“I am NOT my breasts”: A Jamaican woman’s breast cancer journey

My dear friend Petre Williams Raynor has been cancer-free for a year now, and she looks really great, with her usual warm smile. It was a pleasure to meet up with her recently; it meant a lot to me personally, and I thought I would share something of our rather long conversation here.

Petre has written an account of her experience with breast cancer, entitled “I Am NOT My Breasts.” I have it on Kindle; you can obtain a copy here. It is clear, straight forward, an unflinching account. It takes courage to write this.

Note the upper case “NOT.” This is a defiant declaration – firm, yet positive. Why this title, I asked her? She explained that making a decision on the kind of treatment that you will have is neither simple nor easy. What is most important, however, is to just make the best decision for your health. Don’t cling to the “specialness” of your breasts. We all love our breasts, and we may not want to hurt them and to keep them intact – but remind yourself that your health comes first.

This common sense approach does not surprise me; it is typical of Petre’s character. She is someone who presses on, taking things in stride, moving forward. This is exactly how she has managed her cancer journey, with support from a fantastic medical team and very supportive husband.

Petre is also a “workaholic.” Whatever she takes on, she puts her heart and mind into it. An experienced and practiced journalist (especially on environmental issues), she’s a fluent writer, grasps the essence of a story quickly, and bashes away on her laptop at high speed. She has also been involved in the NGO sector, working on development issues, advocating for women’s health rights and for climate change awareness, among other critical areas.

So, that’s Petre, in a nutshell.

Much of her account (and my conversation with her recently) is about coping with cancer psychologically. I am discovering there are many layers to this – I think perhaps especially for women with breast cancer. Essentially, Petre tackles this in the title of her book: her cancer – and indeed, her breasts themselves – are not going to rule her life. She told me she doesn’t call it “The Big C” (a rather terrifying expression). She calls it “The Little C,” putting it in its place. She described to me her state of mind after receiving her diagnosis: simply trying to take it in, to absorb this fact of what is happening in your body. It’s a sudden realisation. On top of that, though, there is a “maze,” she said – trying to sort out and make sense of all the information that you are given about your condition. Then – there is another layer. That is the need to move quickly, to sort it out, to deal with it.

There is also anxiety about one’s appearance. Losing one’s hair is quite a devastating experience, but Petre felt (and this is important) that she took control of all that. She went to the hairdresser to have her head shaved and bought some wigs. “I was proactive,” she said.

“When you are diagnosed with cancer, you don’t let it overcome you. Yes, it is a weight that descends on you, but you need to take control and live your life.” It is like any other illness. Live with it. My husband, who is diabetic, does just that, every day. Petre advises that you should do everything you need to get done medically, but continue your regular activities – so long as your body can manage it, of course. Stick to your routine, she urges (in other contexts I have found routine very comforting, myself – in fact, right through the COVID pandemic).

Petre emphasised how important it is to have a solid team of doctors behind you. At this point, I must pause to send my own special big ups and appreciation to three women: Dr. Terry Baker, Dr. Natalie Sharpe, and Dr. Derria Cornwall. These three women absolutely inspire me. They are a support group.

What Petre did find, however, was that she didn’t want to tell all her friends and acquaintances that she had cancer, at first. “The weight of their sympathy was a burden!” she said. Friends love you. They mean well. They want to help. But sometimes, you have enough to deal with. Having to reassure and comfort them, dealing with their anxiety and emotions, is just another layer of that psychological pressure you feel. Petre suggests minimising it – the concern of your friends can even make you feel more sick!

As for her beloved husband, his support was remarkable. That’s all I can say. A loving partner is irreplaceable. It is everything.

Petre with her beautiful daughter, Rayne.

Do you know something else that is vital? Early detection! I know it has been said before, and if nothing else I would like you, my readers (if you are still with me) to acknowledge and appreciate this. Once again: Early detection is everything.

The follow-up to that, of course, is this: Have regular checkups. In Jamaica, it is advised that you have a mammogram checkup at the age of forty. If you have a family history, or if you have any concerns or symptoms, this should take place well before, just to be on the safe side. As someone who has had mammograms every year for a long time now, I can assure women that, although it might be a little uncomfortable, it is nothing to be nervous about. It is like taking a photo of your breasts from different angles. It is certainly not painful – or it shouldn’t be! There are many places where you can get it done; I have been going to the Jamaica Cancer Society for years, because I like to support their work. They also have a support group for breast cancer.

#Live #Love #Thrive

This is Petre’s hashtag exhortation, summing up the philosophy she has always had, and still holds to. Wellness is key during cancer treatment: go for a short walk if you are not too tired; get plenty of rest; eat a fairly healthy diet (not too much salt or sugar); make lots of green drinks and smoothies; drink plenty of water; do the things that will help you find peace of mind. Take your vaccines and boost your immunity!

At the end of her book, in “Onward Journey,” she resolutely faces the future. Yes, there is always a possibility that the cancer may return. Yes, the experience still haunts her and is in her thoughts daily. But not one of us is certain that we will live to see the sun rise tomorrow. This evening, we may have seen our last sunset. That may sound gloomy, but it is a simple fact of life. As one of my favourite musicians of all time, George Harrison, sang: “All Things Must Pass,” whether good or bad.

And meanwhile, we live. We love. And we continue to thrive.

Let’s remind ourselves, too: there are so many women who have survived breast cancer. I personally know several in Jamaica and elsewhere, who are living normal lives, years later.

All of this resonates more strongly with me now, as I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer myself. My own journey is just beginning.

I want to thank you, Petre, for writing your book, and for your openness, your courage, and your honesty . I hope your book, and this blog post, might also help other women cope with breast cancer, wherever and whoever they are, and whatever their current circumstances. But I would like to say to these women – please remember: you are not alone. There are always people who can help you. Lean on the professionals (including mental health professionals, if need be). They are there to help you.

We are all different as human beings, physically and of course psychologically; none of us have all the answers. Our stories are different. All we can do as we travel through life is enjoy and live every moment, and deal with each moment as it comes. Whether we have cancer or not, the same rules apply.

Take care. Be mindful.

The hard-working Petre Williams Raynor at her desk, with a good cuppa.

6 thoughts on ““I am NOT my breasts”: A Jamaican woman’s breast cancer journey

  1. I read this in early July while recovering from a fall on a trail – and while the students were about to have their show – and then Covid climbed aboard, but none of the above offers an honest apology for missing those subtle details you so stealthily slipped into this post. Always placing the spotlight on others – and in this one you were showcasing the beauty of Petre’s spirit, words and example – you shared your own story with a grace that only the ultra sensitive can do. Goodness, and then to have your husband’s own crisis, diagnosis, treatments and adjustments.

    Again in the land of the living, I have good days and ‘exhausted’ days, and my 11-hour sleep sessions remind me that I’m no longer a fledgling, capable of soaring out of the nest, but maybe like a migratory bird that has reached a land of respite… Rest, nutrition, restoring energy, one hour at a time.

    My kindred spirit Petchary; it’s time for me to decide which bird best represents my own journey! Sending you a zillion cyber hugs.

    Like

  2. Reblogged this on Green Seeds and commented:
    It is worthwhile to recall your journey, reminding yourself of how far you’ve come. To have your story shared by others is to know that you are not alone. Emma, I stand with you and all the other women who have, will or are going through breast cancer.

    Like

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