Cancer is one of the most heart wrenching diseases that exist. It does not discriminate amongst its victims. It has no sympathy for children, mothers, fathers, friends, cousins or loved ones. It cares not about your personality, political, religious or economic status. Cancer is described in the A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia as the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body. Cancerous cells are also called malignant cells. Cancer grows out of normal cells in the body. Normal cells multiply when the body needs them, and die when the body doesn’t need them. Cancer appears to occur when the growth of cells in the body is out of control and cells divide too quickly. It can also occur when cells forget how to die. Cancer then can affect any part of the body since cells are the body’s building block and whilst some have symptoms and can be diagnosed and treated early, some cancers do not show symptoms until it is well advanced and treatment is futile.
The first time I encountered this disease was at the age of 12 when my grandfather was diagnosed with Cancer. I remember as a kid, he left Belize a healthy man and came back in a wheelchair and a mere fraction of his former self. I remember my grandmother privately cried but presented a brave face when she administered care to him. I can still visualize him grimacing in pain, and fading in weight and size. He quickly deteriorated and finally succumbed to the disease in less than a year after diagnosis. Who would think cells that refuse to die can cause such a slow painful death. It was the first time I was confronted with losing someone I loved so much.
In two short years, my mother was diagnosed with the same deadly disease. Her initial prognosis was positive. It was breast cancer and early diagnosis was good. She underwent a recommended mastectomy but she did not do any other treatment as I recall. The surgery left her emotionally scarred but her spirit was upbeat because she survived. I was also comforted after reading a home encyclopedia that seemed to minimize the effects and alleviated any fears of losing her. She was physically scarred but she was still as beautiful as ever and most importantly, she was still here and that was all that mattered. I remember she told me that all she cared about was her children and her surgery was a small price to pay to be in our lives. She resumed work and life as normal.
As life resumed to “normal”, my mother’s work life consumed her; she did not follow up on her checkups because time away did not allow her to. In two very short years later, she began experiencing excruciating back pains and discovered another lump in her second breast. This time when she went for treatment, the prognosis was not good. The doctor initially predicted she would live for two weeks because the cancer had spread to her brain, but after a second look, there was no brain cancer and the doctors could not explain what happened, however, their prediction was still dire. Prior to the cancer years, I had never seen my mother sick with a cold or flu but yet she succumbed to this disease in nine short months later. My mother suffered the same deterioration as my grandfather, her father; she grew weaker and weaker until she uttered her last words before she passed away: “ I am so tired!”
The memory that haunts me through is her doctor in Belize. My mother’s doctor in Canada called a very prominent doctor in Belize to discuss her treatment and chemotherapy options. He wanted to ensure he would maintain her treatment in a last ditch effort to save her life. The Belize doctor promised the Canadian doctor to take over my mother’s treatment, however he never showed up one day to administer any treatment. My aunt, in a moment of desperation, visited him at his home to ask why he is not treating her; she emerged with tears streaming from her eyes. The doctor told her he did not have time to waste because she was not going to survive anyway. He was cold, callous and uncaring. I don’t think I have hated anyone so much in my life. As I write this piece I reflect on the lack of civility and care the doctor displayed towards my mother, who considered him a personal friend. She was vulnerable and he was an asshole for lack of a better term. I later found out that my mother was not the only person he showed this level of disparagement towards. I met someone who shared a similar story about the “good” doctor’s treatment towards her father who also suffered and died from Cancer. I still find him contemptible after reflecting 20 years later; his despicable behavior is maybe why I have the tendency to blow anyone “out the water” that act in such a manner towards victims.
The story of Cancer gets no better in my family. Within a decade’s time, I lost my grandfather, mother, and two aunts. This may sound like a tragic story of the Branche/Gillett family, sad to say it is not exclusive to my family. In the area I grew up in Belmopan, every single street in the Site Seven area has had a Cancer victim.(see picture above). I formed a cancer group on Facebook(What is causing Cancer in Belize, Let’s investigate) and I am trying to create an ad hoc database and map to give a visual of the frightening impact. My maps are exclusive to Belmopan. If you look at the map you will see the astronomical number of victims in site seven, a small community of maybe 500 families. As we venture outside the Site Seven area in Belmopan, the picture becomes even more alarming. (The picture is limited to our personal knowlege, many more victims exist) I am sure that this problem may also be as staggering in other areas of Belize, however, there is no empirical evidence to support this.
Janelle Chanona did a news piece called Cancer in Children, where two little girls were diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer in Belize. (http://www.7newsbelize.com/sstory.php?nid=17843) You have to question what the odds of two people are in a small community from different families developing the same rare form of cancer. I feel uncomfortable not knowing. There are now too many victims to recall each triumph or tragedy as much I would love to do it here. We need to investigate what is causing cancer in Belize. The causes could be diet, environmental, genetic or mere coincidence, however, the lack of concrete evidence leaves us speculating the causes and making it impossible to create effective prevention and treatment programs. I write this letter pleading for some investigation and hoping to bring to light the long reach of this deadly disease. The first lady is doing an excellent job forcing and inspiring us to confront the disease. Her approach is revolutionary for Belize. My intention is that we have a database for all cancer victims, support groups and effective prevention and treatment options for Belizeans. The database would also serve as a footprint for future investigators to take up the task and help us determine our root causes.