It has long since been said that strength does not come from physical capacity, but rather it comes from an indomitable will—(Mahatma Gandhi).
And, with the rising number of cancer cases, people around the world get to see the truth of Ghandi’s words epitomized in the lives of those who have been diagnosed with this debilitating and potentially fatal disease.
Most importantly, we get to see the will to survive united with the indomitability of the human spirit to produce a new class of individuals, whose daily choices to challenge the weakening effects of this disease makes them stronger.
We all could remember Lance Armstrong. Despite his now faded glory in the world of cycling, Armstrong will forever be remembered as a man who braved the severity of this malignant invader, which had spread to his abdomen, lungs and even to his brain. Fitting of his title, Armstrong survived his bout with cancer and brought us the “live strong” mantra that will not be easily forgotten.
While Armstrong’s fray was what it was, the strength-of-will response to this treacherous gene could be evoked even before the fight begins. We saw that this week in the case of 37-year-old actress Angelina Jolie, who executed a preemptive strike on the cancer-causing mutated gene, BRCA1, which, due to familial history, placed her at an 87 percent risk of contracting breast cancer.
The actress, who is also reportedly at high risk for ovarian cancer, wrote Monday, in a New York Times Op-Ed: “I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery is more complex.”
In general, women who have the BRAC mutation have about a 65 percent chance of eventually developing the disease, while most other women without the mutation have about a 12 percent chance of contracting breast cancer. Jolie’s decision reportedly reduced her risks to about 5 percent.
But this boldness and strength has also been seen within our borders in the lives of many Belizean men and women who had been diagnosed with some form of cancer or the other.
Certainly, we can all recall in late 2011 when the prime minister’s wife and Special Envoy for Women and Children, Mrs. Kim Simplis Barrow, first announced that she was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer.
Most Belizeans have been following her journey since the first trip to Miami, to confirm at what stage the cancer was, to when the modelesque women-and-children activist took the bold move to shave off her hair as a statement to cancer that she’s ready to fight.
It’s safe to assume that most folks can still remember “Baldmiration”, an event in which Kim’s bold stance inspired men and women to cut off their hair in solidarity and support of her and every other cancer patient’s journey.
Being one of the few women public figures to have publicized her new-found struggle in such a manner, Kim caught the attention of British publication, ComplexD Magazine, who allowed her to tell her story (photos and all) over a four-page spread in its February 2012 “Women of Strength” issue.
In that article, Mrs. Barrow wrote that after she was first diagnosed, she entered into a brief moment of despair:
“I exercise with a trainer every day; I eat healthy and always made sure I had a well-balanced diet; I drink 8 to 10 litres of water every day and I am one of those who turn down a burger for a salad! … One in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer and I never thought I would be that one.”
She said the news made her feel as if she was going to die. “That fleeting moment gave me more terror than the cancer itself”.
The fear, however, was not allowed to linger for long. “But I told myself repeatedly, many battles are won or lost with cancer because of the presence of absence of one small word: Hope!” she wrote in that 2012 article.
And a year, mastectomy, heart failure, 40 radiation therapy sessions and reconstructive surgery later, speaking to The Reporter in early May about what she calls her “journey”, Kim Barrow says staying positive, with hope at the core, is still her “watchword” and the essence of her personal strength to continue to fight.
Still on heart medication—after last Memorial Day weekend’s near-fatal heart failure that occurred when she was only 15 radiation sessions into the standard five-week process—Barrow said to the Reporter:
“I will always remain optimistic. There’s only so much control you have over certain things; the rest will take care of itself. You just have to remain positive.”
Due to the heart condition she said, she had to take a break from the radiation treatment until last August, when she completed 25 additional treatments, which were administered every work day (Monday to Friday) for about five weeks.
To date, Kim is still doing check-ups every three months. “The doctors are still checking and doing tests to see if there’s anything there. They haven’t really found anything,” she said. “So, I’m moving as if I’m cured.”
The optimism isn’t totally unwarranted, as, generally speaking, a stage-three diagnosis could mean that the tumour could have been at least 5 centimetres large, so the fact that doctors are not finding anything speaks volumes.
Speaking with her now trademark positivity, with a hint of caution, she said that doctors will continue to closely monitor her progress over a five-year period to see if she’s totally cancer free.
“I don’t know what my future holds,” she said, “but I’m just making sure that I am doing all the right things.”
Speaking to other cancer survivors (not victims), she said that hope, positive attitude and good family support are all necessary ingredients to develop the strength needed to take even that first step into recovery.
“Cancer is a journey. Don’t walk it alone,” She advised, adding that it is also important to have something you love and keep that as your focus, because the fact is your world can’t end due to cancer.
“Sure, rest when you have to. But, you can’t let cancer take you down; you have to stay on top of things. So, if you can go into your office and still do work, or give back to others in need, do it!”
Barrow said that amidst her ordeal she kept herself as busy as possible with projects close to her heart, such as the Inspiration Center, which she hopes will open later this year, and writing the recently launched children’s book entitled “My Body is Precious”. “For me, it was like ‘cancer won’t beat me’. That is the message that I send to everyone.”
That message of resilience is only rivalled by one of Kim Barrow’s other messages–that of prevention. She has repeatedly advised that people ought to take note of the changes in their body and take the necessary steps to prevent cancer from taking a foothold.
And in Cancer Awareness Month, which is being celebrated under the theme “Cancer. Did You Know? Get The Facts,’ one fact that is clear in the Kim Simplis-Barrow’s story, as well as that of Jolie’s, is the motif of maintaining a good dosage of motivation that feeds the strength to not give up when faced with this most intrusive of diseases.
Kim writing in ComplexD Magazine, said: “Being there for Salima’s [her 7-year-old daughter] motivates me—reading her report cards, picking her up from school or taking her on play dates.
“I think about getting well and staying strong so that one day I can attend her graduation from high school and university, screen her boyfriends and console her wen her heart gets broken.
“There is so much to live for where she is concerned. There there’s my husband, Dean—I think about us finally being able to do things we haven’t had the chance to.”
Actress Angelina Jolie shared a similar sentiment. Her decision was a step to reassure her six children that she would not die young from cancer, as her mother did at age 56, Reuters reported.
In Lance Armstrong’s case, the athlete, who was told he had a nearly infinitesimal chance of survival and while he was still recovering from treatment, put his energies into forming the Lance Armstrong Foundation—an organization “born from his determination to ensure that no one go through that ‘desperation of diagnosis’ alone.”
It would seem, then, that there’s a consensus out there that the best cure for this disease that has no cure is to find a way to keep hope alive and have it fuel and strengthen you.
Therefore, to anyone who may already be fighting the fight, and to all those who may be diagnosed with cancer in the future, we ask: what is it that gives you hope; what is it that makes you stronger?