by Dr. Jessica Bardales
I still wake up at 4 a.m. everyday to check on my children. When they were small I used to readjust the many barriers on the bed plus the rubber puzzles tiles on the floor to prevent them from falling. Now, I observe in awe how quickly their bodies fill up their beds. Their peaceful expressions fill my heart with love and indescribable energy. With a contrite heart I thank our Creator for the gift of life.
I imagine that almost everybody in our Federation is fast asleep. I simply cannot sleep as I do not want another day to pass without thanking you with all my heart, my Nevisian family for lifting me up.
It has been a very challenging seven months since I started this second battle of what cancer specialists call Metastatic Breast Cancer. There are only two days left to finish the last set of three different types of treatment prescribed this time. It’s almost over! The medical literature plus my team of doctors warned me that I would be feeling more tired as the time passed. There have been twenty-five doses of radiotherapy plus two types of chemotherapy. “The surgeries and therapy given in 2012-2013 and this new set of treatment will have its cumulative effects. At the end you will really feel down, do not be surprised.”, I was told.
I was extremely fragile at the beginning, physically and mentally. I was not expecting the monster to be back so fast because I had done all that was possible and more to prevent it. Nobody’s mind will ever be ready for battles with the Devil. We are just humans.
Dear doctors, brothers and sisters. Who is the greatest physician of all? Do you believe in miracles? Do you really believe in the love of our Almighty? Only two more nights to finish the treatment and I am feeling incredibly normal, so close to my old self, with such peace and strength that can only come from our Lord.
“How are you almost crossing the finishing line for a second time?”. “You make it look so easy, girl!” are the two most common statements I usually hear.
When I felt that my life was almost gone, when there was no energy to even swallow, when every cell in my body refused to respond to my brain and heart commands, when I was sinking down, when the Devil wanted me to despair and gave up, I closed my eyes and I felt so clearly the hands of my Jesus taking mine, I felt his presence walking next to me with that resplendent glow around him, filling me with Holy strength and reminding me that I do not decide completely on my life, reminding me that our Creator has a plan already for me, assuring me that he will never, ever abandon me nor my family.
This journey has not been, it is not and it may not be an easy one. I cannot pretend that it’s a fairy tale. I cannot presume that I am the strongest person ever without any side effects. Only our Lord knows how many times my flesh and my soul have been challenged. One day my tongue was twice its size and had many sores. I had fever and was in extreme pain. I tried so many medications without success. With the encouragement of my dear Pastor’s wife I still went to church. I couldn’t sing; with tears in my eyes, I concentrated on the beautiful voices of my brothers and sisters, the energy of my entire church came to me. I prayed with all my heart for some relief. When I woke up the following morning, the pain and the sores were completely gone. I believe in miracles!! I believe in the power of collective prayers, in good energy given to the fallen sister or brother, sincere loving touches.
Some days, selfishly, I did not want to hear, nor remember that I am being treated for metastatic breast cancer. I do not want to even mention the stage the doctors said I have. I do not want to remember all the horrendous moments of fear and despair. I am a simple human being who has a lot of weaknesses. During four years I have been challenged with almost all side effects written in the medication list and some that are not even mentioned. I did not want to have them, but they were real. Who wants to remember days when even the touch of water hurts your skin, who wants to remember that you need to gently warn your children not to hug you because it hurts, excruciating bone pain that you try to hide with a smile, swelling of your arms, frequent urinary infections because of the lack of estrogen. I do not even mention the loss of all the hair follicles in my entire body as I never worried much about my external look. How many activities I wanted to be part of but my energy levels were not there. Some days the barking of my dogs and even the high pitch of my beloved children’s voices gave me awful headaches, forcing me to hide. How many challenging situations this treatment has put me in! On one of my trips to Puerto Rico, after a long wait in emigration, I ran to the nearest bathroom, my bladder was so full, but because of the hypersensitivity in my hands, I couldn’t open the zipper of my pants on time and I peed myself. I felt embarrassed and sad but after a while I started to laugh. I asked a Nevisian sister who was also there to please tell the airline that I was coming soon, at least I had energy to wash my clothes and change. Once again I was reminded to practice patience, plan ahead of time without losing control or feel that my pride was being challenged. How many times I needed to ask my son to comb my hair or my husband or daughter to help me get dressed. I do not believe in feeling pity for myself or others with limitations. I believe in facing challenges with grace. I rejoice when I am able to cook, wash dishes, clean, fold clothes, comb my daughter’s hair, take care of my garden or anything I am capable of doing. It’s incredible how we take everything for granted while we are strong.
