Spreading her survival message to bring about awareness…
“I am one of the lucky ones that have that support base because I could not imagine what it would have been like without it. To beat cancer, support and treatment are vital.”
By Rehanna Ramsay
Kaieteur News – When Sarita Yabindranauth Halim was in her 20s and 30s, the thought of getting screened for breast cancer never crossed her mind. Today, after surviving the disease, she is one of several people advocating for women and girls to get checked for cancer. Her message is simple; “get screened for cancer, early detection truly saves lives.”
This week’s ‘Special Person’ opened up to Kaieteur News about her journey to self-awareness and breast cancer advocacy. She told this newspaper that before her experience with breast cancer, she led a simple satisfying life—often shying away from the public eye.
“I did not see the need to speak out about anything before but after my experience with cancer and having survived it, I tell people I have a lot to talk about and to share to help other women,” Halim, a self-proclaimed breast cancer warrior stated.
The 43-year-old mother of one is now the founder of a cancer support group called “Thinking Positive” through which she provides psychological and tangible support for at least 18 persons who are battling or have survived cancer.
She often collaborates with various other organisations to spread awareness about the disease. In fact, over the past weeks, Halim has spent a significant portion of her time, speaking at public forums for various organisations, charities, and civil society groups, placing emphasis on early screening to detect the deadly condition.
The activities all coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month which is observed throughout the month of October. She told this newspaper that her journey to breast cancer activism and advocacy started in 2019 – some three years ago; around the time she was diagnosed with the deadly disease.
Halim told this newspaper that the diagnosis came as a surprise to her. She said that her life was going wonderfully until she noticed a lump in her right breast.
“I have been healthy all my life. I have a wonderful husband and son. I’m self-employed and at the time everything was going fine until I started feeling that lump. I became curious about it and I told my sister. She encouraged me to go see the doctor,” Halim recalled. She explained that soon after making the appointment to see the doctor at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Obviously stunned at the news of such a dreaded illness, Halim sought a second opinion from doctors at a private hospital. The physician confirmed that she was dealing with stage two cancer of the breast.
At first, I underwent a fine needle biopsy and the results came back the next day showing that I tested positive for cancer in the breast but then I went back to get a second opinion and it was confirmed by a doctor at the Woodlands Hospital. As a result of her diagnosis, it was recommended that Halim be placed on treatment quickly.
“The doctor told me that I had some time but that I would need to undergo surgery to remove my breast, if I wanted to live longer. I asked him how much time I have and he said about five years. Then I said no tell me, I want to know exactly how long more I have to live and he said maybe two to three years. Right then I decided so be it because I have one son and I lived a pretty full life I wasn’t going to take that option,” she recalled of her initial response to the recommendation for surgery and treatment.
However, Halim said that the more she thought about it – the fact, that she could die of this illness without seeing her teenage son become a man and attain his life goals, the more she desired to live.
LIFE OR DEATH
It was indeed a tough decision to make – to have one’s breast removed is no easy choice, Halim explained. “Having breasts is part of being a woman, and having to lose it felt like I was losing a part of my womanhood; a piece of me literally that I will never get back.”
She noted however, that is “a life-or-death decision literally for many women battling breast cancer because it could determine if you live or die.” Halim chose to live.
She nonetheless had to prepare mentally to live without her right-side breast.
The thought of having to lose one of her womanly attributes which is considered attractive and sacred ached Halim’s heart. But she took comfort in the fact that she at least suckled one child from those breasts.
Sharing a bit about her decision to remove her breast, the cancer survivor noted that many times, people talk about the physical impact of having cancer without addressing the stigma that a lot of females battling the disease face.
“When you lose your breast or you take out your uterus as part of a treatment for cancer as women, we tend to feel less whole or beautiful,” Halim explained. She noted that in addition to this some survivors have to deal with the whispers and negative reactions from people who may not fully understand their decision to remove one breast, both breasts or their uterus.
SUPPORT AND TREATMENT
“No matter what, people tend to have negative reactions to it and we deal with the stigma…it is not talked about a lot. I know of many women who are ashamed of having breast cancer, so they don’t tell anyone about it; it’s very hard on them to have to share what they are going through…that’s part of the reason why having support is so crucial,” she added.
To this end, Halim had her husband, Sheik Halim, and their son to lean on.
“My family has been very supportive. I was blessed to have them, from the moment I decided to undergo the surgery, and the cycles of chemotherapy and radiation, they have been by my side. I stepped back from work to focus on my health and they have been handling everything,” she said.
“I am one of the lucky ones that have that support base because I could not imagine what it would have been like without it. To beat cancer, support and treatment are vital,” she emphasised.
As part of her treatment, Halim removed her right breast, underwent eight sets of chemotherapy treatment and 30 sets of radiation treatment in addition to certain lifestyle changes which included sugar, dairy, and a red meat-free diet.
The breast cancer survivor described the first cycles of treatment as no less than rough. She explained, “Cancer treatment is tough in general because the chemicals you get in your body destroy the bad cells as well as the good ones. So, for the first cycles of treatment, I was very weak. I remember that I would fall down and get up and crawl to the bathroom.”
She said that she had visited the oncology unit at GPHC and seen what the women endured when they underwent Chemo but it was nothing compared to actually having to experience it for herself. “I thought I was prepared for it because I saw what the women went through but nothing could have prepared me… I lost my hair and my toenails. My fingernails became blackened by the treatment…I really had no idea how badly I was going to feel. It hurt so much,” she said.
Halim said that at one point she wanted to stop the treatment and give up but with the encouragement of her doctors and family, she decided to continue with the treatment. After about a week, she said that she started to feel much better. “I decided to continue the treatment until I finished it,” stated Halim.
Following the successful completion of the first cycle of treatment, Halim began her advocacy and awareness work—an aspect of her life that she believes is vital to her work as a cancer warrior.
She recalled that during her time of treatment she met several women like herself from whom she believes have stories that can help spread awareness that would motivate others to get screened early and regularly.
Halim stressed that had it not been for the encouragement of her sister to get screened, she probably would not have been alive today. “I had the lump but it wasn’t bothering me, hurting, oozing or anything,” she said, adding “if I had checked it sooner, I possibly could have saved myself from having to remove my breasts.”
As a result, Halim continues to implore other women not to wait until it’s too late to get screened.
She advises “examine your breasts after your cycle of period every month. Get your yearly mammograms and checkups.”
After spending a significant portion of her time, since diagnosis and treatment, learning about the disease, Halim has been increasingly vocal about breast cancer awareness.
Throughout the month of October, she has done various newspaper and television interviews speaking about her experience. She is also an active participant of the many cancer awareness activities. The cancer warrior said that her advocacy work started while she was still on treatment.
“As soon as I felt strong enough, I began to work with those who need support. I said to myself as long as I am healthy, I will continue to do it and I have been doing it since then,” she stated.
In this regard, she has participated in key awareness activities hosted by the Guyana Cancer Foundation, the Rotary Club, and several other organisations.
She is often accompanied by her friend and fellow cancer survivor, Diane Fung, as they spread the message to help other women keep cancer at bay.
Added to their activism, last October the two ladies joined forces to launch the “Thinking Positive” support group for cancer warriors. With this platform, the women are optimistic that it will add to the facilities already available to those who are terminally ill.
“We know how difficult it is to go through cancer and that is why we are trying to give as much assistance and spread as much awareness as we can, to help persons stay healthy and beat cancer,” Halim said.
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