An Anniversary of Healing

This photo was taken in my back yard in Trinidad, New Year’s Day 2007. Judging from the amount of champagne still in my glass, it must have just struck midnight.

I’m standing between Aunty Gemma and Aunty Opal, my mom’s sisters who raised me just as much as my mom and sister Petal did. I was a very lucky little bella to have grown up with so many strong female role models.

Aunty Gemma and Aunty Opal are very close to my heart. I’ve learned so much from both of them. Aunty Opal is the youngest sister, and she is an amazing cook, a loving caretaker of children (SO many of my childhood memories are of her playing with me, watching Sesame Street with me, making delicious Chelsea buns or cornbread in the kitchen…). Aunty Gemma is the middle child, and she’s an amazing piano player. She teaches piano lessons now, and she’s a warm, wise, wonderful woman when you get to know her.

Almost exactly a year ago, my Aunty Gemma had a surgical procedure for breast cancer. At the time, she didn’t want to talk about it. But my heart felt so full, and I wanted to talk about the unpredictability of this disease so much,
I wrote this, where I wrote about her cancer without writing about her directly. She didn’t want to put her name and face out there at the time, and I respected her wishes. But now, she’s ready. And I’m so happy and proud she’s allowing me to share her story.

In my original post, I alluded to circumstances that made me angry, health care issues that I knew would not fly in the country where I now reside. I had to ask her about that.

“One thing I’ve learned from all of this… I had the mistaken idea that I couldn’t get breast cancer. A doctor had told me that because I didn’t really have any breasts to speak of, I couldn’t get it. He said cancer forms in fatty tissue, and I didn’t have much of that. So I ignored the itching when it started,” she revealed.

The doctor who told my Aunty Gemma she couldn’t get breast cancer because her breasts weren’t big enough, was the same doctor who helped my mother have me 29 (almost 30) years ago. His name is Dr. Denis Deonarine, and he is currently serving 25 years in prison here in America, for trafficking in pain management drugs.

Every time I think that this man gave my aunt such cavalier, incorrect, idiotic information — an off the cuff diagnosis that was so ignorant and wrong — it makes me incredibly angry.

“I ignored the itching when it first started, because of what the doctor told me. I think it went on for a year, maybe two. It got worse and worse, and I realized I should see a doctor about it.”

At this point, I also want to note that my aunt avoided getting an annual mammogram. She went once, in 1995. And the technology they used in Trinidad at the time wasn’t the best, and whatever the technician did hurt her so much she decided to leave midway through the procedure. She’s realized what a terrible idea that was, and she’s got advice for every woman out there:

“People really need to be aware. It is too serious a thing. Get the recommended checkups. I shouldn’t have ignored all of the advice they gave. I should have been getting mammograms.”

My aunt was lucky — she doesn’t have to have chemotherapy or radiation, because the doctors caught the cancer early and dealt with it aggressively. She’s on a five-year course of medication, and does get some strange side effects.

“I tend to sleep in more now, I’m not sure why. And sometimes I can’t sleep at night, I’ll be awake until 4 in the morning.” Because she’s tired all the time, she has been forced to cut back on regular attendance of her Jehovah’s Witness meetings. My aunt is an extremely religious person, she once attended meetings as frequently as three times a week. Now she makes it once a month, and she regrets that tremendously. But she knows that her family in the religion understand. “And I still have access to Jehovah, because I pray to him all the time. He hears my prayers,” she says.

My Aunty Gemma is living well, taking good care of herself, and doing fine. She is surrounded by love and family, and she’s blessed to have a strong support system. Breast cancer in a country like Trinidad is different than here in America. Every day I get a press release for a different pink Breast Cancer Month item. In some countries, there’s still a reluctance to divulge the disease. Here in America, breast cancer survivors are celebrated as the brave warriors that they are. I want my aunt to know how proud I am of her, and how courageous she is for not only confronting cancer, but overcoming the challenges it has brought to her life. Aunty Gemma’s teaching piano lessons again, and her voice sounds bright when we talk on the phone these days. I can’t wait to see her and hug her when I visit home next year!

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I’ve got a great announcement on behalf of some of my beauty blog friends. The Makeup Girl is doing a helluva makeup giveaway, proceeds of which will go to the Susan G. Komen fund. All you gotta do is donate $10 to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Fund and be entered to win a $300 gift basket full of MAC goodies!

A Girl’s Gotta Spa is giving away Marc Jacob’s Daisy perfume, and every day in October, each of the 40 beauty bloggers in Total Beauty are having giveaways and raising money this month for breast cancer research.

Each day a different blogger will host a giveaway with an entry box with a trivia question about breast cancer on them. Enter the correct answer to be put into the pool to enter to win. All prizes have a minimum value of $250. Click here for their Twitter page that gives you a complete list of giveaways.

