Breast Cancer Prepared me for the Covid-19 Pandemic

What if your blessings come through raindrops
What if your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near
What if trials of this life are your mercies in disguise.

~lyrics from “Blessings” by Laura Story

I was listening to this song when it struck me that although every person’s life has been changed by the Coronavirus pandemic, mine had already been changed three years earlier with my breast cancer diagnosis. Being diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness, altered my outlook on what is important, and has influenced decisions I make every day. Being more aware of the brevity of life, I not only look for the good, I also seek out inspiration I can share with others.

I have realized the following:

  1. Choosing to stay home instead of going out to socialize is not difficult when you think of people on the verge of losing their homes because of the loss of their jobs, or the people who don’t have homes at all, or persons in hospital who would love to be in their homes.
  2. As contrary as it may sound, connecting with friends and family via social media or virtual platforms has created a closeness through necessity, and shared experiences. Creativity abounds as people find new ways to connect and celebrate special occasions, perhaps with more people realizing the importance of celebrating in times of darkness.
  3. My love for nature has allowed me to experience awe-inspiring sunrises, sunsets and flora, as I capture many of these moments with my camera and share with others. As was the case while going through chemotherapy, my other form of therapy continues to be photography.
  4. God continues to keep me centered on what is important in life, even as I am unable to attend my church services. Throughout my battle with breast cancer the prayers and support of many including my church family, helped me to not only survive, but also to thrive. Ironically I now worship at more services online, than I was able to physically attend prior to the pandemic.

“Connecting with friends and family via social media or virtual platforms has created a closeness through necessity, and shared experiences.”

There are far worse things than being confined to home, or wearing a mask, or not being able to go to the movies and parties, or having to wash hands regularly or not being able to celebrate physically with friends, or even to attend the funeral of a loved one. This is what I focus on in moments when I am tempted to succumb to self pity…my trials in life being blessings in disguise.

Is This the End of the World?

An extreme optimist is a man who believes that humanity will probably survive even if it doesn’t take his advice. ~ John McCarthy

Over the past few weeks it seems as if the globe is in the middle of an end-of-the-world, apocalyptic type of horror movie. To date there have been over 315,000 confirmed Covid stuffworldwide cases of Covid-19, with almost 15,000 reported deaths. Terms like “Social Distancing”, “Lock Down,” “Quarantine” and “Pandemic” have become a part of everyday vocabulary. Hundreds of millions of persons have had their lives drastically changed with restrictions on travel, behavior modification and the daily search for scarce supplies such as hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes, disposable masks and yes, toilet paper.

Images of Spring Breakers cavorting on beaches while persons lay dying in hospitals, do not bode well for the future of a new generation whose attitude indicates that their pleasure is more important that the lives of persons they could infect by their careless behaviour.  News reports project that the situation will become far worse before it improves, as the scientific and medical fraternities search desperately for a cure, to halt the increasing rise in the rate of worldwide infections and deaths.

Hope.
As dire as this all may seem, like a phoenix rising from the ashes there are signs of hope emerging from the midst of despair:

  • Residents of Spain and Italy were confined to their homes in an early attempt to halt the spread of the virus. Videos have been circulated with musicians performing from their balconies, raising the spirits of their neighbours who joined in singing along and clapping.
  • With universities sending students home to continue education online, many families have through shared trauma, grown closer by necessity and begun to have serious conversations about life and the changing future.
  • Parents who have now been forced to “teach” their young children using lesson plans supplied by the schools, now have a greater appreciation for teachers and other educators.
  • Sharing experiences with strangers encountered (at the approved social distance) create bonds as the adversity of their shared experiences can serve to bind strangers together.
  • If you live near open spaces and are able to take nature walks, you have the opportunity to discover how truly beautiful our world can be.

As history continues to be written over the next few months (hopefully not years) our changing world may actually be a kinder, gentler one where we are neighbours in the true sense of the word.

A New Year.

“The journey to your goal is more beautiful than the goal itself.” ~ Purvi Raniga

At the beginning of each year, I list the goals that I would like to achieve within that year. In 2019, these were primarily physical fitness-related, but due to reasons beyond my control, I was only able to achieve one of those goals: to complete an average of 20 kilometers per week, walking, running or hiking. Over 365 days, I completed a total of 1089 kilometers: a monthly average of 90k, or 21k per week, despite two bouts of illness for which I was inactive for a combined period of 6 weeks.

