Breast cancer survivor turned advocate urges women to get screened early

For many who receive a breast cancer diagnosis, hearing from others who have survived it can be a great source of comfort and support.

For breast cancer survivor Devika Tinsarran, while strong family support, her faith and a positive outlook have helped her get through her diagnosis, “I had one person who used to guide me through. Now I can be able to do it for as many persons as possible,” the vibrant 30-year-old asserted in an interview with this newspaper.

Tinsarran is one of many women in the under-40 age group who have been diagnosed with breast cancer in Guyana over the past few years.

In February, statistics released on World Cancer Day indicated that for 2015, the Oncology Department of the Georgetown Public Hospital (GPHC) diagnosed 314 patients with one of 39 different types of cancers. Of that number, the largest percentage, 39.8, or some 125 persons were diagnosed with breast cancer.

Breast cancer survivor Devika Tinsarran
Breast cancer survivor Devika Tinsarran

According to Tinsarran, while she was diagnosed in April last year, it was a year earlier that she had found a lump in her right breast, but she didn’t think too much of it at the time. “When I felt the lump… I read about people just having cyst and so in their breast and after a time it goes away. I thought it was probably a cyst or some tissues,” she said.

It was at the insistence of her husband, after she began experiencing some pain, that she decided to go and get it checked. The results of a biopsy done at the GPHC revealed that it was a giant fibroadenoma, which is a tumour formed of mixed fibrous and glandular tissue, typically occurring as a benign growth in the breast.

The doctor, she said, suggested that she get the lump removed surgically. Scared of “going under the knife” she thought that “if I left it that it would go away.”

However, in February 2015, the pains increased again and her husband told her that it was time to take the lump out she said. The surgery was done at the Woodlands Hospital and the matter was sent for tests, she said. The results came back on April 2, with the dreadful news.

“The doctor told me what no woman wants to hear, ‘You have breast cancer.’ I became absolutely numb. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. I was there alone. I just thought I was going to pick up a normal report,” she stated. To her knowledge, no one in her family has had breast cancer, so she was not expecting to receive such a diagnosis.

Women deal with breast cancer diagnoses in different ways; emotions can range from shock to denial to fear and even anger. For Tinsarran, the reaction was shock and she somehow gathered the strength to tell the doctor that she would revisit him in a few days. “He continued to speak and I don’t know where I got the strength from… I stopped him and I said whatever you are about to say right now I wouldn’t hear. I said give me a couple of days and I would come back and see you and we can go from there,” she recalled.

Devika Tinsarran after she lost all her hair due to chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.
Devika Tinsarran after she lost all her hair due to chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.

She went home and broke the news to her husband and family and subsequently went back to the doctor who referred her to the GPHC’s oncology department where she started radiation and chemotherapy treatment at the end of April last year. She finished in January of this year. She also received radiation treatment at the Cancer Institute of Guyana and lauded the support she received from both institutions.

During her first cycle of chemo, her hair fell out – one of the many side effects. Although she did extensive research when she was initially diagnosed, Tinsarran said she was not fully prepared when it actually happened. “I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t expect it as harsh. Reading about it prepared me but I don’t think you can really explain what your body really goes through at the time. There were so many days I was so sick that I couldn’t get out of bed,” she recounted.

Early screening and detection for cancer is always advised by doctors and Tinsarran is grateful that she was able to nip hers in the bud in stage one. While in stage one, breast cancer can be successfully treated. But the doctor told her that had they not done anything about it, it would have metastasized within a year and there would have been nothing they could have done.

Tinsarran also credits her husband who she said was her “absolute rock” during her treatments, which often left her without energy. “Somedays he was my hands and my legs when I couldn’t get out of bed. When I couldn’t walk he was and still is my support,” she said.

To date she has done television and radio programmes, participated in the Cancer Day talk at the Georgetown Public Hospital and continues to advocate for other women to not only get screened yearly but to also perform self-checks since early detection is crucial. “If you know of someone with a lump advise them. It doesn’t even have to be a lump, advise them to get screened every year. Do self-checks. You are your own advocate, you know your body better than anybody else,” she added.

While she didn’t have much energy then, Tinsarran said she now feels great and this has to do with her change in diet and lifestyle. She was even happy to share that although she lost her hair due to the treatments, it is now growing back lustrously.

In addition to her husband, she is grateful for the strong family support she received since she recognized that many others are not as fortunate. “You know people love you but you don’t know how much until you get sick. To see how my family and friends came through that is what I want for other persons fighting cancer. I spoke to some persons who don’t have a strong family support and it is hard on them so I am fortunate to have had the support system that I had,” the young woman stated.

Today she is a survivor and she has even taken to social media to chronicle her struggles, which she said has made her garner a lot of support. “I went public on Facebook with my struggle and it was amazing the response I got because most people in Guyana don’t talk about it. I think they are ashamed to tell people. …I knew I did nothing to get this,” she added.

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