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A Survivor’s Advice: Listen to Your Body

“Know your body and don’t ignore when something seems wrong,” breast cancer survivor Raynette Cameron advises. “It could be a headache – it could be a pain in your pinky toe – don’t ignore it,” she warns. Raynette knows first-hand. She noticed a lump near her collar-bone just days after being declared healthy following her annual wellness exam. She went back to the doctor immediately. The lump was stage-three breast cancer. After successful treatment, Raynette is hoping her story can encourage others to better manage their health and perhaps save their own lives.

“We’re having too many people dying of breast cancer and when they look back they may have had a lump for two years and they just ignored it,” she says. “You don’t have to die from cancer. Early detection is the cure,” she says. But it’s not just for cancer, she says. People should pay attention to any sign of discomfort in their bodies and get it checked out.

The hesitation to go to the doctor may be cultural, Raynette notes. “Especially for West Indians – men and women – we don’t want to go to the doctor.” She says a lack of insurance or money should never be a deterrent from going to the doctor, because there are programs available to help with medical expenses. “And those that have insurance, why wouldn’t you go get a wellness exam? It’s free with your coverage!”

After six rounds of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy and 24 radiation treatments, Raynette returned home to St. Thomas Virgin Islands in August 2013 from Louisiana where she was treated. Now she is adjusting to her “new normal.”

“These hot flashes are so rude,” Raynette says with a laugh. “They show up at any time, unannounced.”

Hot flashes are just one of the side effects that Raynette experiences. Her balance, eyesight and memory are some of the other things that have been affected. “To survive breast cancer you have so many things that come with survivorship,” she says, noting that she is now post-menopausal as a result. She also wears a compression sleeve on her left arm to prevent the swelling known as lymphedema. “I had 18 lymph nodes removed,” she says, explaining that it was required for the aggressive state of the cancer. On the bright side she says, “I got me some new boobies. And this time I got to choose exactly how I wanted them.”

Uncharacteristic of many people, Raynette was very open about every step of her ordeal.
“I was never quiet about my diagnoses. I posted my diagnoses three or four days after I found out,” she says. Facebook was where Raynette shared her highs and lows with family and friends.

That openness has drawn many to Raynette, both for advice and support. “I’ve been holding some hands,” she says, explaining that she has accompanied several women to mammogram appointments. Others she has had to force, she says jokingly. “I dragged my sister to get a mammogram as soon as she turned 40,” Raynette remembers. Three of Raynette’s aunts are breast cancer survivors. And her paternal grandfather died of colon cancer. So she took no chances with her sister.

“People are afraid that it (a mammogram) hurts,” she says. “But so what! It’s only for two seconds and it can save your life.” Raynette says four of her close friends and family have been diagnosed with breast cancer in the past year. She has since gotten genetic testing for “BRCA 1 and BRCA 2” also known as the breast cancer genes. The tests came back negative.

Now Raynette is focused on giving back, whether that means sharing her story, accompanying someone to a doctor’s visit or raising funds for the USVI chapter of the American Cancer Society (ACS). Proceeds from her “No Tears, Just Prayers, Cause God Got This,” branded products are donated to the ACS. What started as slogan that Raynette used to comfort her family following her diagnoses has turned into a noticeable brand. One day after undergoing a series of testing Raynette and her family were walking through a mall when her mother suggested that they inscribe the mantra on a baseball cap. Her father decided to make several of the caps so that his daughter could sport different colors after her chemo treatments. They were so cute that Raynette posted them on Facebook. The rest is history. She now sells branded hats, visors, head bands, t-shirts and other accessories.

This October, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Raynette also hosted another fundraiser. “I needed to make this fun and bring awareness,” she says. “This year I wanted it to be all about giving back.” The result was “Paint the Porch Pink,” a party on her patio where all invited guests wore pink. Over 50 people attended, including eight breast cancer survivors. Vendors were invited to sell their products and a percentage of all sales were donated to the ACS. Next October, Raynette says, the event will be open to the public at a larger venue.

Her long-term goal is to establish the ‘Ray of Sunshine Foundation’ to bring about breast cancer awareness and to support people with the disease.

In the meanwhile, Raynette continues to thank God, her family and her doctors. As part of her continued monitoring she must undergo screening every three months that includes chest x-rays, sonograms and lab work.

“At my check up in September my doctors said, ‘You are a walking miracle.’ I never take that for granted,” she says, tears streaming down her face.

“I am a survivor first and foremost,” Raynette says, “a woman of faith, perseverance and a fighter.”

“If I can do this (beat cancer), anyone can too.”

