Women in Guyana are getting stronger! With the knowledge gained through awareness campaigns like ‘Pink-tober’, women across the country are learning to prioritise their health. By taking the time to examine themselves or book appointments to be examined, women in Guyana are getting educated, detecting symptoms earlier, undergoing treatment, and moving on to, according to a number of survivors, live their best lives.

This edition of Government in Action features the stories of two cancer survivors, Ms. Golda Clementson and Ms. Hermanetta Andrews. These strong women have overcome hardship, broken barriers, and fought hard to prove that there is indeed life after cancer.

From victim to survivor

Ms. Golda Clementson, Cervical Cancer Survivor: My name is Golda Clementson. I’m a mother of five… and I’m in my mid-forties. Today, I sit here as a cervical cancer survivor… My story starts in 2015. I [was] observing different signs in my body… Being the person that I am, who always pays attention to the different signs my body [gives] me, I was concerned.

I had to wait two or three months for my results… I met with [the doctor] and his nurse in November when they broke the news to me that I was stage 2 cervical cancer. He then advised me to seek attention [at] the Cancer Institute… I’m a person [who] follows instructions. I wasn’t afraid when he broke the news to me… I was boldly sitting there waiting to hear [about] the next step because that was my question to him. He and his nurse [were] in a bit of astonishment… that I didn’t [break] down or wasn’t in any rage.

Ms. Hermanetta Andrews, Breast Cancer Survivor: My name is Hermanetta Andrews and I’m a nurse attached to the Beacon Foundation. Four years elapsed [where] I didn’t do any [of the] routine examinations. So, in 2016 I said I have to do these tests… I went to the Cancer Institute and I did my mammogram first and the doctor told me that they saw suspicious cells… I went to my personal doctor and he ordered the tests [be redone] just to confirm what was [said] to me and the tests came back with the same results. At that time I said, ‘well this has to be real’.

Cancer treatment is especially difficult because radiation and chemotherapy lower the count or white blood cells in the body; these protective cells that comprise the body’s immune system. Both survivors spoke of the importance of coping mechanisms as cancer treatment takes a toll on the body and the mind.

Ms. Clementson: I was given my 22 days of radiation and [the doctor] had prescribed five days of cisplatin chemotherapy… I was able to complete my 22 days… of radiation, but I wasn’t able to finish the five days of my cisplatin chemo because my body started to react in a negative way… My white blood cells dropped… I had to purchase the injection to boost my white blood cells… Every day I [kept] telling myself tomorrow will come. Tomorrow will come. And yes, tomorrow did come. I made good of all the treatment and followed all I was advised to use during the treatment.

Today… I am [happy, happy, happy] and thankful to God and his miracle work. I can sit here and say that I am cancer free. There has been no other hiccups in terms of anything related to the cancer. I continue to go and have my clinic check-ups.

Ms. Andrews: I was hoping beyond hope that at the second examination… I’d have a different result… No one word could explain the emotions and the feelings I was feeling. It was everything you [could think]. I’m also a Christian so, I took it to the Lord. I prayed, I fasted. Two weeks elapsed and I went back to the doctor to do the biopsy… and I was calm.

I did my treatment and my surgery and it was good. It was successful and after healing I started my radiation…four cycles of chemo and 25 cycles of radiation.

The survivors offered this advice, particularly to young women: know your body and go to your annual check-ups.

Ms. Clementson: You as an individual, know your body. You must see things. You must feel things. Don’t ignore [anything] that you feel… People would say not [for] every little thing you [need to] run to the doctor, but knowing the crisis that we’re living in now… pay attention. Check. Talk to someone who you are comfortable with.

Women, it’s not a harm to have your pap smear or your VIA. I would say it’s a baby thing. It’s not painful. Do it once a year, at least, and it would save you from the pain, the agony, and the stress and the depression that you would have to go through when you ignore these things and then cancer takes a hold of you.

Ms. Andrews: You must listen to your body. You have to listen to your body. If you wake up [one] morning and feeling not your best, just think about what can be wrong… If you feel a pain that should not have been there; follow it up. Your body tells you so [many] things and we need to listen to it. Sometimes, we feel … pain and we say, ‘oh, this will go away just now’, but your body is telling you something and you must listen to it.

Breaking cultural norms

Both Ms. Clementson and Ms. Andrews met with Dr. Latoya Gooding, Medical Oncologist and Founder of the Giving Hope Foundation. Dr. Gooding uses both her offices to break the cultural norm of waiting until the last minute to go to the doctor. Dr. Gooding explains.

“[Cancer month] is very important since a lot of our younger women are being diagnosed with breast cancer. Here in Guyana, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer and it is the [second highest] cause of cancer-related death among women. So, it’s very important… Culturally, we don’t have the custom of going [to get] an annual examination, a routine check-up. So we’re trying to educate, or make it our custom so that as I always say, women, for [their] birthday, present [themselves] that [annual check-up]. Go check your breasts. Do your pap smear,” Dr. Gooding explained.

