Dealing with breast cancer taboos
Inspiring interview with Altegracia Linda Lake from Sint Maarten
In the last year ProudBreast and the lightweight breast prostheses (Qups) were introduced in Sint Maarten. Over the years foundations like Positive Foundation, Elektralyets Foundation and Still Beautiful Foundation supported women diagnosed with breast cancer on the Friendly Island. Even today, breast cancer is a topic that is not commonly discussed. But within the last year women in Sint Maarten are standing up to share their experiences and talk about the importance of early detection. Linda Lake, a beautiful retiree, is one of them and for many years she has been available for guidance, advice, and encouragement to many people. Her story is the first in a series of online publications by ProudBreast set to inspire others.
How did you discover you had breast cancer?
My journey began after a routine mammogram, which revealed a small dot that raised concern. The doctor advised me to return after six months for further examination. At the time, I felt tired, attributing it to the aftermath of Hurricane Louis that had swept through the island. Little did I know that my fatigue was one of the effects of breast cancer. The subsequent biopsy took place in Guadeloupe, and along with the results came the urgent recommendation to remove the tumor as soon as possible. Seeking a second opinion, my insurance company reached out to specialists in Curaçao, who suggested an immediate mastectomy without even seeing me in person. However, I knew I deserved better treatment and refused to accept their decision without being consulted. Determinately she says: I am a professional and would like to be treated likewise. I felt the insurance company did not take me seriously. They made up their mind without consulting me. So, this was a no go.
In those moments, it felt as if I was riding in the front seat of a rollercoaster carriage, hurtling forward with no idea of how the ride would end. Determined and undeterred, I discussed the options with family and friends, ultimately deciding to have surgery at the renowned Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York. Serendipitously, a close friend came across an article in Good Housekeeping Magazine featuring Dr. Cody, one of the best surgeons in New York City, who specialized in breast cancer. Coincident? Maybe, but it made me feel I made the right decision.
Dr. Cody confirmed that I had stage 1 breast cancer, explaining that mastectomies were rarely performed for this type of cancer. Instead, he recommended a lumpectomy, a relatively new procedure. The surgery lasted three hours and went smoothly, allowing me to leave the hospital as an outpatient. I stayed in a nearby hotel, visiting the hospital daily for wound treatment. By the end of April, armed with a prescription for chemotherapy, I returned to Sint Maarten. Instead of traveling to Curaçao, I found a local doctor willing to administer the intravenous treatment. Balancing work and chemotherapy sessions was challenging, especially during the first few days, but I persevered. Although I experienced flu-like symptoms, I continued working diligently.
Later, I traveled to the Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale for radiation treatment, making the journey for three months. Finally, when I completed the radiation program and returned home to Sint Maarten, I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment.
How did people in Sint Maarten react?
The reaction from the people of Sint Maarten was unprecedented. Breast cancer had long been a taboo subject, rarely discussed, and individuals diagnosed with the disease received little support from their communities. Linda, however, took it upon herself to break down the barriers by openly sharing her experiences with family, colleagues, and friends.
You come across as a woman on a mission. If I call your family and ask them to describe you. What will they tell us?
Linda’s face lites up with a warm smile. Blessed with two children and three grandchildren, my son, Gregory, will describe me as a pillar of strength and resilience. Even during my most challenging battles, I remained unwavering in my faith. I encourage my loved ones to keep improving and never give up. My daughter, Cindy, sees me as a mentor, motivator, and a woman of conviction. She fondly referres to me as a “drill sergeant” because of my motto: if I can do it, I’ll expect you to do better! I am passionate about self-advancement and empowering others in their community. Despite not having the opportunity to study abroad, I embraced any chance for personal growth. For instance, upon retiring, I became a certified Tour Director, because I love travelling and wanted to embark on a new adventure. I firmly believing in the power of self-development. Even in the grace years.
You have gone through a life changing process. What was the impact?
After completing radiation treatment, I made it my first priority to eliminate stress and negativity. A dear friend invited me to the Ann Wigmore Institute in Puerto Rico, where we embarked on a two-week journey to learn about a plant-based lifestyle and detoxify my body from the chemicals necessary to combat cancer.
The battle with breast cancer was undeniably life changing. Retirement allows me to live life at a more relaxed pace allows me to improve my energy levels. I adopted a more plant-based diet while incorporating daily exercise into my routine. Water aerobics became a favorite activity, which I enjoy twice a week. Through these lifestyle changes, I regained vitality and energy. I also embrace the belief that elegance and beauty can be achieved with or without breasts. She stresses the importance of body positivity and confidence, encouraging young women to internalize these values from an early age. Teaching them about self-examination and regular check-ups can ensure the passing down of life-saving knowledge to future generations.
Prevention is very important. Unfortunately, there are still woman avoiding regular screening. How do you feel about this?
Prevention became a topic close to my heart. Unfortunately, some women still avoid regular screening, a fact that deeply concerns me. As a survivor, I strongly advocate for self-examination and routine check-ups. Recent statistics shows an alarming increase in the number of young women diagnosed with breast cancer, dispelling the notion that it only affects those aged 50 and above. Early detection is crucial, and Linda emphasise the significance of self-examinations and regular medical evaluations for women of all ages. She observed that while some women underwent the initial screening, many failed to follow through and collect their results. She reminds them that even indecision is a decision that could potentially jeopardize their chances of survival. She stands by the motto early detection is the best protection.
Luckily, Sint Maarten has organizations like the Positive Foundation and the students at the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine (AUC) who organize medical screenings, ensuring access for all women, including the undocumented and uninsured. President Shelly Alphonso and Dr. Naira Chobanyan are the thriving forces behind the (free of charge) screenings. They both are strong advocates for breast cancer prevention and awareness. Their presence in the community is a true blessing.
What drives you share your personal story?
Finally, when asked about her motivation for sharing her personal story, Linda speaks of her life’s mission. I believe it is my life mission to shed light on breast cancer, whether through awareness campaigns, one-on-one counseling, or media interviews. Having supported my sister during her own breast cancer journey, I can relate easily to the emotional rollercoaster patients face. Though each journey is unique, I find solace in being able to relate to other women experiencing the same ordeal. Open discussions about self-examination, regular check-ups, and the challenges of living with breast cancer are essential for saving lives and fostering supportive and inclusive communities.
And so, Linda Lake, with her indomitable spirit, continues to inspire and empower others, forever leaving an imprint on the lives she touches. Her story reminds us all that in the face of adversity, determination and positivity could help us overcome life’s greatest challenges.