While this was a great achievement for me, there is another fitness goal I achieved which I consider to be one of spiritual fitness: Reading the Bible in one year. This was not an easy task for me, but I found that as it became a part of my early morning routine, this superseded my physical fitness goals.

As 2020 begins, and I reflect on the past year, what I realize, more than ever, is how precious life is and also how brief it can be. During the 5-month period when I underwent chemotherapy, I met and learnt about others who were in a similar situation to mine, battling breast cancer. To date, at least three of them have died. The deaths of these persons and others close to me have underlined the importance of relationships and people, versus money and acquired things.

Tomorrow I will be celebrating a birthday, and as the New Year begins, my goals will be more focused on people and experiences, in the hope that I can have a positive impact on the lives of others.

Happy New Year!

Photography as Therapy

Taking pictures is savouring life intensely, every hundredth of a second. ~ Marc Riboud

This quote clearly captures what photography has done for me since my diagnosis of Breast Cancer, two years ago. I believe that when faced with a life-threatening illness, you can either try to make the most of life, “savouring it intensely,” or you can feel sorry for yourself and be miserable. I have chosen to live my life to the fullest.

I have always loved taking pictures. From as far back as my early days in school, I would constantly capture with my camera, any subject which intrigued me. My love for photography travelled with me on family vacations, special occasions, to university and back home upon graduation. The births of my daughters years later, provided an excuse to whip out the camera and chronicle their every waking moment (to their annoyance and dismay) and they were relieved when I would become absorbed in capturing nature or events, deflecting my camera’s focus from them.

I believe that being an avid amateur photographer over the years has transformed my vision. I automatically frame scenes in my head before looking through the camera lens and then capture what I have seen with the camera. My technical skills may not be up to par, but for me conveying emotion through my lens can be as important as technique. I am constantly learning.

After I was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, I found myself pursuing things I loved: hiking, visiting new places…and photography. If I had to choose only one area as the subject for my camera lens, it would be nature. Beauty that we see every day in a sunrise or sunset, in waves crashing on shore or the vibrancy of a newly-hued bloom, compel me to capture each and every moment. However that is not enough if I am the only person who sees them. It is more important for me to share with others so they too can appreciate the beauty of the moment.

I experience what I call my “photographer’s high” when the sun peeps over the mountains, and the early morning sky morphs into a range of hues that are as fleeting as a breath of air, but no less wondrous in its brevity. It is at times like these I know that I am blessed and I have no thoughts of gloom or impending death.

Everyday occurrences such as the fisherman tossing his net in the water, and women washing clothes at the riverside while their children splash in the river, are transformed from being mundane tasks to intriguing slices of life which can define a nation’s core. I also have a fascination with graves and graveyards, not because I am eager to join their residents, but because there are so many “buried” stories waiting to be unearthed.

It is in capturing moments through the camera’s lens, I am filled with comfort and purpose, leaving no room for self-pity and despair. There are far too many treasures out there that I have not yet seen…or shared.

Facing Fear

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. ~ Franklyn D. Roosevelt

When I was a child, I had several fears, one of which was death. As the years passed, this fear faded, until two years ago when it came rushing back to me like the proverbial bad penny, after my breast cancer diagnosis. Thoughts of dying and death took up residence in my mind, with a near paralyzing effect. However, I soon made the decision not to focus on death, but on life. I shared my story hoping to encourage other women to get tested, increasing chances of survival if they were diagnosed at an early stage, as I was.

In the past two years, I have resumed my active lifestyle, though with a few setbacks, and am determined to make the most of my life while I am still here. I love running, hiking, art, photography, nature, music and travelling, and as much as possible have incorporated these in my life. I have taken a ceramics course, I am a part of two hiking groups, I regularly participate in 5K events and leap at any opportunity to go out of town to places in Jamaica where I have never been before. I now have plans to enroll in a jewelry making class, learn a new musical instrument, and my ultimate goal is to complete a half marathon by the end of this year.

When I think back to that little girl who used to fear death, I realise that my fear today is not death, but rather a fear of not living my life to the fullest.

My journey continues.

Nanny Falls (85b)

Life Goes On.

Tomorrow the sun will rise on all your doubts. ~ Marty Rubin

Life goes on.

I think those may be three of the most beautiful words ever written. Last week was symbolic of one year since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I still remember the initial fear and trepidation with which I received the news, and the multitude of emotions I experienced as I navigated unknown territory in search of the best way to deal with my diagnosis.

