Oct 11, 2015 News
By Sharmain Grainger
There have been enough reported cancer related deaths worldwide to conclude that the chronic disease is a leading cause of death globally. However, early detection and treatment can certainly help to save lives.
Among those who can attest to this notion is Ms Carol Bagot – a cancer survivor – who even before being diagnosed was throwing her efforts behind helping to combat the disease that has been wreaking havoc across the world.
Bagot, a Guyanese by birth who has resided in the United States (US) for many years, is the founder and President of the Organisation for Social and Health Advancement in Guyana (OSHAG). OSHAG was brought into being in the year 2000 with the primary purpose of raising awareness about cancer.
Bagot disclosed during a recent interview with me that it was because of her observation that many women travelling from Guyana to the US were being seen with advanced stages of cancer that she decided to garner support to establish OSHAG.
She recently vowed to redouble her efforts to work in close collaboration with the Ministry of Public Health to help tackle cancer especially in light of some troubling revelations of the state of cancer in Guyana.
A Surveillance Cancer Report was earlier this year unveiled by the Ministry of Public Health, which examined the prevalence of the various forms of cancer over the period 2003-2012. The Report provides statistics of the 10 leading cancers in Guyana. The data used was provided by the Guyana Cancer Registry.
While on a global scale lung cancer has been named the leading cause of cancer deaths; the data provided revealed that in Guyana breast cancer is responsible for the highest number of cancer related fatalities. This is translated to 1,090 cases of breast cancer over the identified period.
Following the prevalence of breast cancer is cancer of the cervix which accounts for 1,014 cases; prostate (865 cases); colo-rectal (440 cases); uterus (325 cases); stomach (240 cases); lung (233 cases); liver (219 cases); ovary (212 cases) and lymphoma (136 cases).
Data out of the Cancer Registry, which was drawn from both public and private medical institutions, suggest that since access to treatment has been near non-existent, more than half of those inflicted with the disease died.
Bagot through her organization is determined to help bring an end to this daunting state of affairs.
WHO IS CAROL BAGOT
But from whence did this woman Carol Bagot come? She possesses such an unwavering passion to tackle cancer that some have said that she is fit to be named a dame.
Her origin was in the ancient county of Berbice. She was born and raised in Port Plantation, Port Mourant where she attended the St Francis Roman Catholic School before heading to the Chandisingh High School in Rose Hall Town.
She had a modest upbringing and recalled growing up in a home with her great aunt and grandfather.
“It was humble beginnings…We lived on the Albion Estate for a number of years because my grandfather was the Chief Dispenser at the Estate,” recounted Bagot. Her grandfather had taken the family to a residence at Rose Hall after retiring.
Bagot was eventually thrust into the world of work at the age of 19. Her first working experience saw her moving away from the family home to the capital city to take up the position of a switch board operator at the Georgetown Hospital.
Not many years later, she gave birth to her first child, Arlene, and decided to return to Berbice to take up a switchboard operating job at the New Amsterdam Public Hospital.
She remained there for a number of years following which she was able to secure a position at Telecoms (now the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company). Bagot would remain there for just a few months before migrating to the US in 1987.
In the US she furthered her education and was soon dabbling in issues of mental health. She also completed a Master’s in Human Services Administration.
While pursuing her Master’s Bagot was asked to coordinate a political campaign for State Senator of New York, John Sampson.
Before this, however, she’d worked for a number of years as Director of Community Relations which had made her a rather familiar face in Brooklyn, New York. “…At that time a lot of women who came from Guyana heard of me, this Guyanese woman who was working for the State Senator, and they would come to me for help.”
But she would soon recognize that the help that some of them were seeking was way too overwhelming to simply give casual aid.
What Bagot was increasingly seeing were women with advance stages of cancer coming for much needed assistance. “It started to become overwhelming because what I saw was far too many women with stages two and three breast cancer…We would help them to get medical attention but when they got help they would bring along their friends too…and so it was not just women from Guyana but from the Caribbean as well that were coming for help,” recalled Bagot.
