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Alicia's blessing in disguise

Published:Monday | April 12, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Cover of the current edition of Basia Magazine shows Alicia Powell in the arms of her husband, Ricardo Powell. Alicia had lost her hair during chemotherapy.
Cover of the current edition of Basia Magazine shows Alicia Powell in the arms of her husband, Ricardo Powell. Alicia had lost her hair during chemotherapy.
Alicia Powell breast cancer survivor, thinks of it as a blessing in disguise. - Contributed
Alicia Powell breast cancer survivor, thinks of it as a blessing in disguise. - Contributed

Barbara Ellington, Lifestyle Editor

When Alicia Powell, creator of Basia Magazine and host of Trinidad & Tobago's 'Basia Show', embarked on a family trip to Disneyland last Summer, she did not expect it to change her life forever. A frequent breast self-examiner, Powell, 36, had felt a lump in her left breast a few days before the trip and sought medical attention at home.

But she figured why not get a second opinion during her Florida trip? She told Flair about the roller coaster ride in an exclusive interview when she visited Jamaica last week.

Powell actually got the confirming phone call with the biopsy result in August 2009, while she was enjoying the popular holiday destination with her husband (cricketer) Ricardo Powell and their two sons, Ricardo Jr and Ross.

The vivacious TV host's diagnosis was: cancer invasive ductal carcinoma, a common type of breast cancer. It was one year after the birth of her second son. She finished the day at Disneyland and went to Baptist Health, South Miami Hospital. Thank God for years of investing in good health insurance, she said. "Three and a half weeks after diagnosis, I did bilateral mastectomy with partial reconstruction," she told Flair with surprising candour. Total reconstruction came five months later.

"I had three months of chemotherapy; radiation was not necessary because I had removed all of the breast tissue,"

But how does this make you feel if you are a woman at the top of your game with successful career, loving husband, two healthy sons, fame, money and a bright future ahead?

Surprisingly, Alicia feels the illness was a blessing in disguise as throughout the interview, she made frequent references to God and His plan for their lives. "I was sad but not for long because while I was getting chemo treatment, I got the idea that I could use my situation to help women all over the Caribbean who have cancer but lack financial resources for proper treatment.

"I knew it had happened for a reason," said the cancer survivor with a strong spiritual grounding. "In life, everyone has a cross to carry and this was mine." Baptist Health South Miami, became a major sponsor and the Trinidad women benefit from lectures from world-class doctors and surgeons. A committee was set up to screen women who are in need of reconstructive cancer surgeries, but cannot afford it. The hospital agreed to fund surgeries for a specific number of women through the Basia Survivor Network.

Supportive husband

Her husband's attitude is supportive and loving. When asked how he felt to see the woman he loved lose her breasts, he said, "I knew what was happening; I was there with her every step of the way." I had no time to mope, we just had to deal with it positively," he told Flair.

He continues to live the promises they made in their wedding vows, and has even adopted her post-cancer diet. She has no sugar but she can eat lots of curry, as well as brown rice, whole wheat products, fish, chicken, no red meat, and alkaline-based water.

Very often we hear that when someone loses a limb, there is a lingering sensation that it is still attached. How did the lost breasts make Alicia feel? "I had breast impressions so I did not feel a thing, I was fortunate to be able to afford the level of treatment I got," she noted. But chemo was not so easy.

"I had to empty myself of all worries; it is not pleasant so you have to be happy before you face it," she said. The week during which she had the treatments was always "rough and left me feeling down". But she noted that when it was finally over, it was like being re-born. Her hair grew back with a softer texture,her skin glows more and it's almost like a second chance to be a better person.

Ironically, Alicia had been contemplating reconstructive surgery following the birth of her second son. Now she is proud of the two brand new breasts (with implants), thanks to her surgeon Dr Diedre Marshall who did an excellent job.

Survivor Network

The concept and launch of the Basia Survivor Network is one way to show her gratitude to God for all his blessings. It was launched in Trinidad and Tobago in November last year out of an idea she got while receiving chemotherapy treatments. The network is the result of the tremendous help that Alicia got from fellow survivors of breast and ovarian cancer.

Last week, Alicia and husband Ricardo visited Jamaica to meet with doctors and other stakeholders to pool their resources for the launch of Basia Survivor Network for women here later this year.