Has breast cancer touched you or your family in a personal way? Tell me about it, bellas and fellas. And please feel free to say hello to my aunty, she doesn’t get on the internet much but she will be reading this post!

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Comments

  1. I’m so happy to hear that your aunty is doing so well. The storm doesn’t last forever and it did pass! May you and your wonderful family continue to be blessed!

  2. What a great post. Thanks for sharing.

    Dr. Christiane Northrup calls this month Breast Health Awareness Month. I agree. Let’s take back our health not the dis-ease.

    Two major sites that should be noted. First, by clicking at thebreastcancersite.com, sponsors will donate a free mammogram to those that need it. I do this everyday and would ask that others do the same. Also, Dr. Susan Love, an early pioneer regarding breast cancer was on The View. She and Avon have created The Love/Avon Army of Women (www.armyofwomen.org). This is about information and learning about active research studies in need of volunteers. One of the issues she mentioned is that there is not alot of data regarding African American women and breast cancer. We need to know more so we can take steps to find a cure.

    Thanks again for sharing your story. I hope you don’t mind me sharing the information I have found.

  3. great post Bella..my aunt died from breast cancer. I did not see her in the latter state…she became very skinny and weak and no longer looked like the woman I knew. It always makes me sad, because she left behind a wonderful husband and 3 boys. I admire and applaud all of the women out there who are willing to fight their diagnoses. On another note, there seems to be a lot going around with breast cancer and women, but let’s not forget about prostate cancer as well..it kills so many African-American men..including my grandfather.

  4. Wow!! I can’t believe it’s been a year already!!! Time flies!!! I am a breast cancer survivor. November will give me two years.

    I am copying the post that I sent to you last year in the post that you did. I have really grown, even since that post. This year, I work for the Office of the Governor and when they did the honoring for breast cancer survivors this year, I found myself weepy. Will I ever get used to this? I am thankful to God for delivering me from this disease. I continue to pray for renewal of everyone that has been touched by any type of cancer.
    ********
    T.T. on October 22, 2007 11:34 am
    *Sigh*
    Where do I begin?
    Last year, around August, I was taking a shower and while soaping my breasts, I felt a small lump on my left breast, near my underarm area. My initial reaction, this is nothing to be alarmed about, it’s time for my period and “they say” don’t check your breasts when that time comes. So I put off doing something about until October, when it never went away. I didn’t know what to do. Who to call. So, I called the Mammography Department at the Austin Diagnostic Clinic and told them that I would like to be scheduled for a mammogram. After pulling my patient records and verifying my age, the lady on the phone goes, “We don’t do mammograms on 29 year olds..” I asked her what I was supposed to do and she told me to contact my gynecologist. I scheduled an appointment with her for the end of October. The day that I got to the appt, a baby decided to be born and I was unable to see her. Imagine my frenzy. I had finally made the decision to see what was wrong and couldn’t. I started crying right there in the lobby of the doctor’s office. My appointment was rescheduled for the next day. Upon meeting with my doctor, she felt my right breast and then felt my left breast for comparison. Then she said, “LaTanya, can you show me where you felt the lump because I don’t feel anything.” So, I guide her fingers and she feels it and says, “Hmm, this doesn’t feel like anything to be alarmed about, but I will send you for an ultrasound if you want me too.” (If I want you to?????). So I tell her of course. The ultrasound was scheduled for Tuesday, November 7 (Election Day). At the ultrasound, the technician saw the mass and scheduled me for a biopsy the next day. On Thursday, November 9, I received a phone call from a doctor, confirming that I had breast cancer that needed to be treated “as soon as possible.” I was mortified. I was in shock, in so much shock that I couldn’t even cry. The next day, I met with a surgeon who gave me my options: Lumpectomy (removal of the lump) and Lymph node dissection or Mastectomy. I was still unable to grasp the fact that I had breast cancer. I opted for the lumpectomy, which was scheduled on 12/15/06. The surgeon thought that it would be good for me to go ahead and meet with an oncologist on that day. The guy that I met with was COLD and HARSH. Immediately he starts rattling off statistics and tells me medications that I will be taking. I told him of my desire to have children and he goes, “Well LaTanya, you have to decide what’s more important, having kids or staying alive.” OH MY FREAKING GOODNESS. I wanted to punch him. He was so cold. I hated him. I only went back to him for one more appointment and then changed over to my current oncologist. The first day I met with her, I told her that I wasn’t looking for a best friend, but for a more comopassionate doctor and she understood.
    On January 24, 2007, I had my first chemotherapy session. I can remember being on the phone with my best friend and the nurse telling me that she was hanging the bag for the Adriamycin, which is the drug that takes your hair out. It’s red and watching it come down through the line, I told my friend, “I really feel like ripping this IV out.” I didn’t though, and as promised, my hair started falling out in exactly 2 weeks. The hardest part was the falling out. Everytime I ran my fingers through my hair, there were long strands. I decided to take the control back and on February 13, I shaved my head. Whew. It was a relief! In order to make myself feel better, I purchased a different wig for every week, before I settled on my “favorite” style.
    I wore a wig until May when it just got too darn hot to wear one. Looking back on the events of the past year, I am thankful for many things. 1. A strong support system, in my friends and church members; 2. Having a positive spirit! I had my ups and downs, but remaining calm and soliciting prayers from those that loved me, sustained me. 3. That I had a job that allowed me to take off when needed for therapy. 4. Never getting sick. (I can shout off of that right now!).
    Bella, I already emailed you, but I wanted to tell you that the medical advances of today are AWESOME, and more people are living full lives past the diagnosis. I will pray for you and for your friend, and please have her to contact me if she ever needs a listening ear, has questions, or just wants to talk.

