Turns Out I Wasn’t Ready

I thought I had things under control.  And then came hair loss.

It’s widely known that one of the side effects of chemotherapy is the loss of hair.  No big deal…it will grow back.  After all, I had watched my mother deal with losing her hair not once but twice as she tackled the ‘Big C’.  I had fooled myself into thinking that the hair loss was the least of my worries.

My first chemo cycle was not as rough as I had expected, yes I had some slight nausea, pains in my feet and hands but overall I just felt weak and fatigued.  Nothing too unbearable.  When there was no hair loss in the immediate days after that first cycle, I was like…”Maybe I’ll be lucky and not lose my hair”.  And then a week and half later it began.  At first it looked like normal shedding, but then it got progressively worse.  Next thing I knew there was hair everywhere, on my pillow when I woke up, in the bathroom sink, on the floor….just everywhere.

Exactly 2 weeks after my first chemo treatment, I headed to the hairdresser to do a big chop.  Again, no big deal right, especially since I’ve worn my hair in a ‘teenie-weenie afro’ many times over the years.  Once I had cut it I remembered how much I loved wearing my hair short….yeah I could do this again. Teenie Weenie Afro

Except I was still losing hair.  If I so much as brushed my hand across the top of my head, hair came out.  Pretty soon, I had resorted to only touching my hair once for the day in the morning.  Less than a week after cutting it while market shopping, a friend hinted that I might need to start wearing a scarf.  A bald patch had now appeared in the back of my head.

The next morning (last Thursday in fact) on the dreaded chemo day, as I massaged hair product in, the hair loss was more profound than before.  Literally the side of my head had peeled out.  I sent this picture to my sister who joked that I looked like a little birdie.  My response to her…. “more like a peel head jankro”.

Peel Out

It threw me into a tailspin.  For the first time since this whole experience began, I felt real depression.  I had planned to go into work for a few hours that day before chemo at 5pm but I simply couldn’t move.  Over the course of the day  depression turned to guilt, guilt because it felt like I was being vain to put so much stock in my hair of all things.  Turns out losing my hair was actually harder than losing my breast.  It hit me like a ton of bricks that no matter what I did, I had no control.  No matter how much I cut my hair, it was still coming out.

Later while scrolling through Instagram, I came across this post from The Laurus Project (@thelaurusproject), a non-profit organization focused on helping breast cancer survivors thrive.

The Laurus Project


The image and caption was just what I needed in that moment.  Better to take control and just shave it off.  So on the way to chemo, I made a quick stop at the barbershop.



Following My Gut

Decisions, decisions…that’s been the focus of my life since being diagnosed with breast cancer.  Do I seek treatment in Jamaica or head back to Virginia where my family lives? Some folks I know got treatment in Mexico…do I go there?  Lumpectomy or mastectomy? If I stay in Jamaica, do I have surgery in Montego Bay or go to Kingston? End of the year was drawing close….before Christmas or wait til the new year?  Do I consider reconstruction right away or wait?  To chemo or not to chemo?  Do I look into alternative medicine?  It was all a bit daunting but at the end of the day decisions had to be made.

The first decision I made before even consulting with a surgeon was that no matter what I was told I was doing a mastectomy.  Because my cancer was caught early, I was told that I was a perfect candidate for breast conserving surgery aka lumpectomy.  Every (male) doctor I spoke with made sure to tell me that the choice between lumpectomy or mastectomy would not affect my overall survival.  There was even one doctor friend who said “You don’t need to lose your nice pretty breast”…yeah you read that…my nice pretty breast.  Turns out that as beautiful, and might I add voluminous as they were, I wasn’t so attached to them.  Nah, it could go.  Plus for my own peace of mind the aggrieved breast needed to go.

You see there is a history of breast cancer in my family.  My mother was diagnosed with the same cancer at the age of 43.  She had a mastectomy with chemotherapy and lived cancer free for 14 years before it returned, first in her lymph nodes, then eventually spread to the liver and bones.  She passed away 4 years after the cancer returned.  My mother never did reconstructive surgery so I had seen her live fully without one breast, never once doubting her body image or feeling like less of a woman.  No doubt being in a fulfilling relationship with my father who adored every ounce of her being had a little something to do with that.

After consulting with doctors in both Jamaica and the United States, and connecting with breast cancer survivors, I ultimately decided to stay in Jamaica choosing to have surgery in Kingston where I have a strong network of phenomenal sister-friends who supported me every step of the way.  With the help of my best friend, I got connected with an amazing surgeon who although advising me to go with a lumpectomy (+ radiation and chemotherapy), completely understood and supported my decision to go with the more invasive mastectomy.  He encouraged me to consider doing reconstructive surgery right away and had me consult with a plastic surgeon, who revealed he wouldn’t be able to recreate my ‘volume’ and would need to do a reduction of the left breast to match the new right one.  Although the thought of ending up with a summer body and two perky breasts sounded appealing it just seemed like too much to put my body through, especially with chemotherapy on the horizon.  Reconstruction would just have to wait.

