Survivor braves cancer fate
Tessa Atkinson’s father, his twin sister, her uncle, grandfather, and grandmother all lost their lives to cancer, evidence that the day would come when her genetics would reveal the deadly disease to her.
By age 38, the high-school teacher was forced to say goodbye to both her breasts, and months later, give up her womb in order to save her life.
“It is all about genetics. Everybody from my father’s side, cancer took them out. It shows that genetic cancer is real,” she told The Gleaner during a visit to her Estuary home in Montego Bay, St James, on Tuesday. Her sister, who was recently diagnosed, is also battling the disease.
Diagnosed in 2015, Atkinson had planned to remove only one breast after consultations with noted cancer specialist Dr Delroy Fray, but his permission for her to take the time off and travel overseas for leisure opened a new wave of discovery for the 44-year-old single mother.
While vacationing in the United States, Atkinson sought a second opinion and found out that no matter what she did, she couldn’t escape her fate.
The two genes that are important to fighting cancer, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, were not working normally, she discovered through a series of tests in the US.
“My aunt put me in touch with the Cancer Society of America, and they did tests known as genetic profiling. Instead of taking off one breast, they did a bilateral or a double mastectomy,” said Atkinson.
Losing both breasts was not easy, but she said they were able to narrow down her history, which showed that her dead father’s chromosome 13 was compromised.
The surgery cost US$54,000 (J$8 million), and although she was offered a payment plan, that was where her money troubles started.
Breast surgery was done in January 2016, and by December that same year, her ovaries and fallopian tubes were removed, based on the BRCA gene mutation.
“Everything was gone. Everything was taken to preserve my life,” she said in resignation.
No stranger to surgery, Atkinson had gone under the knife in 2015 to remove her uterus owing to incessant bleeding caused by uterine fibroids. Little did she know that the studies carried out in the United States had shown cancer was in her womb, appearing as uterine fibroids.
“And outside the womb. I was full of fibroids. I had to wear pampers to work. I had depo shots (family planning), just so they would go away. So instead of being stupid and bleeding to death I asked the doctors to remove my womb,” Atkinson said.
Womb in 2015. Breasts in 2016. What’s worse, as debt amounting to $7 million piled up, she went into surgical menopause.
But Atkinson, who has the physique of an Amazonian and the strength of an ox, would not allow cancer to beat her to death. Her scars are a survivor’s war medals as she battles to repay her debt.
“I owe so much now that sometimes I ask God, ‘Why?’ Then I say, ‘Why not?’ because I’m still alive for my only child who does extremely well academically,” she said, describing her son as her “driving force”.
After paying $97,000 in cancer debts monthly, plus $19,800 per month in mortgage, she takes home $5,000 for food and incidentals.
Atkinson neither has a refrigerator nor a stove. She cooks with her kettle.
“NHT was telling me I couldn’t get the house because I can’t afford it as there is nothing on my pay stub,” she said, adding that had it not been for the intervention of Prime Minister Andrew Holness, she would have nowhere to sleep.
As the prospect of losing her home loomed, Atkinson said she penned a letter to the prime minister and called his office daily for weeks until she got a response.
“I put my cards on the table, and within weeks, a social worker from St Ann came to investigate my case,” she said.
Atkinson says she has received help from the Jamaica Cancer Society and others. She has started raising chickens and does after-school sessions to supplement her income stream.