But being from Guyana Bagot’s concern about women in her homeland was extremely aroused. “I was seeing women who simply didn’t know much about this disease. I recognized there had to be limited cancer awareness in Guyana and something had to be done. From the conversations I would have with some of these women I knew many of them thought of their cancerous breast as just an abscess,” said Bagot.
She simply couldn’t let this lack of awareness continue and was determined to do something right away. Being the leader she’d become, her first move was to solicit support from a few key officials, several within the medical field and the community.
Soon after, OSHAG was for formed and was on its way to infiltrate the Guyana health sector with cancer awareness. The Caribbean was also a target of the OSHAG awareness efforts too.
RETURNING TO GUYANA
“I remember the first time we came to Guyana as a group we met with Dr Walter Chin and I immediately recognized that he was very much into ensuring that there was some work done in this field,” Bagot disclosed.
She remembers OSHAG spearheading, along with the Health Ministry, a massive two-day cancer awareness conference at the Georgetown Club which saw the attendance of over 300 health workers from across the country. The event was even graced by the then United States Ambassador, Ronald Godard.
“It was very impacting…” said Bagot of the conference which paved the way for measures to be put in place to help augment cancer awareness on a national scale.
The group would return annually to give its support but according to Bagot, “what we found was that there were changing faces and services were not kept up…it was worrying. It was always something different.”
She was however not prepared to give up on Guyana. In fact Bagot recalled that during the floods of the mid 2000, OSHAG, in addition to rendering medical support, also offered much needed social relief to many affected communities.
In its quest to offer specialized medical help OSHAG decided to partner with the Caribbean Medical Mission whose members continue to render annual medical support to Guyana which includes conducting surgeries at the New Amsterdam Hospital.
Bagot however always kept the cancer awareness focus of OSHAG on the front burner. Moreover, the annual trips to Guyana were designed to coincide with the observance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month – which is done in October.
Through outreaches Bagot has been encouraging women to “be in tuned with your body and always seek annual medical checkup…don’t take your body for granted,” she has been appealing over the years.
But it was even as she busied herself balancing her family life, work and pushing to expand OSHAG, Bagot would make the most startling discovery.
It all occurred in 2009. At the time she was working on a project – Child Health Plus – which was designed to include mental health services in the school system of New York. “I started to see signs that were not consistent with my body at my age…I was sure something was wrong. It was simply worrying,” recounted Bagot.
Indeed by then she’d read enough about women’s health and of the signs and symptoms of cancer to know when it was manifesting in her own body.
She wasted no time in bringing her observations to the attention of her doctor. But to her amazement several examinations later her doctor was not able to find anything wrong.
“I did all of the recommended tests for cancerous cells and all of that but nothing was found but I still wasn’t convinced…Something was wrong and I was determined to find it,” said a passionate Bagot.
Her persistence eventually forced her doctor to take her into the operating theatre and there, nearly hidden away in her body, was a cancerous cyst that had formed on the inside of her lower abdominal wall. The cyst had the potential of developing and devastating her anatomy. Surgery was required.
This discovery was made almost four months after she observed that something was not right in her body.
“The day I was taken into surgery all the doctors at the hospital were in the operating room with me…My doctor said that was not usual but because my case was so unique they all wanted to be a part of the experience,” said Bagot.
“I knew I had to get through this. I absolutely had to muster strength because I was representing every woman whose life I touched at some point and even others out there who were looking at me. I could not let myself get weak…I couldn’t fail them.”
“I had preached for so many years before being diagnosed with cancer myself that women can live through this disease and there was no way I could do otherwise…I developed the strength from all of the others I provided service to,” said Bagot with pride.
After surgery to remove the cyst she was required to undergo radiotherapy and chemotherapy for a period of six weeks.