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Breast Cancer: A Survivor’s Story

She found a lump near her left collar-bone on Aug. 28, 2012 – just days after her annual check-up. On Aug. 29, she went back to her doctor, who said the lump looked like a muscle strain but ordered a sonogram to be sure. The sonogram came back inconclusive and she took an MRI. The MRI revealed a mass, so she took a biopsy.

Raynette A. Cameron has always been meticulous about her health. As an adult she never missed a dentist appointment or her annual women’s wellness check-up. She even got her first mammogram when she turned 40 years old, as recommended. So imagine her utter shock when she was diagnosed with aggressive stage three breast cancer – a few days after she had been given a clean bill-of-health following her annual wellness exam.

“The doctor said, ‘It’s not good news Raynette. It’s cancer,’” Raynette recalls of the day her physician of 12 years gave her that life-changing news. Shock! It’s the only thing Raynette said that she felt after receiving the diagnoses.

The National Cancer Institute defines cancer as diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues. Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems. According to the institute, there are more than 100 different types of cancer and breast cancer is the second most prevalent in the United States – prostate cancer is the first. Breast cancer represents 14 percent of all new cancer cases in the U.S. Breast Cancer Awareness Month is observed nation-wide in October.

“I’m an advocate for getting yourself checked out – doctors’ visits, those annual stuff, the dental appointments every six months,” Raynette said. So even with all of the testing, cancer was the last thing on her mind. “The shock was like: Me? I’m on top of my health…I go walking off and on….I watch what I eat,” she says. “It was like ‘what do you mean,’” she recalls. “The shock was just tremendous.”
The first few days after the diagnoses were hard.

“I cried for two days,” Raynette says. “Then I felt a calm that said ‘stop crying and get to work.’ With that I just put all my energy into what I needed to do to live.” Soon she was on a plane, from St. Thomas Virgin Islands where she lives, to Florida.

Raynette comes from a large extended family who took her diagnoses hard. She notes that her family is also a prayerful family. While Raynette had dried up her tears, her family’s gloom continued.

“I had to tell them ‘look, if you can’t call me without crying, don’t call me – text me, send me an e-mail, but let’s not have these crying fests,” she remembers. “I would say to them, no more tears, let’s just pray.” Out of that came Raynette’s mantra, which took her through chemotherapy, radiation, three surgeries, a near-death experience and recovery: “No More Tears, Just Prayers, Cause God Got This.”

Raynette decided to seek treatment in Louisiana, where her father and step-mother live. On Nov. 30, she spent her 41st birthday in surgery receiving her chemo port. The lump that was four centimeters when it was discovered, was 12 centimeters by the time she began chemotherapy. For Raynette, chemo was not the nightmare that some other cancer patients experience. She lost all of her hair four days after she began chemo. Her appetite followed. But she took her medication “religiously” and never experienced nausea or vomiting. She continued chemo every three weeks to complete her six treatments.

After completing chemo came another shocker. Raynette’s doctors told her they had to remove her left breast. “I told them they would have to take both,” Raynette says, without skipping a beat. In May 2013 she had a bilateral mastectomy. During the surgery she remembers waking up to a team of doctors hovering over her. They asked how she was doing. When she replied she was fine, they told her they were taking her back into surgery. It was only after the bilateral mastectomy was completed and she recovered did Raynette learn that massive hemorrhaging caused her to “slip away,” during the surgery. “They had called a code blue,” Raynette says.

After recovering post-operation, Raynette started radiation. “Radiation took more out of me than chemo,” she remembers. Still she found the energy to return to St. Thomas for the annual Relay for Life – twice; in June, but the event was postponed, and then in July for the event. She did 24 of the initially scheduled radiation treatments because third-degree burns to the treatment area caused her doctors to cancel the last two.

“By July I was convinced I needed to come home,” she says. And on Aug. 28, 2013, exactly one year after she discovered the lump, Raynette returned back home to St. Thomas – cancer free.

After successfully completing treatment, Raynette’s oncologist had a stark confession. “She said ‘we didn’t think you would make it,’” says Raynette. “It’s miraculous as aggressive as it was, it didn’t spread,” she notes. “That shocked the crap out of my doctors.” Because of the severity of her condition, she was also a case study at the hospital in Louisiana.

“I’ve always been a fighter,” Raynette says from her St. Thomas office at Bellows International where she is the director of Human Resources. So she treated breast cancer as any other opponent that wanted to take her down – she fought it.

“I couldn’t think of having my mother, father and siblings having to bury me,” Raynette says. “I had to give it my best shot. I never asked why me,” she said. “Because why not me. Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate.”

Part II, “Breast Cancer: A Survivor’s Advice” coming

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