While walking in town one morning, a friend told me “I prayed for you all these months, I will continue praying for the cancer to leave you once and for all”, minutes after I had received a phone message concerning a young brother at the hospital battling with cancer and how his loving family and friends were making efforts to help with his treatment. I visited him, held his hands and understood so well how he was feeling trapped in a tired body, how quickly he changed from being so active to being a spectator, how much pain was causing him to be a ‘burden’ to his family. I reflected on my friend’s words “praying for cancer to leave you once and for all” and came to a conclusion: The word cancer WILL NEVER LEAVE ME because even if I feel better or get better, I will never stop thinking about YOU. I know that in this precise moment cancer is finding a new victim here or around the world.
Since I was a medical student I was so inclined to learn to diagnose this condition. Now as a specialist doctor whose body is being touched by it, I make the commitment to contribute as long as I am alive to prevent, diagnose, treat and remind you that God is bigger than cancer. We cannot allow this ruthless condition to rule our lives. Cancer isn’t everything. It can and does rob our energy but if we don’t feed ourselves with faith, we are feeding the illness. We must continue living. I know so well how difficult it is. When fear, depression, sadness, anger intend to enter our souls, when the treatments shake every atom in our flesh and make our thoughts so blurry, please believe that our Lord is there, protecting us from angry waters. Our faith will determine our victory.
All of us do not react in the same way. On a day that our physical being is completely down a “Be Strong” comment will not make sense. Some wonder how others can be that positive when one can hardly stand up. Some will hide the cancer diagnosis and never share their emotions. I understand you and respect you so much. The first days after my diagnosis, I did not want even my parents to know, just the thought of my loved ones suffering for me was not helping the way I was feeling. I wanted to battle alone but we are never alone. Our Lord is always next to us. Sometimes our friends do not know what to say. I told a dear friend once. “Please, just stay next to me, do not say anything, but stay” If you decide to cry alone or to take your time before sharing, if you get angry for a bit or for longer, forgive yourself and pray. I pray so deeply for YOU. Pray for me please. Cancer will never leave me because I think of YOU and I need YOU more than you can imagine.
I think of YOU, dear sister who sent me a note from my little city where I was born. I remember us at five or six years old playing hide and seek, now you are in a hospital bed recovering from breast surgery, looking at me for advice to continue your fight, how much you want to win this battle to remain for your two little boys. I thank you for finding me and sharing your deepest feelings. I cannot stop thinking of YOU also, a friend from a very wealthy upbringing but facing this battle almost alone, how much you regret that you did not plant seeds of friendship instead of focusing on money and now feel so lonely. Remember God NEVER abandons us. I think of YOU, a lady from a neighboring Caribbean island who I never met; you found my number on the internet, called and told me that holding one of my articles you finally found courage and underwent a hysterectomy. The day we spoke I was the one who needed you. God gave you the courage. I reflect of what YOU asked me the other day: “How are surgeries and treatments affecting the way you see yourself? What does your partner think after “the mutilation?” Let me tell you very honestly. I am so thankful for my body for so many things. I feel so blessed, so pretty because nothing will take away my smile, because neither one nor two nor any of my organs defines me. We are God’s creation, just beautiful even without breast, womb, ovaries, legs, hair, pieces of skin, prostate. None of those pieces of flesh or cells define us, we are so much more! If your partner or family, if the entire society makes fun of you, do not take it personally, if some believe that we are not worthy any more, let’s prove them wrong. We need to keep on loving and living. When there is respect and real love within a couple, sexual life is even better. Many partners abandon the other one mainly out of misconceptions, many men break relationships of years just thinking that after surgery they will not be able to satisfy their wives even if the loyal wives are not thinking of abandoning them. Do you not deserve to be loved? How many husbands abandon their wives after hysterectomy because they do not understand that the uterus does not have anything to do withmaking love? If we were together in good times, can’t we be together in bad ones? Who can predict when our last day will be?