Recently, a movement called ‘#SelfcareSunday’ has become quite popular on social media. Many women take the time to do weekly activities to pamper themselves in order to relieve stress and promote relaxation. Dr. Gooding said once a month, women can add self-examinations to their selfcare routine as there is nothing more beneficial than monitoring one’s health.

“That’s why we try to educate women on breast self-examination… they can actually pamper themselves and do that for themselves. [Self-examination] should be done once per month for women who are still having their period. We advise that they get it done seven to 14 days after their period… For women who are in menopause… at least one date per month. It is very important since we know our breasts. We feel it every day, we check it every month. So, the minute you find an abnormal lump, a lump that is irregular, a lump that is hard, that is fixed to our skin, we should head out to our doctors,” she said.

Dr. Gooding also highlighted some concerning symptoms to look for.

“Normally, our nipples are pointed out for breast feeding. One morning, you wake up and the nipples are sunken back into the breast. [If] you don’t have children or your last child was about ten years ago and… your breast is leaking… a secretion that is white or pink or green or red, you should have it checked out. Sometimes, the whole breast is normal, but you find that there’s that lump that’s either fixed to the skin of the breast and it has this orange peel [appearance,] which [makes it] thick and dimply… The lump can [also] be fixed to the back of the breast, so, the outside looks normal but you find that rough, irregular lump that is fixed at the back of the breast… Some persons [find that] the breast is okay, no lump, but they find that lump under the armpit. It is still considered a sign of breast cancer,” she said.

Dr. Gooding said she was inspired to open the Giving Hope Foundation (GHF) after hearing of the unfortunate medical treatment of her grandfather who was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After his untimely death, Dr. Gooding, who was then training to become a nurse, immediately switched to the oncology programme for nurses, and graduated third in her class. Now, she says she is passionate about ensuring her patients have hope throughout treatment.

“Do not be afraid. Cancer is not a death sentence. There is life after cancer and… [At] the Giving Hope Foundation… we give hope to our patients. We encourage them to do their treatment. We guide them through it… We have our support system, which is for our cancer survivors… The Foundation… is here to support you. We have a very good nutritionist… [who]advises these cancer patients [on] what to [eat]… Don’t be afraid. Just come out [and] get screened. Whatever it is, we will guide you through it. Don’t be afraid. I’ve heard some of my cancer patients say… that they are living their best life yet and it was after cancer,” she said.

Active prioritisation of health

Education, annual check-ups and early detection, significantly improve the chance of survival for all cancers. Guyana has come a long way, but there is still much work to be done. First Lady, Mrs. Sandra Granger, who has been dubbed a ‘Champion of Women in Guyana,’ emphasises the great threat this disease is to our nation’s population.

“I do not think that as a small nation, we can’t tolerate the mortality rate for cancer, particularly cervical cancer and breast cancer, which primarily affects women… I’m really very concerned about the fact that we, in Guyana, do not have the habit generally of taking care of ourselves, looking after ourselves, having annual check-ups. We feel that the only time you should see a doctor is when you’re really sick. And this compounded, I think, by women who tend to put the care of their families before themselves. Or, if they feel a pain, they work through, do their tasks and maybe they feel better, so that’s the end of it,” the First Lady said.

Mrs. Granger shared some troubling statistics gathered by the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC).

“GPHC reported 235 cases diagnosed with 89 being cases of breast cancer… More concerning is the fact that most of these cases are found in women under 40 years of age with the majority being… in the twenties and they are diagnosed at stages two and three,” she said.

Lamenting the frequency at which first-time medical patients receive late stage diagnoses, Mrs. Granger said that all Guyanese must actively pursue a healthy lifestyle with regular medical visits.

“Sometimes people go in for the first time and they’re diagnosed stage four, which means nothing can be done in that case. If we had early detection; if people were more educated and more willing to be tested, we would be able to catch the disease at stage one when it is curable… People must take care of themselves, take care of their health… You talk about diet, you talk about exercise and all the things that help us to be healthier as a nation,” she said.

Guyanese, Mrs. Granger said, must learn to make the necessary changes to promote a healthy lifestyle.

“It means a level of consciousness and a willingness to shift your diet and your focus, your exercise and so on, so that you basically start to take care of your body from an early age and get in the practice of annual physical examinations so that if anything comes up, you catch it early,” she said.

There is life after cancer, but Guyanese should not wait until the symptoms become severe to check-in with their doctors. When it comes to prioritising our health, there is no time like the present. The Government of Guyana wants to see all Guyanese live the good life, the good life without cancer.

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