PUBLISHED ON: 4 March 2021

When Kendra was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020, she found it difficult to talk about – especially with her family. She explains about the stigma towards illness in the Caribbean community. 

Kendra, a Caribbean woman, posing with her husband and their two young sons

My cancer was detected through a trial 

Last year, I was invited to take part in a trial offering breast screening to women aged 47-49. Being a nurse, I wanted to take part, because I’m always advising my female patients to stay up to date with their breast and cervical screenings. 

I thought nothing of it, even when I got a letter two weeks later. I initially thought that was just part of the trial. But then I panicked and thought, ‘What if it’s not?’. 

My husband was quick to reassure me. He gets private health insurance through his job, so he said we should just make an appointment through that.  

Four days later, I had an appointment with a breast specialist. We went through my history, which was nothing to worry about. But then he examined me, and he drew a circle around my right nipple. I knew that wasn’t a good sign. 

I was sent for an ultrasound and another mammogram, and then the ultrasound technician called me back for a biopsy. I was able to get the preliminary results within an hour, and they showed that there were cancer cells present. 

I panicked a lot, especially for my family 

When I got the news, I felt so sick. It was like the room was closing in around me. The next thing I know, I was at London Bridge station calling my husband and telling him I thought I was going to die. 

I thought, ‘Why me?’ - but of course there was no answer. I found myself questioning so many things. How long had the cancer been there? Could I have done something different? You battle with yourself over these questions. 

A week later, I had to go back to hospital. I remember asking, ‘Why can’t you just remove my breast?’ but of course it’s more complicated than that. However, a later MRI scan showed that I did need a mastectomy after all. 

There were only a few weeks between getting my diagnosis and having surgery, but it’s all a blur. I don’t remember much, other than panicking. I worried I would die young, that I wouldn’t see my kids grow up. 

My two boys are 13 and 11, and I decided to tell them. My eldest, who is autistic, had some questions for me. My youngest didn’t react very well. He started behaving very negatively towards me. 

Illness is not spoken about in Caribbean communities 

Telling my mum was also tough. 

I told her I’d had a mammogram and that I had cancer, but she couldn’t accept it. She would say things like, ‘Oh, well, you just need to have another test.’ She won’t even say the word; she calls it ‘the big C’.  

In the Caribbean community, there are certain things you don’t discuss with your elders – certainly not health issues. I only found out recently that a cousin of mine had bowel cancer and has sadly passed away, and that my uncle had kidney failure. But we always just say we’re fine. 

Even when I was growing up, I never knew when my mum went through the menopause because we just didn’t speak about those things. It was really difficult for me to find support from her. She obviously had concerns, too, but she couldn’t bring herself to talk to me about it in an appropriate way, so she just said nothing at all. 

I'm trying to instil the ability in my children to talk about these things by having uncomfortable conversations. If I had those conversations with my mum, maybe I would have handled breast cancer differently. 

Hormone treatment feels unmanageable at times 

My treatment has also had a big impact on me. 

At the time I was diagnosed, I was very active at work. I work with some very vulnerable people: refugees, people with addiction problems, people experiencing homelessness. I love my job. But, because of the type of surgery I needed, I had to isolate for two weeks prior and then I needed a lot of time off afterwards, too. 

I am resentful that it took me away from my work for so long. 

I am lucky that I did not need radiotherapy or chemotherapy, but I have been put on tamoxifen for five years. It's plunged me headfirst into menopause. 

My mood swings can be ferocious – one minute I’m elated and the next I feel so sad. It’s making me withdraw and isolate myself within the family unit, as I don’t want it to affect my husband and children.  

The hot flushes are also difficult. Sometimes I feel like a walking ball of fire. 

I want to let people know that it’s ok to seek help 

Cancer has felt like a battle. It’s changed me – in some ways for the better, but it’s also made other things harder.  

But what gets me through a day where I'm feeling really rough is going into a quiet space by myself and reflecting on the people I have around me, the things I’m still able to do, and indulging in a bit of self-love and care.  

When I was first diagnosed, I actually used the Someone Like Me service, and that really helped me. I want to pay that back one day, and to be there for other people. 

I also feel driven to advocate for my clients and those in the Caribbean community. They need to know what’s going on with their health and their bodies, and how to seek help and advice. I want to share the message that it’s ok not to be strong sometimes, and there is no harm in seeking help – even if it’s just for peace of mind. 

 

If you are struggling with a breast cancer diagnosis and would like to talk to someone who understands your situation, our Someone Like Me service can put you in touch with the right person.

Someone Like Me