We received this sign the other day. Pretty cool isn’t it? We worked very hard last year for this honor and for our national ranking with Making Strides Against Breast Cancer for the American Cancer Society. We ended up being 13th in the nation….just a bunch of friends and family members that share a common passion for a great organization. It’s amazing what we have been able to do with this army of people….all because we care. We care about research. We care about the programs offered to cancer patients. We care about survivors. We care about the Primax Pink Warriors and we are looking forward to another successful year! Thanks to every single team member who makes our team THE BEST.
I cannot believe it’s time for us to head home in the morning. We are packed and sad. Sad to leave this beautiful country. Sad to leave these precious friends here. Sad that our months of planning to come to Jamaica are over. But I look back at the past week and I cannot even begin to tell you what I have seen and learned. I cannot wait to blog about it when I get home. It’s very hard to blog on my iPad and my photos are not transferring correctly. This trip is too important to not spend my time reflecting and blogging instead of wrestling with photo cards, technology, and connection issues.
I have learned many things over the past five years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I have spoken to hundreds of women diagnosed with breast cancer. What I have learned this week is that you haven’t seen anything until you have been diagnosed with cancer in a country without up-to-date medical care and facilities. (This is not to minimize my stage 4 friends in the states fighting for their lives)…..
What I am saying is that we are very lucky to have the medical care that we do in the US. A volunteer here said something this morning that made me think. A lot. She said “where you live should not determine if you live.”
I am going to blog about today’s work and then go back and blog about the past few days as I have time. Today was amazing and heart wrenching at the same time. Terri and I went into St Ann’s Bay Hospital to meet Dr Titus, the Chief Medical Officer, and the man responsible for moving our 200 women up on the appointment calendar for needed biopsies. When we got here we didn’t realize that he was going to do biopsies for our women the day of their mammogram if they needed it. This is so amazing – we hardly get service like this in the states. I had to wait two weeks between my diagnostic mammogram and my biopsy (this is why I left Charlotte Radiology and switched to the breast center at Novant – they are much more timely!) I originally reached out to Dr Titus to see if he could help us with our 200 mammogram project – little did I know what he faces every day – and this is before we connected with the Jamiaca Cancer Society.
Dr Titus is just awesome. He took us all over the hospital and explained the history, what’s happening now, and what he hopes for the future. I couldn’t get over his demeanor and the way the staff responded to him – he is obviously very well respected here and also very loved. He stopped to talk and introduce us to interns, nurses, the radiologist, people in the lab, and the list goes on. They have over 90 doctors and many nurses and staff. And many many patients. Being with him was the amazing part of our day – but what we saw and learned is what broke my heart. They have two – yes two – operating tables. So if they are doing routine surgery and there is a trauma or tragic accident, you can imagine what happens. They have one radiologist for the entire hospital. One. You can imagine how busy that doctor is. The hospital sees over 40,000 patients in a year. Most of it has no air conditioning. By 9:30 this morning the pharmacy had at least 75 people in line. And the NICU had the tiniest little babies I have ever seen – and 20 little beds for 20 little tiny babies. We saw a chemo room that barely held 2 beds, one IV pole, a small tv and an overhead closet that held a little bit of chemo. But here you pick up your chemo and bring it with you. Say what? Yes. That’s what I said. No chemo nurses here. Chemo patients share the same nurses as the ward does outside of that room – that ward probably had 50 beds in it. What is our ratio – one chemo nurse to every three patients? I think that’s what mine was. The list of needs here goes on and on. I received a huge perspective check today in comparing what we take for granted in the US versus what is here. We complain about our doctors being over-booked and our appointments running an hour behind. How about waiting in line, with only a few places to sit and no AC, for six or seven hours? Sounds hard right – but what if it’s not you who is sick – what if it’s your child? Our kids are hard to handle and deal with so we buy them video systems for the back of our cars so they can watch tv as they ride in a comfy car seat in an air conditioned car.
Boy did I need this perspective check – as hard as this knowledge is to carry – I needed to hear it and see it. I need to figure out a way to do this 200 women mammography project each year. Somehow. Here – where my heart is called. I know we need free mammograms in the US. I know people need help in the US. I get that. And if you know me you know that I invest my heart and time into the breast cancer community in Charlotte. As we are called to help others nearby we are also called to help the less fortunate globally. We are to help people. However that looks for you – it’s what we are called to do. Not just at Christmas. But everyday. Time. Love. Money. Food. Clothing. Aren’t we supposed to ask God to break our hearts for what breaks His?
