This is the third of a four-part series by Tara Playfair-Scott, a marketing and public relations specialist and manager of international athlete Asafa Powell, who disclosed recently that she was diagnosed with cancer of the breast and was taking adequate steps to fight the disease. The series is being highlighted in recognition of Jamaica’s observance of Breast Cancer Month in October.
As I’m sitting in traffic on Hope Road heading home after being told my biopsy was malignant and I had breast cancer, I’m looking around and everything else around me is so “normal”. People in their cars, the heat, the sound of blaring horns, the impatience of taxi cabs, the Chinese food on the passenger seat next to me — like just another day. I don’t even remember picking that food up… It’s a blur.
I hear the doctor sharing my options… a Lupectomy, radiation, mastectomy, getting a receptor test, expanders (what are those?), fat transfers (who knew?), Tamoxofin, Herceptin and, of course, chemotherapy. Everything was swirling in my head … I picked up the phone and called the one person who I had told about the lump the moment I found it … no answer. I looked up. I was in front of my house and wasn’t even sure how I got there. I got out, went inside, fed my dogs, sat down and sent my best friend a text message telling her that I did have cancer and that I was going to turn off my phone. I did just that, took a shower and went to bed. I didn’t even know if it was 6:00 pm yet but I knew I just wanted to climb into my bed. I suppose a part of me was hoping when I woke up it would have been a bad dream.
The next morning nothing had changed … In fact, it was more real than ever. What the hell was I going to do? I was to think about my options and go back to the doctor. She was also going to get pricing on the hospital, plastic surgeon and anaesthesiologist, etc and I would have my sample sent off for receptor testing to see if my breast cancer cells had receptors for the hormones estrogen and progesterone, and if they do I could then do one of the hormone treatments. In my head I was hoping I would be able to do one of these and not have to do chemo. In fact, I told the doctor that I’d never do chemo. Looking back I realise I really didn’t understand my diagnosis or what it would take to fight. I just wanted to go back to when my life was normal… But it wasn’t.
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Having got back my results from my receptor test, I went to see an oncologist. She explained that I was ‘Triple Negative’. This meant that my cancer cells had no receptors for estrogen or progesterone so I couldn’t utilise any hormone treatment. The only thing that could work for me was chemo and it was also deemed to be the most aggressive breast cancer. This is what caused me to snap…. I got home and I finally said ‘why me?’ I mean, here I was, having cancelled my insurance in February after having paid individual insurance for 13 years, I was triple negative, I don’t have a history of breast cancer, I wasn’t living a crazy lifestyle and this tumour was getting bigger and bigger since that biopsy — what did I do to deserve this? It all hit me at once and I really cried.
I went for a drive to Longboarder Beach in the middle of the day with a really good friend and we talked about it. I rambled on about all the different options and combinations. I knew the moment I heard I wanted to have a mastectomy … a double in fact. He listened. He said to me this is no big deal, Tara … it’s nothing but a bump in the road. That stuck with me — it was going to affect my life as much as I allowed it to. I decided I wanted to be there for Asafa for national trials and finish up other obligations for clients and then I would begin my treatment. I still had not told my mother or anyone else other than my two best friends.
Because of my diagnosis the oncologist prescribed 16 weeks of chemotherapy for me, which would take me into December 2016. She told me my hair would fall out within a week and it could be traumatic so it wouldn’t be best to cut it low so it would be so unnerving. I also needed to do an EKG to see if my heart could handle it and everyone wanted me to do a CT Scan to see if it had spread (I refused to do that one — I didn’t want to know). As crazy as it sounds, I just wanted to focus on where I knew the cancer was — if it had spread … well hopefully the chemo would treat it. However, in all of this madness I knew I wanted to do things with friends that would allow me to appreciate moments and make memories. It was going to a friend’s birthday and hearing about someone else having cancer that I decided to share with another friend that I also had cancer … She told me about this clinic that did immunotherapy … I was hesitant as it was in Mexico. But when I looked it up and spoke to the founder I said, well, I’ll go for two weeks and get my immune system and body in order and ready to do four months of full chemo. Worse case scenario, I would have a stronger immune system that would help me with the chemo.
Being there for two weeks and getting ready to leave in a few days was when I found out about low-dose IPT chemo that they did there. I also found out that they created a vaccine from your tumour. Hmm… I started to see if I could send the 1cm of my tumour via FedEx from Kingston to Mexico City. I called my surgeon in Jamaica as I felt I needed more options being Triple Negative…
Fast forward to July 16, I had done my fourth chemo treatment and boarded a flight back to Jamaica where my mother was waiting as I was going to do surgery in two weeks. I got home and I was sick. I realised it was a bit of a crazy move to do chemo then be on planes for 16 hours but I was home and happy. That week I had meetings and I also went to see my doctor and I was excited for her to see how well the low-dose chemo had worked. We also needed to arrange the surgery. While I was home I just wanted to do all the things I normally did and missed, like have Adolf wash my hair, go by Face Place and do my nails and eyebrows, hug my dogs, go to Hellshire, and be normal. Still not many people knew and that allowed me to just be me without a lot of questions. Except the hair … the wig was clearly not my hair. The few people who knew were amazing. While I was in Mexico FaceTime calls, funny whatsapp messages and calls and even a standard Monday morning Skype meetings made the time away pass quickly and allowed me to not get distracted by this bump in the road.
But it was time to get this alien out of my body. I had been waiting to do that since the minute I found out. The difference with low-dose chemo is that you only have to wait 10-14 days after your last treatment before you can do surgery. So that’s what I was going to do but I ended up getting the flu and so I was going to have to wait another week. I also started to lose my hair. I thought it would have survived because after a month it hadn’t fallen out … but I noticed more hair in the sink … A lot came out when I went to wash it and it got progressively worse in the next few weeks until I asked Adolf to come by and shave it off. There were patches that were coming out and others that were staying. It was time to let it go. It was a bit traumatic but in the scheme of things it could be worse. It would grow back right? *fingers crossed*
In that time I spoke with the oncologist in Mexico when he called to check on me and he reminded me that he wanted to do six treatments to be safe versus the four I did before leaving and he told me that he and the other doctors spoke and they didn’t think that shipping off a piece of my tumour back to Mexico City to create a vaccine would work — it needed to be fresh. Wow! So what do I do? I didn’t want to wait a long time to do my surgery and give the cancer a chance to start growing again. I decided to pray on the decision of staying in Jamaica and doing the surgery or heading back to Mexico. After praying on it I just had a conviction that I should just finish this where I started. My mother told me not to worry and that we would make whatever I decided to do work.
So, I went back to Mexico on August 8 … I did two more chemo treatments the last of which really hit me. I was really exhausted and I got a milder case of vasculitis than I had the first time and all my veins were hardened but I made it through and on August 30 I had my surgery. I had a mastectomy (I wanted to do both although every doctor told me it wasn’t necessary) and I still asked but when I woke up I realised only one was gone. He said it would be too traumatic … He also told me I was fist-bumping the surgical team and telling them let’s get rid of this %#!* Post surgery I understood a bit better what he meant about removing both breasts being traumatic. I stayed overnight in hospital and less than 24 hours later I was out and back “home”. I spent two more weeks in Mexico recovering and waiting on my pathology report post surgery to see if the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes and the breakdown of the tumour as well as my vaccine.