In 2009, Amina Hassan passed her hand over one of her breasts and felt a lump, she immediately became alert and in the process a wave of fear washed over her. About two months and several doctor visits later, inclusive of hospitalization, her worse fears were confirmed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Girl when I heard that news, I cry and I cry and the doctor tried to comfort and even he and all start to cry, you know. He was old and a very nice doctor… I felt that my world is over,” Hassan, now 75, shared of that day when she was diagnosed.
Thereafter, a journey of recovery began; it was not an easy road, in fact it was one filled with bumps and detours and one that she felt she would not have made to the end.
“I had to take chemotherapy and it was so hard, it used to make me feel sick. And then one day I was sitting in the reclining chair watching TV when a bunch of my hair just fall out. Oh Lord, I start to cry. I went to my bed and more hair fall out and I call Bibi [her daughter] and I show her. They told me my hair would fall out but I didn’t know it would be clean bald,” she told the Sunday Stabroek.
But through perseverance and the support of children and her family she is now a cancer survivor. Initially, she was ashamed to share publicly that she had breast cancer but that is no longer the case.
She bravely shares her story today and it is her resilience that has pushed her daughter, Bibi Hassan, head of the Guyana Cancer Foundation, to continue to work in sensitizing women about cancer and administering free pap smears and counselling.
With the month of October being breast cancer awareness month, the younger Hassan through the assistance of corporate sponsors and her foundation has planned several activities to make women more aware of breast cancer and to encourage them to have mammograms done.
Hassan got involved 12 years ago through Avon, which held an annual tree-wrapping exercise to mark breast cancer awareness month and a walk; she used to sell Avon products. Over the years, the going got tough but with the motivation derived from her mother’s resilience in fighting breast cancer, Hassan formed the foundation in 2015.
She recalled that during her association with Avon, she was responsible for all corporate sponsors and the journey started which according to her “grew into something big over the years” until 2015 when Avon left the Caribbean.
Hassan was offered the opportunity to take over the initiative and it took 10 months to form and register the foundation, but on June 1, 2016 it became a legal entity. The foundation focuses on free screening and early detection and targets low income, under insured and medically underserved women. Hassan said she has not turned away any woman but she asks them to be truthful.
“I have never refused anyone. I always ask them to be honest and I explain that it is for the low income and for them to be honest and be fair,” she said.
The foundation kicked off its free screening programme with mammograms and sonograms. In January, which is cervical cancer awareness month, Hassan said, she wanted the public to know about this and she decided to offer free screening and pap smears.
Initially, she had offered 125 free smears but through the assistance of others she was able to offer another 125.
The St Joseph Mercy Hospital came on board and Hassan was allowed to use its facility to have the pap smears to be done, following which she approached management to rent a room to have her foundation permanently located in the hospital’s compound and one month later it was a reality.
“This was the vision I had when I was registering Guyana Cancer Foundation. I wanted to be in a hospital area and God has granted me that wish… and this is a place that I always loved,” Hassan shared.
The free pap smears were not offered only in Georgetown, Hassan said, they moved to Linden, a community in the Berbice River, Bartica, Mahaicony and Morakabai through the sponsorship of the Guyana Medical Relief.
To date, the foundation has offered free pap smears to 700-plus women. She said there were a few biopsies and at least one woman who had to be treated immediately. But one of the issues, according to Hassan, is that some of the women do not return for their results and it is difficult to make contact with them.
“I can’t give them the information over the phone and they are refusing to come in,” Hassan said as she showed this newspaper a pile of results still to be given to women.
Further, she said the women in the rural areas requested that their results not be handed over to the health workers in their communities since they were not confidential. “They requested that we call them direct because they said when the reports go there the health worker will read it and go tell everybody if it is a positive result. We found that in three areas where we worked,” Hassan said.
But it is difficult to contact some of them because there is no telephone access.
Hassan said one of the plusses of offering pap smears is that she has direct contact with women unlike offering mammograms and sonograms which involves paying the Guyana Cancer Institute to have the women tested and “we don’t see them back or hear from them.”
“With cervical cancer you get friends and they call you, they keep in contact with you and I grew to love it [working in cervical cancer]…” Hassan said, pointing out that cervical cancer affects women as much as breast cancer and she believes that the ongoing project is one that was needed in Guyana.
The foundation also offers counselling through a registered nurse who is trained in counselling.
Hassan described her mother as an inspiration; she became her caregiver when she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer.
“I went through the journey with her, it wasn’t easy. You know, she had this head full of hair and then one morning she woke up… she said, ‘come’ and when I got into the room she said ‘look on the pillow’ and when I looked on the pillow a whole junk of hair was on her pillow… I was speechless… I went into my room and I just lay down on my bed and I started to cry and I asked God why did this have to happen to my mom…,” Hassan said of the experience, becoming emotional as she spoke.
She said her mother motivated her, sharing that even when her mother was undergoing chemotherapy she would still “go about cooking… she would come feeling sick and then in the afternoons she would still get up and cook and I will come home and get hot dinner.” The two live together.
“You know like she pushed me to be the driving force behind this thing, one day she said, ‘please help the women’. You have to say she is my hero, she is the inspiration that made this a success and I have a fulltime job…” Hassan said, revealing that she works in sales and marketing at Sun Foods Enterprises.
But while she sees her mother as inspiration, the older Hassan shared that it was her children and other family members who motivated her to keep fighting.
“I had a surgery and by the Grace of God it was successful and I have to thank my family and the church for praying and supporting me. The chemo used to make me feel so sick, so bad and so weak…,” she recalled.
At present, she ensures that she watches her diet and that she eats on time, “but I still do my work you know, I wash, cook and clean.
“What I want to say to women to have the tests done and if you suspect something is wrong don’t hesitate. Cancer is a terrible thing, it is a killer but women can beat it by having tests and by taking the treatment,” the older Hassan encouraged.