register and as Christine Saunders, CEO of the Cayman Islands Cancer Society points out, that means in terms of cancer data there are no hard facts. “People often ask me how much cancer is there here and we can’t answer that question. There is no way of  knowing whether cancer is on the increase; whether people are getting cancer younger or whether some types of cancer are more prevalent.”

One of the reasons for this black hole of knowledge is that many patients go overseas for diagnosis and treatment or are diagnosed here then referred overseas so are not included in local hospital data.

In other countries, over the years, registers have built up a statistical picture of cancers locally which can then be used for research into the reasons for particular cancers and best treatment practises.

The Cayman registry would be a population-based cancer registry to collect information about all cases of cancer in the Cayman Islands    and would be confidential. Saunders explains its importance. “The registry will be able to provide information, which is crucial to cancer control to governmental and non-governmental agencies for the planning and funding of services..”

Gala dinner
The gala dinner is a fund raiser but it is also celebration and a great night out. It is a pink tie evening with  entertainment by Bone Fide Vivendi Cabaret and the Stingrays and, featuring DJ services from One World Ltd.

Among the highlights are the silent and live Auctions with items and experiences donated by businesses around the island.

You can access a complete  list of the goodies on the website,  but below are just  some of the great items  people can bid on

* Painting “WINTER SOLSTICE” Oil on canvas, 84 x 96 ins. 2002

by world famous Caymanian artistBendel Hydes donated by the Banks Family

* A week of winter skiing at the a 2 bedroom residential suite. Beaver Creek Resort Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch Courtesy of the      Tonge Family

* Gold Treasure Coin Pendant with Diamonds courtesy of Kim Lund

* Jewelery from Kirkfreeport

* Breast Cancer Chair designed by Adriana Hoyos from IDG

* Furniture from Absolutly Fabulous

* Spa Voucher from Touch of Thai

* In-Home Wine Tasting for 8 people byBlackbeards

* 1953 edition of ‘The Silent World’ by Jacques Yves Cousteau signed by the author.

* A very early map of the Cayman Islands (Over four hundred years old), published in Venice Italy in 1590 by Tomasso Porcacchi, an Italian Cartographer

As well as the auction item, Chrissie Tomlinson Memorial Hospital will be donating a breast cancer mammogram to every female attending the gala.