Wed | Nov 14, 2018

Peter Espeut | Don't make my mom's mistake

Published:Friday | October 6, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Two weeks ago was the 40th anniversary of my mother's death from breast cancer. She was a brave woman, but she was also foolhardy.

I say she was brave because, as a teenager, she wanted to be a nurse and midwife, which in those days meant she had to train in England. But in the early 1940s with a war on, her parents wouldn't give permission for her to travel. She waited until 1943 when she turned 21 years old (and so didn't need her parents' consent), and at the height of World War II, she took a boat in a guarded convoy across the Atlantic Ocean (to best avoid being sunk by German U-boats) to train in Farnborough, Kent.

Her hospital was near an RAF airbase, and many nights, she would tell us children, she would lie in bed hearing the German doodlebug bombs whine and whistle on the way down, ending in a loud explosion and a minor earthquake - all the whines and whistles sounding as if the bombs would fall right on top of her hospital and blow her to bits.

So she was a brave theatre nurse during the war, holding limbs as they were being amputated, and cleaning blood and gore and messy bedpans. She thrived on all that, and returned to Jamaica after the war to practise her profession.


Practise what you preach


But she was also foolhardy. One of the things she did as a nurse-midwife was to train women in the early detection of breast cancer. She had a regular programme on radio ('Ask Nurse Jane') that covered a wide spectrum of health issues, one of which was daily breast self-examination to detect lumps which could indicate the presence of cancer in its early stages, when something could be done about it.

As skilled as she was, and as knowledgeable as she was, she did not practise what she preached, and she never examined herself. One morning, she happened to feel a lump in her breast, and later at work she showed it to the doctor, whose nurse she was. That same afternoon, she was on the operating table having a radical mastectomy. They gave her three months to live, but happily for us, she lived for three years, even though the cancer spread first to her breastbone and then to her lungs.

I was at her bedside where she lay dying in great pain. Again, her bravery was obvious. It seemed to me that every breath she drew (with some struggle) was the result of a conscious decision to do so. Until she gave it up and breathed no more.

I always wonder how much longer she might have lived had she followed the good advice she gave to her patients. Had she discovered her cancer earlier, she might have been able to have the diseased tissue removed, or to prevent its spread deeper into her body.

Maybe - with the hubris of those in the medical profession - she felt invulnerable; maybe she felt that breast cancer couldn't happen to her.


Get tested!


What lesson did we learn from all this? There is nothing brave about avoiding simple tests that could avoid big trouble down the road. And then there are the more complex and sometimes expensive tests for a variety of conditions that it is simply prudent to undergo.

As advanced as medical science is in some areas, when it comes to breast cancer, a lot more work needs to be done. Since its causes are not well understood, it is not yet possible to predict with any reliability who will develop it and who will not. Among the risk factors identified are genetic (i.e., if your parents, grandparents or other close relatives had it, you might get it), and advancing age. This puts me in the high-risk category, and, therefore, prudence demands that I and my siblings should monitor our bodies.

Yet many without the high-risk factors develop breast cancer, and those whom scientists say are most at risk never get it. There is a still a lot we still don't know about breast cancer.

Cervical cancer is a different matter, since it is virus-related, and early sexual initiation is a big risk factor. So there is something that girls (and their parents) can do to minimise that risk.

The push for public awareness about breast cancer for one month during the year (Child Month is as good a month as any) is a good thing; maybe those who put off self-examination or screening will be jolted out of their lassitude. Maybe if they had Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the 1960s and 1970s, my mother might have lived longer.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to