Cayman’s breast cancer survivors find strength in community

Cayman abounds with idyllic locations to meditate and connect with the moment: the beach at sunset, the reef teeming with fish.

The Chemotherapy Unit at Cayman Islands Hospital isn’t one of those spots. But Janette Fitzgerald, chief administrator of the Breast Cancer Foundation, wants to help women and men find peace, even when they are sitting in the chemotherapy chair or facing any number of the anxieties that come with treatment.

Read more from this series:
Restoring a sense of self with reconstructive surgery
Breast cancer survivor’s story: Angella Scarlett
Breast cancer survivor’s story: Tori Croft

“I think you’d have to see somebody in that chemotherapy chair, especially those first few times. There’s shaking. They’re scared, sweating. It’s horrendous,” Fitzgerald said.

“It’s the same in bed at night. … You put your head on the pillow and there’s no other noise. All you can think about is your own life, your own mortality, what you’re going through, how it’s going to turn out. Your brain doesn’t know to switch off.”

The chemotherapy unit is where Fitzgerald first met Angella Scarlett and many others affected by breast cancer in Grand Cayman.

It was Scarlett’s first time learning about the foundation’s wellness programme, where patients and families can connect with free support services, therapeutic treatments and groups that teach yoga, meditation and mindfulness.

Breast cancer survivor Angella Scarlett – Photo: Stephen Clarke

As breast cancer resources have grown in the Cayman Islands, so has a call to awareness – for women to understand, discuss and trust their bodies.

The community structure created through the Breast Cancer Foundation’s programmes has allowed survivors to connect and ease their stress.

While Scarlett had always been proactive in educating herself about breast cancer, once it came knocking on her door, she discovered there was still much more to learn. Chemotherapy, for example, wasn’t as easy as she had expected. But she was determined to nourish her body mentally and physically.

Massages organised through the foundation helped with the physical pain, and manicures and pedicures helped with nail damage. But for the emotional aspect, support groups offered a necessary outlet.

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“[The programmes are] nice for us and very fulfilling because when you’re thinking that you’re alone or ‘What’s going on with me?’, when you attend these meetings, you get to see that somebody else is going through the same thing and you can compare notes,” Scarlett said.

Art therapy

Weekly art classes with survivor Pamela Laurenson are just one opportunity for women to relax and open up.

During her own journey with breast cancer, Laurenson found comfort in painting and the therapeutic value of art.

“Through art you can learn a lot about how to cope with these emotional feelings. Sometimes it can be kind of challenging if you’ve never painted,” Laurenson said, taking a break one night from teaching at the foundation office in Grand Harbour.

Through treatments and doctors’ appointments, patients can feel a great deal of anxiety and self-doubt. Art can provide an avenue to start trusting their instincts.

“You have to let things just flow and that’s the beauty of being part of this little art therapy group,” she said.

“The women take away that they have this safe place that they’re not being judged by their lack of experience or their lack of knowledge. … they’ve taken all of this patience and understanding of the whole art scene – what it’s like taking the brush, mixing the colours – and just seeing how their effort can evolve into something beautiful.”

Breast cancer survivors create art during a weekly class at the Breast Cancer Foundation. – Photo: Alvaro Serey

Cold caps

Survivor Tori Croft attends the classes when she can. She had been hesitant to walk through the Breast Cancer Foundation’s office doors. But another survivor reached out and encouraged her to connect with them.

Croft was the first breast cancer patient on island to receive cold cap treatments, facilitated by the foundation. The cold caps – resembling helmets and filled with a sub-freezing gel – can be painful, but they help patients keep their hair through chemotherapy.

Breast cancer survivor Tori Croft

“Last week I went to Health City to pick up some medication … There was another woman getting capped and to see her getting capped picked me up a little bit,” Croft said.

While Croft’s journey with cancer has been bumpy, talking about it and connecting with others sharing common experiences has helped her through the process. Attending Laurenson’s class has provided an outlet to discuss difficult subjects.

“I am a horrible artist, but it was still a chance for us all to get into a room and talk kind of casually and we learn things from each other,” Croft said.

During one class, for example, another survivor asked about the sleeve Croft wears on her arm. The sleeve helps her control the effects of lymphedema, a build-up of fluids that can result from lymph-node removal during cancer treatment.

“I was able to tell them that. That makes you feel better. It lifts you up that you helped a fellow survivor in that moment,” Croft said.

New technology

In the future, Fitzgerald of the Breast Cancer Foundation hopes a sentinel node detector will help women avoid unnecessary removal of lymph nodes.

“This will be purchased by [the foundation] for [Cayman Islands] Hospital at the cost of around CI$52K once the arrangement to bring in the radioactive material has been signed by [the] hospital,” Fitzgerald said.

Janette Fitzgerald of the Breast Cancer Foundation has helped connect survivors and their families with resources, support and community.

The addition of the technology on island will prevent unnecessary suffering from conditions like lymphedema in breast cancer patients by allowing doctors to target affected lymph nodes with greater accuracy.

The goal is an indication of the way breast cancer services have progressed in Cayman in

recent years and how greater availability of technologies on island is slowly reducing the need for women to travel abroad for treatment.

When Croft first battled cancer in 1995, the services available to her were far different.

“If I compare 1995 with 2015, as a teenager, there were zero resources around for me to speak to or if there were resources, they weren’t very well put in my face,” she said.

“With all of my experience with breast cancer, the Breast Cancer Foundation has been night and day, in all of the things they think of to say or offer. It’s just a little bit that gets you through your day.”

The connectivity and community available in Cayman today have helped make the experience a little less painful.

In the face of daunting news and uncertainty, Scarlett encourages patients to stay informed and listen to their bodies.

“If you’re a newbie to this, it’s going to change your life. But it could be for the better,” Scarlett said.

“Your whole attitude toward it is very instrumental. You can’t be down in the dumps every day as a result of this disease. You have to find something to motivate you, to keep you strong, so you can navigate whatever hurdles are coming your way.”