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Breaking the Taboo of Breast Cancer!

ElektraShellyAlphonso~ Activist weighs in on issue ~

Long time activist Mercedes "Elektra" Wyatt dedicates a chunk of her time every year to organising numerous activities to raise awareness of breast cancer, to salute survivors and to remember those who have lost the battle. She speaks more about the issue in this week's Health and Beauty.

Why is awareness of breast cancer so important?

It is very important for women to know first of all their own bodies, what is normal and abnormal. Our breasts give us the sense of femininity and have a function to provide nurturing care and milk for our babies and bonding. Our children call us "Mama". This comes from the word mamae, which means breast and is the female milk-secreting organ.

With all the awareness activities yearly, do you think women in St. Maarten are aware of the importance of getting checked?

I have seen a growing trend over the last eight years that I have been actively involved in breast cancer awareness in St. Maarten. More and more women are starting to understand that early detection can save lives. I can tell this because more and more women and even men are showing interest in the screenings each year and are attending the various events that are planned for the community. Through this inter-activity with each other, I believe that more and more people begin to trust and to open up about themselves. I believe it is good therapy for the community as well. The thing is breast cancer as with many other diseases in our community is seen as taboo. Nobody wants to talk about the ugly truth and the severities that this does to the human anatomy, the mental process of being diagnosed with cancer, the impact it has on the partners as well as the impact on someone's family and social life.

Are women actually heeding the advice to get checked? Why or why not?

I think women are definitely going to the doctor to get checked. I can tell you for a fact that for the Open House at St. Maarten Medical Centre last year, there were more than 100 screenings done in one afternoon. This goes to show that when persons feel safe and secure in a trusted environment with other women; they are more relaxed and open to face their fears and anxieties.

How widespread do you think breast cancer is in St. Maarten?

At present, we don't have statistics. Only hospitals and doctors can provide statistics because this is where women are diagnosed, but women are constantly being diagnosed with this disease every year for sure. I think it is the responsibility of hospitals and house doctors together with the health department to do provide statistics so that we can know exactly what is going on with breast cancer in St. Maarten and see what more has to be done to bring the numbers down.

Many women who are diagnosed still want to keep it private; why do you think this is so?

They are ashamed that perhaps people will treat them differently if they knew about what was really going on with them. They perhaps don't want persons to take pity on them. There are many factors that come to play once a person is diagnosed. There are many questions that people have to answer for themselves before they can answer other people. It is a process. After you are diagnosed with cancer, people go through shock, disbelief, fear, anxiety, guilt, sadness, grief, depression, anger and more. Each person may have some or all of these feelings and each will handle them in a different way.

Your first emotion might be shock. No one is ever ready to hear that they have cancer. It's normal for people with cancer to wonder why it happened to them or to think life has treated them unfairly. You may not even believe the diagnosis, especially if you don't feel sick. You might feel afraid. Some people fear cancer itself, while others may be afraid of cancer treatments and wonder how they'll get through them. The fear of pain and suffering is one of the greatest fears people with cancer and their loved ones have. You might feel guilty. You may ask yourself if you could have noticed your symptoms earlier or wonder what you did, that may have caused the cancer.

You may wonder if you were exposed to something at home or work that led to cancer. Or you may worry that other members of your family will get cancer too. At this time, we do not know what causes most cancers. But a few are known to be hereditary. This means if one family member develops it, others in the family may have a higher risk of developing it. This can cause even more concerns for the person newly diagnosed with cancer. You might also feel hopeless or sad if you see cancer as a roadblock to a life full of health and happiness. It's hard to feel positive and upbeat, especially if the future is uncertain.

Just thinking about treatment and the time it will take out of your life can seem like too much to handle. Feelings of sadness or uncertainty may be made worse by your past experiences with cancer. You might have a sense of loss linked to your cancer diagnosis and treatment. Cancer can change your sense of self, that is, how you think of your body, yourself and your future. Grief is a normal response as you give up your old ideas of yourself and begin to develop ways to cope with the new, unwanted changes in your life. It might take time for you to become aware of these losses and changes. It can help to share your grief with someone close to you. If there's no one near you that you want to confide in, you might want to see a mental health professional.

Your feelings need care too, just like your physical body needs care. You might also feel angry. While some people may not outwardly express their anger and frustration, others may direct their anger toward family members, friends or healthcare professionals. This is usually not done on purpose. If you're only trying to vent your feelings, let people know that you are not angry with them and it's not their fault. Also let them know that you don't expect them to solve your problems – you just need them to listen.