  5. It’s great to hear your aunty is doing well. It’s also wonderful to see so many focussing on Breast Cancer Month I lost a friend to cancer last October, and my grandmother to two years ago.

    My grandmother also received a mis-diagnoses from the doctor – she went to the doctor regularly and knew something was wrong before they spotted the lump.

    She kept telling the doctor but he didn’t acknowledge it until he saw an xRay. To make a long story short she did end up suing – but the lesson is to know your body, do the self exams, go to the doctor and get several opinions.

  6. I am so happy to hear that your aunt is doing well! Thankfully they caught it early! I hope she continues to feel stronger and healthier every day! My aunt has breast cancer also, and the struggle has been long and strenuous. She has not been able to sleep well at night either since her treatment started, so her doctor had her try Ambien- a sleep aid. Now she is able to sleep through the night and has more energy during the day. Your aunt should check with her doctor first to make sure their are no bad interactions between the medicine she takes for her cancer treatments and a sleep aid. Maybe it will help!

  7. My mom’s friend passed away to breast cancer. I was 9 or 10 at the time and that was my first experience of death.

    Bella, I’m so glad you have a hopeful story to tell and Aunt Gemma you are a hero! Going through that pain is not for the faint of heart. I remember my mom’s friend crying because she was in so much pain and this was way back when medicine hadn’t advanced to what we have today and we didn’t live in the US but in a country much like Trinidad. And if my assumptions are right, medical technology in Trinidad is not as advanced as it is in the US. Did I say you’re a true hero already? :)

    T.T breast cancer at age 29 wow. Chills went down my spine as that settled within me. It’s so easy to take life for granted and not take steps towards being healthy. To be honest I get overwhelmed with it all. Watch out for HIV, Breast Cancer, Arthritis…the list is endless! and I’m one of those who loathe going to the doctor. Sorting out the bills are a pain I’d rather not do, but I’ve stared making a conscious effort to do so.

  8. Hello,
    I am an avid reader of your site and I came across this article on another blog http://www.ladybrille.blogspot.com
    Remain Blessed and keep the faith!

  9. Hi AfroBella,

    Yay Auntie Gemma! I feel so proud of your Auntie Gemma and her courage and the fact that she has reached to a point where she is ready and willing to share her story and really just come out to the world as a SURVIVOR.

    I feel like as Caribbean people we often don’t celebrate each other enough. And as much pleasure as I took during the Olympics and our showing there, is the same celebratory feeling that I felt reading this. What you said about the carelessness and cavalier, sometimes detrimental diagnosis of some of our doctors in the Caribbean just pierced right through me.

    My aunt didn’t die from breast cancer, but from cervical cancer almost 20 years ago and I can still picture her in the best of times and the worst of times. She left my 7 year old cousin, who even today bears the scars of her loss. I bring up my aunt because when a proper diagnosis was finally made, she was in the final stage of cancer. She had been going to her doctor for years and years for heavy, painful, bleeding that would incapacitate here and go on for long periods of time. Her doctor’s diagnosis over the years was trite dismissive and had everything to do with the onset of menopause, her “overactive hormones” – pretty much “your a woman, these are the things you go through.”

    It still makes me angry, but I want to channel my anger and think about what I can for my own well-being and the women around me whether I know them or not. I feel like information is so much knowledge and I am thankful we have made it this far, at least in the US. What I would like to see back home is just a consistent campaign for the rights of women and just the ownership of the health of their bodies. Too many are lost and yet it just makes Aunt Gemma’s and T.T’s survival story all the more powerful and resonant.

