Three-time young cancer survivor gets second chance - 28-year-old now on her way to achieving dream career
When a third cancer diagnosis forced Josan Sutherland to decline her first Chevening Scholarship offer in 2018, she was devastated.
Not only would the practising physiotherapist have to fight the deadly disease for a third time, but her dream of pursuing advanced studies in her field would have to be put on hold.
“I was lost beyond words. I kept on asking myself, ‘how could this be happening to me’?” she recalled, noting that she received the diagnosis a day after her scholarship acceptance letter.
But come next week, Sutherland is scheduled to leave Jamaica for University College London (UCL) in the United Kingdom (UK) to pursue a master’s degree in neurological physiotherapy.
The 28-year-old is one of 14 Jamaicans awarded the prestigious Chevening Scholarship this year.
Sutherland said that her cancer fight started at age 12, when she was diagnosed with bone cancer, which resulted in the loss of her right leg.
“I had just started attending St Andrew High School when I injured my ankle while doing synchronised swimming at school. At first, I thought nothing of the injury more than it being a sprained ankle. It was not until weeks later, when the swelling continued, that my mother became alarmed and sought medical advice. It was discovered that I had a tumour by the ankle joint,” she related.
Sutherland shared that when she was presented with her treatment options and realising how costly and difficult trying to save her leg would be, she told her mother and medical team to proceed with amputation.
“My focus at that age was to recover as quickly as possible so that I could return to school because I was being treated in the United States of America. I never thought of my circumstance as being ‘life and death’ although I understood the gravity of my condition,” she noted.
The young woman said that it was after the loss of her leg that she decided that she wanted to become a physiotherapist, so that one day she could help others with physical problems, due to injury or illness, become more mobile.
Nine years later, while studying to pursue her dream of becoming a physiotherapist, Sutherland was faced with another cancer diagnosis.
“I was in the final year of my undergraduate studies at The University of the West Indies (UWI) when, while examining myself, I discovered a lump in my breast. I had it checked out and the test result came back that it was malignant. The diagnosis came as a shocker for me, but it was even more surprising to my doctor, who had never seen the condition in a 21-year-old patient,” Sutherland remembered.
She explained that the diagnosis concluded that she had triple-negative breast cancer, which meant the cancer was not triggered by or fed by hormones. Her treatment entailed numerous rounds of chemotherapy and a mastectomy.
“It was heartbreaking to be fighting cancer for a second time, but it was even more devastating for me to be doing this while preparing to leave university. I had to take a semester off for my treatment and this was a setback,” Sutherland shared.
She eventually returned to UWI months later to complete her studies, and graduated with first-class honours.
“As a young woman, I was concerned about how my body would look post-surgery and the possibility of me being able to breastfeed my future children. However, my medical team, through reconstructive surgery, erased all these concerns. I was happy to get my life back and start my career cancer-free,” she said.
Over the next five years, Sutherland worked as a physiotherapist, and in 2018 decided to apply for the Chevening Scholarship to further her professional development and hone her skills in the field.
After a lengthy application process, she was selected as a candidate to pursue a Master of Science in Advanced Neurophysiotherapy at the UCL.
“When I got the call to pick up the official letter, I was super-excited. I got the email with the #ChosenForChevening tag line at work and my co-workers and I could not contain our excitement. I was so grateful for the opportunity to further my passion for working in the neurological community and with the disabled community,” Sutherland recounted.
However, her joy soon turned into sorrow and uncertainty about her future as, 24 hours after receiving her scholarship acceptance letter, a biopsy result confirmed that a lump she had felt weeks ago was not scar tissue from her first mastectomy, as she had thought, but a malignancy.
“I was the first person in my family to be diagnosed with cancer let alone on three separate occasions. My medical team was also baffled by this third diagnosis, and that’s when they decided to do genetic testing,” she explained.
The test revealed that Sutherland was living with a rare genetic mutation called Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, which makes her more prone to developing tumours and malignancies.
“Honestly, this time around I felt defeated. At one point, I found myself surrendering and saying ‘if this is the end of the road for me, then I accept it’. I’m an optimist at heart, but to have my dreams snatched away by a disease I’ve already fought twice was enough to knock the wind out of my sails,” she said.
The third diagnosis was oestrogen and progesterone (ER/PR) positive breast cancer, which means the cancer cells grow in response to the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. Sutherland would have to go through the surgical process of a mastectomy once again, aggressive chemotherapy and hormonal therapy as part of her treatment regime.
“This disease has cost me so much emotionally and financially, but I couldn’t sit here and talk about my journey and not express how grateful I am to have the support of my family, doctors, friends and kind, good Samaritans, whose care have helped me to be where I am today,” she said.
GETTING HER LIFE BACK
Fast-forward one year later, and after intense cancer treatment, Sutherland decided to reapply for the Chevening Scholarship.
“I was hesitant to reapply, but quickly decided that if I was able to beat cancer three times, then I have no valid reason to fear going after my dreams and fulfilling my purpose in life. Being accepted for the scholarship a second time was really symbolic of me getting my life back after having to put my career on pause due to my treatment,” she said.
The story of the young cancer survivor, who is always ready to share a smile, has inspired and warmed the hearts of many persons.
“Through my sickness, I have met many kind souls, some who just want to help and others who are also fighting for their health. I am a big advocate for breast cancer screening and cancer recovery. I participate in annual cancer charity events such as Relay for Life, and I have worked with the Jamaica Cancer Society. Any opportunity I get to spread awareness about cancer and my genetic condition I make use of it. Encouragement and support are crucial to recovery and comfort during the difficult times of sickness,” Sutherland shared.
Being diagnosed with a rare genetic mutation, Sutherland will have to undergo lifelong treatment but remains dedicated to living a life of positivity, charity, and peace.
She is expressing gratitude to the UK and Jamaican governments for providing young people with an opportunity to advance themselves and positively impact their country through the Chevening Scholarship.
“The Chevening application process is now open and I would like to encourage eligible candidates to apply and not rule themselves out. If I can find the courage to pursue my dreams, then anyone can,” she declared.