Cancer did not and will never make me surrender, but in this journey something else made me a great victim and actually won the battle. YOUR LOVE! You may not agree with me, but I am not brave. I do not like making TV or radio appearances. I am made speechless by comments or demonstrations of love to me. I try every day of my life to follow my parents’ advice and be a giver in whatever way I can. Over these past years my family and I have been beneficiaries of the most unimaginable acts of giving. YOUR LOVE HAS BEEN LIFTING ME AND IS LIFTING ME ALL THIS TIME. From stopping me in the streets of Charlestown and holding my hand to pray, to baskets of fresh vegetables and fruits, poems written for me, songs, messages, calls from all over the planet, letters, books, healing oils coming from another continent from an unknown person whose wife found relief from them; more than the real ingredients, the ingredients of love really worked. The most surprising one of all was to read on Facebook(where else!), after returning from Puerto Rico in February, that my sister-in-law had opened a GoFundMe page for me and that some friends had organized an event “TO HONOR OUR HEROINE” at Bananas restaurant. To be honest, I quickly logged off Facebook. I had so many mixed emotions. Honoring me?; the daughter of a modest Inca family whose community and parents taught her to give silently without ever accepting or waiting for anything in return. I was in shock. However, I was told by my pastor to “Let it be”. I was told by closest friends: “Sit back and now savor our love”. I was persuaded to go to the event. I did not take any pictures but the image of so many cars, the place full of people from different walks of life will eternally melt my heart. Thank you so much, dear Gillian Smith, sisters at the “The Nevis Health Fund” and the many persons who came that night. I was in pain and I couldn’t hug anybody. I was surprised and burst into tears when the sister of my beloved Ruby Chapman gave me a trophy that she had promised me. When Ruby was very ill, she asked me once what I would like to take from her belongings. I told her that I would love to have one of her many trophies as I was always the worst one in sports in my entire gigantic public school. She showed me one that was made especially for her, “Most outstanding female cricketer”. I was given that trophy that night. From a place in my living room it reminds me of Ruby’s courageous spirit and true friendship. I hope to be like her, one of the most outstanding warriors I ever met.
When I was not feeling brave enough to take those gigantic chemotherapy pills, my children holding my hand and singing for me helped me to swallow them. Twice I choked and they got scared. The dysphagia (difficulty in swallowing) was challenging. It is painful for me to give them worries. However, they reminded me of what I often said to them: “We are a team, we are always there for one another” and I say silently: “Lord, help me to be with them for a very long time”.
My daughter’s first promotional exam in high school was a “scary learning experience”. She did not check the time and did not finish one of her Literature essays. I never saw her so devastated, thinking that she may not be promoted to second form. I felt sorry for her but Lord, I was so blessed to be there for her, calm her down and remind her that she still had nine more exams coming one after the other one. That is life, with ups and downs, we need to face them, believing deeply than tomorrow will be better. I will never hurt them physically or verbally because of academic reasons. They understand that that’s their “job” now, that they need to try their best to improve and gain knowledge to find a place in this competitive world but always being humble and respecting the so many children who sacrifice a lot more than them. During Culturama, our friend, James Weekes asked my children to participate in a swimming competition. When I realized that they were asked to dive and swim from the old pier to the new one, in Charlestown (in my opinion, from a great height), I begged my husband and James to forget about it. They don’t dive, they just love to swim. I couldn’t believe they still went. I was so nervous, worse than on a bad chemo day. My daughter was came first on her race, my little one did a great job and I hardly survived the experience! Their bravery and kindness keep me going.
When I am capable of “being there” for them, I remember mothers who fought so courageously but lost the battle and with a prayer left their children. At any event I cheer for any child whose their parents couldn’tbe there or children without parents. I am blessed that I may have been a bit fragile, but I was there at the end of the road when they learned to ride their bikes. I was there, at the end of a bad day due to their hormonal changes or a dispute with a friend. I am accompanying them in their own battles, dealing with mistakes, celebrating victories. Some days I get anxious and emotional, trying to do all that is possible in case there is not enough time for me. Prayers, sincere prayers made me regain my happiness, calm down and be contented with my memories and my present.
A week has passed since I started this letter. I will be traveling tomorrow to repeat a PET scan, to visit my Oncologist and find out if the inclement treatment worked. What will my next article be about? Only God holds the answers.
I am so happy to inform you that the two breast models have arrived, donated by Juliet Chapman(Ruby Chapman’s sister) and her friends in New Jersey, USA. These are the first of the eight breast models that our NGO “The Nevis Maternal Health Fund” is hoping to donate to each health center in Nevis. A hearty thank you. The other six will be here soon. These models represent the chest of a female with one healthy breast, without any lump and the other with various abnormalities. Our campaign “Loving Touch Gentle Exam” will continue island-wide. With the help of our skilled nurses and colleagues at the Health Promotion Unit, we will be having “hands on” experience with those breast models. As has been happening for fourteen years, our annual free gynecological exams and mammograms will be offered at J&J medical services. You will hear from us soon. Nothing will ever be enough in our battle for prevention.
Please brothers and sister, learn about your body. I implore you to take some minutes of your time to search for the many signs and symptoms of cancer, examine yourself, get checked, do not wait until it’s too late.
In spite of what my doctors tell me, while energy remains in my physical body, with all the strength my faith is giving me, we will continue the fight. Is it personal? Yes it is.
Thank you, friends from home and afar for helping me to remain strong. I am only human. Our Lord’s love and grace relieve my fears, his word my hope secures. Amen
Please share these educational videos made right here on Nevis
http://youtu.be/NKiTE8MsSNA (HPV and Cervical Cancer)
http://youtu.be/ZYf-KDwx4M0 (Facing Breast Cancer)