The couple also met with CVM Television for discussions about airing the 13 episodes of last season's 'Basia Show'. The episodes showed intimate details of her cancer management and include even the surgery. Plans are afoot to have the 'Basia Show' aired in Barbados and on CIN in New York, but for now viewers can watch past episodes on the website.

"I had to bring the survivor network to Jamaica; my husband is Jamaican and I lived here for nine years. I did volunteer work for the local cancer society back then. So my goal is to teach women to maintain happiness after cancer, I want to change the culture of seeing it as a death sentence, because there are many survivors," she said. Alicia explained that in the Caribbean we have a negative culture towards cancer and many women die because of lack of proper care, so part of the reason for the network is to get affordable reconstructive surgery and CT/PET scans. The latter will detect a return of the cells early.

The survivor network provides an avenue for the women to get education about cancer, do exercises such as yoga and dance, or simply share their experiences, while extracting the positive from an unexpected negative occurrence.

Alicia has learnt a whole new approach to her existence since the diagnosis and she now has a 'pie chart' for living that allots 80 per cent of her time to living well and happy and the other 20 per cent to work that she enjoys. Ricardo agrees, and he said that for them, everything fell into place during the time of crisis. Family was a big help and now they are more careful where their minds are focused. The children were too young to be fully cognisant of what was happening to their mother, but Ricardo Jr who is now six, sensed her moods and would often ask, "Mommy, are you all right?

The experience has left the Powells more solid. Alicia said they could have given up, because cancer came in a bad year for their business, but didn't. They are now working hard to rebuild their brand.

Diet after Cancer Treatment

Eat good nutritious food that is rich in proteins and fibre. There is no research that suggests that the foods eaten will prevent cancer from recurring. But, eating well will help survivors regain strength, rebuild tissue and improve overall well-being.

Consult your dietician and create a nutritious, balanced eating plan. Add a variety of foods that are rich in proteins and carbohydrates. Try to eat at least five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables, including citrus fruits and dark-green and deep-yellow vegetables.

Eat plenty of high-fibre foods, such as whole grain breads and cereals. Decrease the amount of fat in your meals by baking or broiling foods. Also avoid salt-cured, smoked and pickled foods. If you are overweight, consider losing weight by reducing the amount of fat in your diet and increasing your activity. Check with your doctor before starting any exercise programme.

Anti-Cancer Diet

Antioxidants work well in an anti-cancer diet since they prevent free radical reactions. They also prevent faulty cell metabolisms and protect the intestinal membrane cells. Beta carotene fights against cancer by both boosting the immune system and releasing a specific chemical called tumour necrosis factor. This blocks the growth of potential cancer cells. You can find beta carotene in colourful vegetables and fruits such as carrots, cantaloupe, pumpkins, butternut and other types of winter squash, spinach, broccoli, mango and papaya. Vitamin C in your diet can help in fighting potent carcinogens, especially those found in processed meats. It also boosts the production of lymphocytes, thereby giving a fillip to your immune system. Women who have low levels of vitamin E and selenium are more likely to contract breast cancer.

Follow a diet that is low in saturated fats. Cancerous tumour cells need LDLs to grow. A low LDL diet can be beneficial to prevent cancer. Omega 3 fatty acids and monounsaturated oils do not contribute towards cancer. In fact they offer protection against cancers. Use of coconut, sunflower, sesame and virgin olive can provide high omega-3 fatty acids. Use of hydrogenated fats can be potentially carcinogenic.

Including salads of raw fruits and vegetables in your diet can arm you with cancer-fighting properties since they contain phytochemicals, phenols, indols, flavones, cumines, and isothiocyanates, all of which are carcinogen-blocking agents.

Eating cruciferous vegetables can lower the risks of breast and colon cancer significantly. Include garlic, dark leafy spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, red peppers, kidney beans, and garbanzo beans and vital sources of beta carotene.

Including soy products as a source of protein can go a long way in your anti-cancer diet.

Incidence of breast cancer is very low among Greek and other Mediterranean women whose diet is rich with monounsaturated oils. Large amounts of fruits, vegetables, seafood, nuts and legumes are also responsible for lowering the risk of colorectal cancer.

Include sources of Selenium in your anti cancer diet - lobster, shrimp, whole grains, brown rice, cottage cheese, lamb chops, chicken, sunflower seeds and garlic.

Flaxseeds are said to be full of cancer-preventive compounds that can help you reduce the risk of breast cancer and colon cancer.

Green tea and garlic are also credited with anti-oxidant properties that fight cancer cells.