Fast forward to three weeks ago (just before traveling to the States to visit my family), my surgeon called to advise me that the pathology report from surgery was good, we got all the cancer and my lymph nodes were negative for cancer.  Great news but in crept a little doubt….could I have gotten by with doing the lumpectomy instead of losing my nice pretty breast? Well I got the answer last week when I went to see him to review the surgery pathology report.  Although the report was extremely positive showing that the margins and 18 lymph nodes removed were all clear, there was a second precancerous tumor present in my breast that was not detected by either the mammogram, ultrasound or CT scan.  Had I chosen to have a lumpectomy it may not have been caught and if I was lucky perhaps the radiation and chemotherapy would take care of it.  I prefer to think that going with my gut from the outset was the best decision for me.

3 week scar

Mastectomy scar 3 weeks after surgery

This process has taught me so much, not the least of which is that I am my best advocate.  Changing my diet was the first good decision I made.  I’ve lost weight and my body responded extremely well to surgery, considering all it was put through.  I got by in the hospital without needing morphine and was off the saline drip within 20 hours of going under the knife.  I firmly believe that was a result of cleansing and preparing my body before surgery.  Turns out decision number two, the mastectomy was the right one too.  There is still an uphill battle , chemo starts next week.  I’m admittedly a little nervous but ready for the fight ahead.

The decision I’m not yet ready to make – which breast prosthesis to purchase.  Sheesh….who knew there were so many to choose from.  I’ve scoured website after website, turns out choosing the right fake breast is more daunting for me than which surgery to go with.  Come to think of it, my mother for a long time just pinned a shoulder pad into her bra….yes folks a shoulder pad. Not a soul could tell.  So for now if you see me looking a little lopsided, it’s cause the sock stuffed in my bra may have shifted a little….lol.

My Aha Moment

Tuesday October 17, 2017 . . . . .the day my life changed forever.  The day I read the words INVASIVE DUCTAL CARCINOMA.  I sat in the car for what seemed like an hour just staring at the words…..INVASIVE DUCTAL CARCINOMA.  Finally, after 4 agonizing weeks I knew.  Truth is, deep down I knew it from the very day I felt the lump coming out of the shower.  That day when my hand brushed across my right breast and stopped on something hard, I instinctively knew it was the ‘BIG C’.

I spent the next few weeks getting really intimate with the folks at Radiology West…first the mammogram, then the ultra sound and finally a needle biopsy.  Thanks to a resourceful friend I was able to get the 3 tests done within a 5-day span, but then came the wait, 3 whole weeks.  Not enough pathologists in Montego Bay meant I had no choice but to wait.  While I waited, I read. Read everything I could get my hands on as it relates to cancer.  Google became my best friend.  Cancer feeds on sugar, cancer flourishes in stress, body needs to be in an alkaline state to ward off disease.  By October 17th, I had cut just about everything from my diet…..sugar, rice, flour, dairy, all meat except fish once or twice a week.  All the things I had tried to purge myself of over the last 3 years, I quit cold turkey in just 3 weeks.

Turns out my body had become a perfect storm, the perfect storm for cancer to form in her midst.  I wasn’t putting the right things in it, simply put too much sugar and I internalized my stress.  So here I was in the middle of starting a new business, not making enough money to make ends meet, no health insurance, now contemplating how to deal with a potential cancer diagnosis.  It made no sense to panic.  The only thing that made sense in that moment was to take charge of the one thing I could control…what I put in my mouth, what I fed my body.  By the time I met with a surgeon on October 19th I had lost 5 lbs.  I remember joking with my 2 girlfriends who tagged along for that first consultation that there was a least one silver lining in this whole thing….weight loss.  LOL, haffi tek serious ting mek joke.

With the help of my tribe, I ate and laughed my way to December 12th (surgery day), the day the fight with the big C officially began.  The day I said ‘Bye bye’ to my right breast, the day I sent her packing.

Girlies Pre Op

Lisa & Jilly saying goodbye to my right breast pre-op!

This fight is by no means over, its really just begun.  The important thing is I AM HERE, now 26 lbs and one breast lighter 😉, armoured up, bolstered by my tribe and READY FOR THE FIGHT AHEAD.  I’ve struggled with whether to keep my battle with cancer private.  Over the last 2 months I’ve connected with a number of women who walked this same path and their insight has been priceless.  On the urging of my sister and close friends I’ve decided to chronicle this journey in the hope that it will help even one person who may face this same battle.

Tina & Ayah Pre Op

Tina with sister Ayah just before surgery….and yes that’s bright red lipstick 😉

So here we are in 2018 and I am thankful for my tribe who have held me up, prayed with me, laughed with me, cried with me, sponge-bathed me 😉. I am thankful for life and strange as it may sound, I am thankful for cancer.  Cancer forced me to face some hard truths about myself, brought me closer to a healthier me. Not to worry though, I am ready to see cancer’s back so happy to send it packing like I’ve done with 2017, not welcome around here no more…..