Fri | Dec 4, 2020

Guest Editor | Alleviating the fear: Coping with breast cancer

Published:Monday | September 4, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Dr Jennifer Mamby Alexander
Dr Jennifer Mamby Alexander

Our Guest Editor Dr Jennifer Mamby Alexander is herself a breast cancer survivor, a warrior, she says. Her story is one of courage, of power, and strength. Here's her story:

The biggest challenge after a cancer diagnosis is overcoming the fear of pain, suffering, and death. In life, we all face challenges in which we see the right course of action but refuse to take it.

Confucius said that to see what is right and not to do it means a lack of courage, but developing the courage to fight cancer doesn't mean we don't experience fear because fear is a natural emotion. What determines our level of courage is how we manage fear. Warriors face fear; cowards run.

My first experience with breast cancer in America was difficult because my case was misdiagnosed for three years, and I was inadvertently given a diagnosis of being another patient with fibrocystic disease. So when the correct diagnosis was made, it was late, and tests at that time had not recognised that the tumour had spread to other areas of my body. For me, a late diagnosis was a tragedy because I had tried to be proactive for three years to have an early diagnosis that would save my life, with simple surgeries and cheaper costs. I was now facing the possibility of difficult, expensive mutilating surgeries and prolonged treatment. I was young and married, with young children.

I tried to cope by remembering that self-preservation is the first law of nature, so there was a natural instinct to survive by whatever means. I recognised that there was a parasitic relationship between me and the cancer, so if I did not feed the disease, it would not grow. With that in mind, it seemed that I had some control over my survival. I learned that chemotherapy works best when the tumour bulk is small, so that in most cases, surgical excision is a good choice to remove the tumour bulk before chemotherapy. Chemotherapy may not kill all cancer cells even after the treatment is over, so when the treatment ends, the few remaining cancer cells are subject to the integrity of the patient's immune system.

... Quiet voice of hope whispered: 'Jennifer, give life one more try'

I received a mastectomy and chemotherapy. Chemotherapy was difficult, and each week when I met other cancer patients in the oncologist's office, we all felt like we were treading in shark-infested waters, waiting for the cancer to pick us off one by one, yet we remained brave in the midst of insurmountable odds. Whenever my world was caving in on me with the treatments, there were good family members and friends who climbed into the medical trenches with me to love and support us.

I did not entertain negative persons. Like the others, I survived chemotherapy with the side effects of hair loss, vomiting, and feeling sick. At the end of the treatment, my immune system was strengthened by a good lifestyle, including a proper diet, exercise, good relationships, and taking responsibility for the energy that others brought to me and that I brought to others. The new challenge was to make it through the next five years.

After an uneventful 15-year survival period in Jamaica, I was diagnosed with tumor recurrence in my chest bone. My fear and frustration resurfaced. It seemed that the world was forcing me to give up and scream "NO!" to my continued survival, but a quiet voice of hope whispered, "Jennifer, give life one more try". It is what Barack Obama called "The Audacity of Hope". This is when I knew I had to keep my sanity, stop focusing on breast cancer and put fear aside again.

After the surgical removal of my chest bone, ribs, and radiation therapy, I developed a stronger purpose to survive tragedy one more time.

My experience with a cancer diagnosis taught me not to have a fear-based existence. It taught me that statistics are not written in stone, and that prognoses do not define anything about me. I was given a second chance in life when I made the choice to go through an intense treatment programme. It was then that I knew that I had to develop the courage to win. I transformed myself from being a victim to becoming a victor. I forced myself to thrive. There was no time for fear. I never gave up.

'I refuse to put myself in a prison of cancer'

Over the years, I have met many cancer victims who are stuck in a breast cancer world. It is also part of my world, but I refuse to put myself in a prison of cancer. I cherish each moment my feet touch the ground. I know someday they won't, and until that day comes, I want to experience all that I can. I have so much to give, first to myself, then to others.

I fought and survived cancer with a strong sense of purpose by making better choices. Better choices put us in the best positions to help others and to support our children and grandchildren.

Albert Einstein said, "Mind management is essentially the key to life management." We all have the power to choose.

Steve Jobs, after his cancer diagnosis, said, "Your time is limited, so do not waste it living someone else's life." This means, that to be a cancer warrior, you must have the courage to live your best life to survive the disease.


Unfair expectations


So in life, how do we handle difficult situations? Do we get what we deserve, or do we get what we get, like cancer, and learn to deal with it? More often than not, things will not go as we expect and people will not live up to our expectations of what is fair or unfair. Superficially, it may seem that life is indeed not fair, but the truth is that it is our expectations of life that are unfair and our inability to accept that unpleasant things and difficult situations will happen no matter how we try to avoid them. Problems will appear and signify our need to make changes. How we solve problems and what we become thereafter are what make the difference.

Cancer warriors must support each other, become stronger, more educated, and more powerful than our non-cancer warrior counterparts. Strength breeds power and the responsibility to use it to work for the good of ourselves and others. It does not make sense to have an experience, learn from it, and then regret that it happened. Cancer may enrich your life beyond your wildest dreams with triumphs and successes. My career grew beyond expectations after a diagnosis of cancer. My personal story of becoming a warrior, now 31 years after breast cancer, allowed me to alleviate the fear of cancer and to become a victor.