Cancer prevention advocate honours parents in drive to promote testing

Bibi Sheonarine with her parents and some of her siblings in happier times

After losing her mother to cervical cancer, Bibi Sheonarine thought she took all the necessary preventative actions to ensure her surviving parent was healthy. But years later she received the shocking news that her father was also stricken with cancer and after a valiant fight he also succumbed.

Reeling from the double tragedy, Sheonarine is now on a mission to ensure that Guyanese women take preventative actions by having regular pap smears and mammograms done and shortly also for men to have access to free testing for prostate cancer.

“Cancer is a disease if it is caught in stage one and two you have an excellent chance of survival. But when it is third and fourth stage you have to go through massive chemotherapy and radiation which is what ends up killing you; the treatment is what kills people,” she told the Sunday Stabroek in an interview.

“I care tremendously about Guyana, enough to be here three times a year,” she added revealing that she has since started a foundation through which she hopes to ensure that women, especially those in the interior and other outlying areas, access free pap smears and mammograms.

But it is not just testing that Sheonarine, who is trained in oncology as a volunteer, is aiming at. She has bigger dreams one of which is to have a hostel opened close to the Georgetown Public Hospital to offer free accommodation to the relatives of persons being treated for cancer.

“It is important for persons in the hospitals to have relatives around and sometimes it is difficult because the relatives don’t have accommodation. I want to change that. I don’t want to just test them and tell them they have cancer and drop them,” she shared.

Sheonarine left Guyana for California 45 years ago, but she has visited the land of her birth almost yearly ever since.

“I came back this time on a one-way ticket to volunteer for cancer and do screening for pap smear and monogram and for prostate in the near future,” she said.

She is of the opinion that there is need for more awareness to be done in the area of the various cancers especially cervical cancer as too many women are learning of their status when it is too late.

As a result, she has founded the Sar & B Charity along with her husband. Sar represents part of her mother’s name while B is the first letter in her father’s name. Her mother died from cervical cancer in 1992 and her father from prostate cancer in 2003 and they also had siblings who died from various other cancers.

She shared that she had taken her mother to the US for a vacation and one morning she said she was not feeling well. “I took her to the doctor and the doctor became so alarmed that he immediately sent her to be tested for cancer.”

When they received the dreaded news, Sheonarine said, instead of being strong for her mother it was the other way around as she broke down in the doctor’s office.

Her mother was so ill, that Sheonarine gave up her real estate business and returned with her to Guyana.

“I kept caring for her, she lived for five months and for that time I spent it all with her. I slept in the hospital with her, just holding her hands and feeding her. You know she was dying and we didn’t know until it was too late. She had surgery and it all went downhill from there. There was never an uphill day because the cancer was at stage four,” she said close to tears.

It was after her mother’s death that she underwent training courses in oncology to become a volunteer.

It was at that point also that Sheonarine decided she would ensure that her father was tested regularly and as a result made yearly trips to Guyana to have this done.

“I made sure I took all the preventative actions because I did not want to lose another parent,” she said.

But in the end her efforts were futile. Despite the fact that her father was tested regularly, his cancer was not diagnosed at an early stage and she shared how painful it was for her and siblings when he was diagnosed with late stage prostate cancer.

She recalls that in 1999 she visited Guyana for Christmas and as soon as she saw her father she knew he was stricken with cancer.

Due to what was revealed in tests in Guyana, Sheonarine returned to the US with her father shortly after, but he contracted pneumonia soon after he arrived because his body was weakened by then. He was hospitalized and as his children stood around his bed, she recalled that the doctor informed them: ‘Your father is going to die tonight.’

But in the end, he died four years later on November 5, 2003.

While Sheonarine sponsored him, her father preferred to remain in Guyana and she in turn visited Guyana several times a year to be with him and ensure he was okay and to administer a special treatment he was on.

In 2003, she spent seven months with him and it was only in the last month of his life that he was bedridden. “I did everything a child could have done for their father before he died,” she said.

Sheonarine also lost a niece to breast cancer and she said she is very vigilant when it comes to her eight siblings and other relatives, but she also wants to take that vigilance to Guyanese at large as well.

Cervical cancer

Sheonarine said that all the studies have shown that cervical cancer is the most rampant in Guyana.

As such when cervical cancer awareness month is observed in January, Sheonarine said, they are hoping to host several outreaches to have women tested for cervical cancer.

“People need to be vigilant to keep an eye out for when we are out there and please come out and be tested it will be free,” she appealed.

But it is not just in the area of cancer she has been volunteering but also in feeding the homeless, giving out hampers and working with the Red Cross.

She does not have children and shared that since she was 13 she knew she would have been unable to give birth since she was diagnosed with ovarian cysts and her ovaries were removed. As she worked to help others she has also been focusing on keeping her family closely knitted.

“I give my life to others, bringing all the families over and see that they are settled down and see that everything works out.

“I really think God did not give me children for a reason because he wanted me to take care of other people’s children,” she said with a laugh.

Apart from securing a hostel, Sheonarine said they also hope to purchase a bus to transport people for treatment and she is also open to ideas and to partnering as she believes everyone can play a role.

“To me I feel cancer is like a time bomb in Guyana and so it is important that everyone is tested,” she said.

To help in the drive Sheonarine has set up a go fund me account (\cancer-outreach) and she said all proceeds would go toward providing free screening for cancer. Persons can contact Sheonarine on 625-4358 or as she also provides support for persons who are diagnosed with cancer and also their relatives during the difficult period.

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