Two surgeries, five months of chemotherapy, numerous tests and injections, and many doctors’ appointments later, I can truly state that I am stronger both mentally and physically. My prognosis is good and there is much that I have gained through this experience. I am still overwhelmed by the support I have received and continue to receive from family, friends, and even acquaintances.

What has meant the most to me during this past year has been:

1. Support. If I were to list the persons who have provided support to me over the past year, it would have no end. To this day, people continue to check to see how I am doing and if there is anything they can do for me.

Allow me to help with you
2. Sharing my story. I have found that sharing my story has actually helped me to deal with it, with the hope that I can prevent even one person from any suffering associated with a late stage diagnosis. Early diagnosis can make the difference between life and death, and encouraging women to do their mammograms is the most common way to diagnose the disease before it has progressed. In this day and age women really should not being dying of breast cancer, if we do regular checks and listen to our bodies when we think something is wrong.

3. The members of the medical profession on my team. I had always heard stories about doctors and nurses who, while they have been professional, are somewhat lacking in compassion or empathy for the patient. This has not been my experience. I have been gifted with a medical team who not only have my back, but also have my heart. I have never felt like a number or case in my interactions with these professionals.
Red heart stethescope

4. Being active. I initially thought that my active lifestyle filled with hikes and 5Ks and gym classes would be severely curtailed through my months of chemo and other treatments. Surprisingly I found that although there were setbacks, they were few, and I was able to continue being active throughout my treatments. In fact, my doctors surmise that perhaps it is because of my active lifestyle that I have responded so well.

IMG-20180701-WA0021

I have learnt many things over the past year:

  • Relationships are more important than things. Sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone, is to spend time with them.
  • You enjoy what you have even more if you can share it with someone. Love and friendship are priceless.
  • An early morning walk to see the sun rise is greater than the most expensive gift. There may be no sunrise tomorrow.
  • I am not defined by my appearance.
    hair pic

At this one year milestone, I realize that for me, Life doesn’t just go on. It has taken on a new shape and dimension which is richer, more precious and invaluable.

Happy New Year!!!

Happy New Year!!!

I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as making a ‘life.’ ~ Maya Angelou

People have the tendency to look to the beginning of the calendar year as a time make a change in their lifestyle whether it is to set goals for your education and career, health & fitness, self-enrichment or a combination of all three. The belief is that once mid-January has passed, making a commitment to any kind of change is less effective than at the beginning of a new year, which symbolizes a clean slate.  In the past, I too have fallen into this trap. I now know that my plan of action does not have to coincide with a specific date (January 1), or event (50th birthday), or place (rock-bottom).

It just has to commence.

Career & Education: If you are in a traditional work environment, you spend at least eight hours of your day at the office. That is one third of your workday, or one half of your time awake assuming you get eight hours of sleep per night (does anyone?). It would therefore be ideal if you actually enjoy what you do to earn a living.

When I was in high school, my parents stressed the importance of getting a traditional education to secure a job in a traditional career such as teaching, law or medicine although my interest was in the creative arts, particularly drawing and designing. My career path led me to the field of Advertising which afforded me a certain level of creativity to satisfy my interests and need to be artistically stimulated and productive. Years later when my daughter expressed a fascination with the culinary field at the age of six, I actively encouraged her, and she later developed a keen interest and extraordinary skill in Art. She has now graduated from culinary school, and has combined both her skills, resulting in her producing custom-designed cakes and pastries that are currently in demand…and in turn experiencing satisfaction in her career of choice.

The old adage “If you love what you are doing to earn a living, you will never work a day in your life,” has never been truer. My advice to students today, is to pursue their dreams and to ensure that they are really choosing the path they love, and not what someone else would love them to do. There are many more non-traditional career options today, than back when I was a student in school.  Take advantage of them.

Health & Fitness: The landscape of Jamaica has undergone a change in recent years. Health, Diet and Exercise seem to be the Buzzwords of the Day. More persons are taking charge of what they do with their bodies – both positively and negatively. This is supported by the Jamaican Government’s current Jamaica Moves Campaign which has sensitized many citizens to the importance of being active in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, reducing incidence of non-communicable illnesses.  We all want to live longer and this is seen as one way to achieve this goal.

Enrichment of Self: Activities of Enrichment of the individual have become more commonplace than ever before. Classes in drawing and painting, photography, Reiki, ceramics and jewelry –making, are far more available than a few years ago.  These activities can provide a balance and fulsomeness in our lives which at times overwhelm us with the day to day (and sometimes mundane) tasks we face and execute.