  10. Hi Bella! I just wanted to poke my head in to say, “Hi” to your aunt! Thank you for this post.

  11. Great pic! wonderfully upbeat post. Yes I think all of the ladies in our family are strong and I am thankful that all are still on this planet.

  12. What a wonderful story, Bella. I’m glad she made it through.

  13. I am so glad your aunt was willing to come out and speak more about what happened to her. And you had every right to be angry about the dr.! I would’ve been too! I’m happy to hear that she is doing better.

    xo

  14. We just published an interview with Maimah Karmo, our main feature for october, who was recently on Oprah about her breast cancer diagnosis. I tell you while conducting her interview, I could not help but feel angry that her doctor kept telling her she could not get cancer and ignored her request for a basic biopsy. Her insistence is what saved her life!

    Don’t get me started on the disparity when it comes to how minority women are treated in the healthcare system. Life happens. As such, I have experienced my share of health troubles and it always amazed me how doctors sat up when they found out I was an attorney, litigator for that matter. They did a 180 attitude in how they addressed me and treatment options. Ladies insist, persist and if your doctor is giving you idiotic statements, trust your gut and move on to another healthcare provider who can give you the treatment you know you deserve.

    I am glad your aunt is well.

    Cheers,

    Uduak

    Editor in Chief
    Ladybrille Blogazine

  15. Sabrina97 says:

    Thanks for your courage Aunt Gemma!

  16. Wow. Thank you for sharing.

    So many of us go through pain, yet so few
    of us talk about how to navigate it.

    J.neensy
    brooklynmagic.com

  17. Hi Bella,

    I know you are such a resource and wealth of information for so many women. I don’t know if you know off “Sisters Network” but it is a national Survivorship organization for African American Women with chapters all over the country.

    My family and I have been active with the chapter in Richmond, Va, thanks to an Aunt touched by Breast cancer, for years.
    It provides support for women, their spouses, and other family members. dealing with everything from self esteem, intimacy with your wife for men, spiritual issues, treatment and more. Beyond support for survivors, spreading the word about detection and providing resources: especially in underserved communities is a big part of their outreach.

    Check out the website at sistersnetworkinc.org

    As black women our chances of dying from this disease are far worse than our white counterparts so we have to act!!!

    Thanks
    Chelsea

  18. This was a great story. Congratulations to Auntie Gemme! You are a fighter and a hero, Auntie. Way to go calling out Mr. man Dr. for his foolishness.

  19. I’m so glad that your Aunty Gemma is on the other side!!! I remember reading that post last year (wow! i’ve been a “Bella” for over a year?!) and praying for your “friend.” I’m so glad all of the prayers sent on Miss Gemma’s behalf have been answered.

    T.T, I remember reading your submission last year as well. Wow! So glad to hear you, too, are on the other side.

  20. My mother’s mother died from breast cancer at the age of 42. She didn’t seek treatment until the tumors were visible beneath her skin. Breast cancer just wasn’t talked about as much then. I never met her. My mother’s middle sister died of breast cancer at the age of 59. She found the lump 6 months before she sought treatment because she was afraid. Before she died, cancer ravaged her breasts, lungs, and pancreas. My mother has had biopsies on tumors which mercifully have always been benign.
    My grandmother’s sister and my mother’s youngest sister also had breast cancer and survived. Today my aunt shares her testimony with medical students about the power of faith in healing and those talks have led to her new career as a minister (at the age of 58!)

    The difference between life and death in my family has been early detection and vigilance. I can’t fault my grandmother because she was living in rural NC without access to proper health care. But a part of me is still angry at my aunt, who worked for Blue Cross but never bothered to have a primary care physician. Losing her mom at a young age should have been reason for her to get every lump checked out. By the time she was diagnosed, the drs gave her 3 months to live. (She lived another 2 years).
    Because of my family history, I got my first mammogram last year at the age of 30 as a baseline. I had to force the technicians to do the mammogram although I had a referral. Luckily all turned out well, but I have to be very careful. I haven’t had children and my tissue is very dense, making most mammograms kind of useless. My next one will be at 35 and perhaps digital mammograms will be more available.

    Bella, I am so glad that your aunt is well. And TT your story is an inspiration. I have learned from my family’s story as well. I will not ignore my body. I will not let fear write my epitaph. Be safe, ladies!!

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  1. [...] my Aunty Gemma was diagnosed with breast cancer, I got to see how breast cancer can go far beyond the chest. My [...]

  2. [...] I am with my two aunties, Gemma on my left, and Opal on my [...]

  3. […] feel self conscious and unattractive. Not the biz. Plus, in the back of my mind I remembered that my Aunty Gemma’s breast cancer symptoms began with itching that she ignored for years. So on my birthday I decided to make a […]

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