Words cannot begin to express what we have experienced in the last few days. When we first got here on Saturday the resort staff at Couples Tower Isle was full of smiles, hugs, kisses, and happiness to see me and to meet Terri. They welcomed us ‘home’ with open arms. Sunday was spent lounging in the morning but we had a great planning session and lunch with the head of the Jamaican Cancer Society from Kingston and one of the JCS volunteers from this local area in which we are staying. The local staff/volunteers are the ones who really put this project together but our contact was mainly with Yulit – the woman from Kingston. On Monday the heart and soul of this project began. We took a taxi to downtown Ocho Rios and met the radiologist who agreed to do these 200 mammograms for a reduced rate. We met the local volunteers who helped the women fill out their paperwork, scheduled the appointments, and had our day running like clockwork. We met 20 women the first day. We spent time with each woman listening to their stories and telling them how blessed we where to be part of this project. The stories were all over the board – first time mammogram, second mammogram but hadn’t had one in five years, a survivor of breast cancer with a single mastectomy – there for a mammogram on the remaining breast, a survivor of cervical cancer – never had a mammogram, only a few women had had any sort of regular screening, but everyone had a story to tell and some were more open than others. The main thread that was in every single discussion was how grateful they were for the opportunity to receive a mammogram. A free mammogram. Today we met with 17 women. Same sort of day – same location. Different stories. Different women. Same grateful and thankful hearts. These women were very nervous for this test – some more afraid of the outcome than the test itself. Some just afraid in general. The super cool part I love about the past two days is seeing the strong faith these women have. And boy are they open about it. It’s amazing. They thanked God for bringing us to Jamaica with this resource. They said we were angels. Some of them prayed for us. They were teary-eyed and open hearted and it has been such a gift to spend time with them. I have never been hugged so many times in two days in my whole life. And I am talking real hugs – heart to heart hugs. Hugs filled with thankfulness and gratitude. When we told these women that we have partnered with Novlene Williams Mills, their Olympic Gold Medalist, their eyes got real big and smiles brighter than you can imagine. It was so amazing to see them look at the hand signed photograph from Novelene and see them read the letter Novlene wrote to each of them thanking them for getting their mammogram and taking care of themselves. Lots of them got teary-eyed reading the letter and many of our women thought they could only look at the picture and read the letter. They were so excited to find out they were given this as a gift and it was theirs to keep. I couldn’t be more thankful to Novlene for sending these things to me so we could hand them out this week. It’s been an honor to give these to the women and it sure has made this scary test a lot happier for them.
Tomorrow I will blog about our luncheon that happened today…..there are super cool memories to share with you guys. But – it’s late and I have to get to bed. Tomorrow is another busy day and we are supposed to see 30 women!
Prayers for tomorrow? That no cancer hides during these mammograms. Not one. Who knows when, or if, these women will be screened again. Thank you all for praying for our safety and for our 200 women. This trip has been more than I could have ever hoped for and I am so thankful to have been chosen to be part of it. If you allow yourself to be used for God’s work -He will use you in ways you cannot believe.
Why Jamaica and WHY NOT Charlotte? I am glad you asked!
I am talking about the trip that Terri and I leave on in less than a week. We are providing 200 mammograms to women in Jamaica, we are also providing ultra sounds for the women, out of those 200, that need them, and we have these women on a fast track to get biopsies.
So why take our $10,000 to Jamaica to provide these services and not provide them in Charlotte? Good question and I have heard it enough times that I figured I should blog it.
In the states, money or no money, insurance or no insurance, there are ways of getting through breast cancer regardless of your financial situation. We have treatments available to everyone, regardless of our financial situation. We can get mammograms, regardless of our financial situation. Jamaica is different. In Jamaican you present with a lump, that lump is biopsied, and if you have breast cancer – it doesn’t matter what kind of cancer – you get a mastectomy. Chemotherapy and radiation are only available to certain women there, and I don’t think that door is open wide for many. So if you think of it like this – early detection is absolutely vital there to save lives. If someone is diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in Jamaica, they have a big problem that a mastectomy isn’t going to fix. As we talk all about early detection here in states, it’s true. But if we miss that and say it’s in some nodes or even a spot elsewhere, we have a pretty good chance of pushing this disease back with chemo and radiation. Not everyone responds here to those treatments, but most do. Especially on round one of breast cancer.
This is why this trip to serve these 200 women is so important. It is just about awareness, although we will be talking about them knowing their breasts and self exams, but it really is about catching some of these women with early stage invasive cancer or insitu cancer. This isn’t the start of their life in mammography – a lot of them won’t be able to get another mammogram after the one we provide is given. I know there is a lot of confusion here is the states about mammography – and most agree we need more effective screening. Mammograms miss a portion of breast cancer and we need better screening! I am hoping this blood test coming out of UNCC has great effectiveness, I also know the American Cancer Society is funding a researcher for a blood smear that has a lot of promise. We need these tests because they will be more accurate than a mammogram and free of radiation!
With that being said, did you know that if a woman in Jamaica that has the means to receive chemotherapy and radiation in Jamaica gets diagnosed with breast cancer, in order to figure out her treatment regimen her tumor must be sent to the US to be dissected? They don’t even have the means in Jamaica to tell whether the tumor is ER/PR positive or negative, HER2 positive or negative…and this is heartbreaking for me. The things we take for granted here in the US is disheartening. Our society is becoming upside down on expecting who to pay what and that is also troublesome. BUT, it’s not Jamaica – the most beautiful place in the world….and that’s where Terri and I get to spend 9 days next week serving these women, paying for mammograms and ultrasounds, and enjoying successful and safe trip.
I pour my heart and soul into the breast cancer community in Charlotte. If you know me – you know this is true. Last year with my breast reconstruction issue from the plane ride to Jamaica God took my situation and turned it into something amazing. Our trip last year was not as relaxing as it could have been, it was certainly not “cancer free” like we needed it to be, and a lot of time was taken up being checked each day, checking in with Dr Appel, and watching my dark purple breast drain more and more into a marbled pink color until I got back to the states. BUT, with all of that being said…..God took my little brain and heart that week and made me ask some hard questions of the staff in the resort where we stay (Couples Tower Isle). “What happens here when a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer?” “How do women get treatment here if they have it?” “What types of treatment do they get?” and “How do women here get mammograms?”….the answers broke my heart and now, finally, we are going back to do something about this. Just for a small town in which we stay, where my heart lives, some of my friends live, and the town in which we can actually make a big difference.