My affinity for nature and exercise synergize with my love for hiking, running and photography, yielding unforgettable images of nature on my various jaunts. These serve to recharge my energy cells when my internal battery is running low.

Before any of these lifestyle changes can be achieved, however, there has to be a starting point, and this can be the most difficult part of your Plan of Action for Change.

My recommendations to increase the odds of you achieving success are to:

  1. Actually Make a Plan: Your plan should be detailed enough to clearly state what you would like to achieve, but simple enough that it is not insurmountable.
  2. Set Your Goals: The first part of your plan should state the goals you wish to achieve. Completing each goal will result in increasing the odds of your plan’s successful execution.
  3. Set Timelines…but realize that inevitably these may need to have some fluidity as Life may intervene. Setbacks are not roadblocks, but can be used to re-evaluate the plan of action.
  4. Understand that Failure is not Fatal. You may not always succeed, however each time you surmount an obstacle, it will make you stronger (as long as you do not quit at that point).
  5. Re-evaluate: You should re-evaluate your plan from time to time to ensure that your original intention or objective has not changed and that you still have it as your priority. If your goal is no longer what you had initially identified, feel free to modify. Just as goals may change, so can you.

Your “New Year” begins when you put your plan of action into place.

Happy New Year!!!!

A Life Sentence.

You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough. ~ Mae West

Years ago when I was a child, I overheard my mother talking about someone who had “The Big C” with a friend of hers. At the time, I had no idea what that was, but her words were whispered with a fear which made me realize it was something to be dreaded and avoided at all costs. Back then few people spoke openly about Cancer and a diagnosis of this disease was akin to being given a death sentence. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my automatic response was fear…fear of pain, fear of sickness, fear of not seeing my daughters graduate from college, fear of unfulfilled dreams, and fear of death.

No one knows when they are going die, and no one has control over that date. What we can control, however, is how we live. I have learnt to appreciate every moment, seeing each day of life as a gift. As this year comes to an end, I look back at all the gifts I have been given…and continue to receive.

Good health.
This may seem strange to be identified as a gift considering my diagnosis, but I have not felt sick one day since my diagnosis and surgeries, and I believe this is due to my change to a healthier lifestyle and subsequent weight loss, pre my diagnosis. I am still running regularly, going to the gym and participating in hikes whenever I get the chance…all while undergoing weekly chemotherapy treatments.

Love for nature.
The great outdoors provides a wealth of opportunities to experience the best of what nature has to offer. I am like a child in a candy store (or in Jamaica, a pickney in a sweetie shop) every time I get the opportunity to photograph sunrises, sunsets, flowers and majestic landscapes. For me there is no better way to start the day than an early morning run which ends with a spectacular sunrise.

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Love of music.
There has never been a moment when I am feeling down, that I have not been able to raise my spirits through listening to music. The combination of poignant lyrics, soothing melodies and harmonious instruments, seems to have potent healing powers for my soul.

Love of God.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. ~ Philippians 4:13
This is my mantra.

Supportive family and friends.
You never know until you experience trauma, loss or some kind of misfortune, who will step up and offer support, understanding and guidance. l am surprised not only by who has stepped into my corner, but also completely overwhelmed by how many are in there with me. My “little” corner houses an entire village of supporters and well-wishers.

Reggae Mrathon (15)

One of the questions I am asked most often is how can I be positive and cheerful given my situation. My answer is how can I not be? I am blessed every day I wake up, and I look forward to the day ahead with anticipation of new experiences, encounters and making the most of every hour alive.

Living with cancer is not a death sentence. It is a life sentence.

The Season for Giving…and Receiving

For it is in giving that we receive. ~ St. Francis of Assisi

Christmas has always been my favorite time of year. I love decorating the house (and every bush and tree nearby); buying the right gift for each friend and family member; eating Christmas pudding and drinking sorrel; gathering with friends and family; the smell of the Christmas tree and baking permeating the house; the endless Christmas carols floating through the air (sometimes as early as September), and going to Church to reminisce and give thanks for the original Christmas.

 

While it is nice to receive gifts at Christmas, it also seems to be a time that people become kinder, gentler and more compassionate towards one another. My experience this year, however, has shown me that it is not only at Christmas that people give, and there are many more gifts I have received than those that are prettily wrapped and placed under a tree. These gifts include:

A listening ear.
I have received many phone calls, text or WhatsApp messages from friends and even acquaintances asking how I am doing now. As simple as this may seem, the volume of these calls and messages have indicated to me that many people do care, which has been very heartening. I am more than willing to reassure persons that I am fine and to dispel any myths that persons with cancer are always sick and in pain, as this has not been my experience.