Does stigma still exist when it comes to breast cancer, why or why not?

Yes it does. People in our community are still waking up every day. I woke up eight years ago when I discovered a lump in my left breast. I told nobody. I told my mother on the day I went to have it removed and I took a friend with me to do the procedure. I was also scared and confronted with the possibility that I could have breast cancer and it kept me up many nights crying and thinking what if I lose my breast. I was freaking out. Women still whisper in my ear softly that they were just diagnosed or they removed their breast or the stitches are coming out today etc., etc. It's always in a whisper like they are trusting me with their personal secret.

In what areas do you think St. Maarten is lagging behind when it comes to breast cancer care?

Women need to know more about their own anatomy not that they are doctors or so, but they need to know basic information about their bodies. I have been doing this for quite some time now and have noticed that many women have gotten wrong information or are still clueless of how their bodies work. They perhaps were not shown the correct way and this information was passed on for generations. Some women never were told about how to care for their bodies. I am just talking of personal experiences I have had with women and young girls, especially girls that are going through puberty. They are shy or afraid to discuss these topics. But I can tell you for sure they are very curious and I found this out while doing talks with girls in schools in the fifth and sixth grades over the years. They ask or make statements they have heard from their mothers or their peers. We have to be aware of what we say because the wrong information causes misconceptions and misunderstandings in our community. We need to create more safe places where women and young girls can speak freely and openly about difficult topics we never talk about, especially when it concerns women hygiene and intimate care.

What are the top three or four things you would like to see achieved/improved for breast cancer care in St. Maarten and why?

For women to start using their voices to speak up and openly discuss about their breast and share stories. It's the best form of therapy. Getting the men more involved, educated and aware of what breast cancer is all about and that they know it can also affect them and how they can help and support their partners going through it and deal with all that come with it. I would love to have a mammo-van so this van can go into different districts screening and doing mammograms and checking women.

Most of the awareness activities are done by private citizens. Do you think authorities give sufficient emphasis on this matter? Why or why not?

I believe the authorities try to do their part with the best means they have to give emphasis to the matter. It can, however, be improved. I believe it should be a team effort: a collaboration amongst private citizens, foundations and organisations, hospitals doctors, schools and the business community. It is in everybody's best interest if we work together. That's what I am striving for and I believe we have found a formula that is working and we are heading in the right direction. There is a lot of work to be done.

What drives you to be involved in breast cancer awareness over all these years?

I see the need and I want to help as best as I know. I stay motivated by persons in my community who continue to encourage me and support the activities I do for St. Maarten. St. Maarten is my home. Here is where I grew up. I am happy to be a product of this community because of how I was raised; everybody was looking out for each other back then. I think we need to go back to that time where it takes a village of helping each other be the best persons we can be. But it has to start with ourselves. We have to be the first ones to do it. I believe in my personal slogan: let your electricity touch somebody. It works and I am living proof of it. I give back to my community what I have received growing up here. My mother always told me, "No matter what you do, do it with a kind, loving heart; and do it well. What you get in return is priceless; you should cherish and appreciate it and be humble."

How and when did you get involved?

Almost nine years ago, I started my first breast cancer event with the now very popular movie night.

What has been your most inspirational experience thus far since you started getting involved in awareness?

To see how strong and resilient women are despite being diagnosed with a breast cancer. Doing their jobs, excelling and pursuing their dreams, having positive and empowering attitudes and being helpful in any way they can to others.

What is your goal with the activities you hold in collaboration with Positive Foundation?

To help save lives and bring down the numbers of women being diagnosed with breast cancer or eradicate it by being proactive and educating people to get checked as the chances for survival are better when detected early. We also hope that women check themselves regularly every month in their homes and know the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.

Do you think these goals are being achieved?

We are well underway; I can assure you that. And yes, I believe we can do it. That's why we have a lot of work to do for the years to come. It is about consistency and continued commitment. This is where we see success. I would like to urge women in my community to check themselves regularly. It only takes a few minutes per month to do your self-breast examinations. Involve your husbands and partners. Make it an openly discussed topic by asking your friends, "Did you do your self-breast-exam this month?" Talk about it always and if you're not sure; do research, ask questions visit your house doctor. It all starts with a touch! Every time somebody is affected, we as a community are affected as well. Please join and participate in the events and free screenings provided by the Elektralyets and Positive foundations. Get checked.

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