Bagot’s friend of many years, Nathalie Bishop, also a member of OSHAG, said that while she was shocked by the diagnosis she was more amazed at Bagot’s determination to fight the disease.
“From diagnosing herself to fighting through chemotherapy and radiotherapy…she fought the fight of cancer in a fighting mode…When I was crying she was wearing a smile.”
According to Bishop, even as she (Bagot) struggled through her condition at no point did she opt to give up on anything or anyone in her life. “If you check the dates, she was starting her mental health programme and she told me just send out the invitations and then she went back and did chemo. Nothing was going to fail because of a cancer diagnosis…She was there doing what she had to do the whole time.”
“People don’t have to die from cancer; you can live through it…or early detection can help ensure that you beat it altogether,” Bagot has always insisted. And she certainly practices what she preaches.
IMPORTANCE OF SUPPORT
Of course, the support from her family, including her three children, was especially instrumental, Bagot asserted. According to her, for many people, including herself, “the first thing that floods your mind when you are diagnosed with cancer is that ‘it’s a death sentence’.”
But she is adamant that dealing with cancer in any part of the world requires a strong support base.
“First and foremost support is needed – a team of people who will brace you when you get that diagnosis…family, friend, pastor, church, anybody – it becomes a community issue,” Bagot asserted as she intimated that constant prayers is also a very important factor.
But the ideal support base would be of no significance without a compassionate medical team, Bagot warned. In fact she is certain that dealing with certain diseases such as cancer requires nothing but “a compassionate medical team.”
“From the doctor to the nurse, it’s all about them being compassionate towards that patient…being able to talk to that patient about their options; treatment regimens and so on…”
“All this can help a patient to want to survive…” added the OSHAG President.
In addition to her friend (Bishop), Bagot’s other immediate support was her daughter, Arlene, who was by then a Registered Nurse.
Overwhelming support was also forthcoming from the other members of OSHAG.
POSITION OF EMPATHY
Before her diagnosis, Bagot’s contribution to OSHAG was premised on her concern about what she was told about a disease that has had disparaging outcomes in Guyana and across the world. She dealt with persons on the basis of her academic know-how. She used extensively her background in human services.
Today, however, she speaks from the point of true empathy. “I can encourage women today that they can survive if they are diagnosed with cancer. They must learn to understand their body and get treatment early…I can tell women there is hope because I have lived through it,” said Bagot.
She has since incorporated into the OSHAG mission to not only raise awareness about cancer but also to guide women towards available support that can help to save their lives if diagnosed.
Already OSHAG has contributed significantly to cancer care here with the introduction of an Oncology Room at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation. A proposal has also been extended by the group to help facilitate cancer treatment training in the US for local medical practitioners.
But in order to ensure that OSHAG’s presence is not limited to a mere month (Breast Cancer Awareness Month), there are plans for the establishment of a local office, which Bagot hopes will be constructed in Berbice.
She has also emphasized the need for organizations with similar agendas to work in close collaboration.
“Coming here every year to help is not only gratifying, yes I can give back something to my country but I feel I have an obligation to share with my community some of my resources and skills…doing this in collaboration with other organizations would only boost the support to the country as a whole,” asserted Bagot.
In a matter of weeks OSHAG will commence its annual medical outreach as part of activities to celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness month. It is however Bagot’s vision that eventually a treatment facility could be established here to focus primarily on the treatment of all forms of cancer.
She is optimistic that this vision would be one embraced by the entire Caribbean. “We have the land space here but I think that Caricom countries should collaborate to help with the realization of such a project. I think Guyana is poised to take the lead in making this a long-term solution to dealing with cancer,” she is confident.
In the interim, though, Bagot intends to continue to reach out to the communities in Guyana to share information on preventative health care. “We need to guard against waiting until somebody has a disease before we start dealing with it…we have to address this now. We need to start aggressively emphasizing behavioural changes; things like exercise and eating right that can help people prolong their lifespan,” added Bagot who is convinced that “the strength of Guyana lies within its communities.”
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