A helping hand.
While I can still do most things I did before my diagnosis and subsequent surgeries, offers to take me to Chemotherapy treatments, to pick up my daughter from school, and to take me to events that I may not want to go to alone, are more valuable to me than the most expensive piece of jewelry.  I recently ran the Reggae Marathon 10k, and while I was happy to complete the race, I was more overwhelmed by the volume of congratulatory messages, and the number of persons who supported me in this endeavor.

Time.
Sometimes a ten-minute visit can lift my spirits for an entire week. The fact that in this day of instant messaging, face to face visits seem more to be a thing of the past, increases the value of that visit when someone takes the time to come and see you. I truly appreciate all those persons who made the trek up my mountain, no matter how short the visit.

Patience.
Although it may seem that I am always positive, (and 97 percent of the time, I am) there are occasional days when I drag my feet as I struggle to withstand the onslaught of self pity which threatens to rear its ugly head. It is at these times, your patience and understanding that my sharp words or morose demeanor are merely temporary, help me to overcome this challenge.

Prayers.
The amount of persons who have indicated they are praying for me, has been astounding. Not only family and friends, but also acquaintances and persons who have never even met me, continue to keep me in their prayers. If prayers really lift you up, I am somewhere near the Moon by now.

The remarkable thing about giving these gifts, is that in giving them, we can receive gifts in return. In spreading my story and encouraging women to get their mammograms done, to date over 30 persons have told me they have done so, of which two of my biggest supporters have found a suspicious early stage mass, which each one is dealing with. I continue to share my story in the hope that more persons will get tested and therefore encourage others to follow.

 As Christmas comes this year, I wish you all Peace, Love, Joy, Good Health and the giving and receiving of gifts all year round.

 

Life Changes.

Sometimes when you are in a dark place, you think you’ve been buried, but you’ve actually been planted. ~ Unknown

A few days ago I was reflecting on how much my life has changed over the last few months. Things which used to be high on my priority list, have lost their importance with a new set of priorities emerging to fill their space. A diagnosis of breast cancer, while not necessarily a death sentence, has evoked a shift of mindset as I search for a sense of purpose and meaning for my life.

I have discovered several things on my journey down this new path:

A Source of Inspiration.
Many people ask how I can remain so positive and upbeat about my diagnosis. Years ago when a high school friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, her doctor told her she had six months to live. Instead of being paralyzed by the news, Katrina sat down and created a list of things she wanted to accomplish, including seeing her daughter graduate from Harvard (she was a freshman at the time) and reuniting our high school graduation class, most of whom had drifted apart over the years. She contacted many of us, and word spread of the upcoming reunion in Jamaica, which she singlehandedly organized from California while undergoing numerous experimental treatments. Over 50 of our classmates from all over the world showed up and it was an overwhelming success.

Katrina accomplished every one of her goals and had to create a new list, before she died seven years after her diagnosis. The year she died, I formed a Relay for Life team in her honour, and our team of 30 persons raised over $100,000 towards Breast Cancer Research. Having seen what Katrina accomplished through sheer determination and grit, has inspired me to not lie down and wallow in misery, but to be positive, and hopefully inspire others the way she inspired me.

A New Family.
Breast Cancer survivors are a unique group of persons who have a wealth of strength and resilience which I have been blessed to experience first hand. I have been contacted by several survivors who have not been hesitant to provide me with support, advice and guidance. With this month being dedicated to Breast Cancer Awareness, I have seen and heard many stories of resilience and support which give me hope in the face of darkness.

Breast Cancer Ribbon

Who you are is more important that what you have.
It is funny how material things lose their importance when faced with your own mortality. There is nothing more valuable than your relationships with others. My relationship with God, family, friends, co-workers and even acquaintances supersede any physical possession I may have, or wish to acquire.

The importance of Diet and Exercise.
Some people have commented that if I (who lead such a healthy lifestyle with diet and exercise as an important focus) can get breast cancer, then why bother to live healthily? My answer is that I have no idea what would have happened had I not changed my diet and lifestyle four years ago. My recovery from two surgeries in what seems to be a remarkably short time span, I attribute to my body being in peak condition.

My journey of Life continues as I travel my new path with gratitude and plans to bloom wherever I am planted.

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