“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” – Eleanor Roosevelt.
Sandra Blenman never realized just how much strength she had until there was no choice but to be strong. Adversity has invaded her life for the past four years, threatening her zest for life, her dreams and her idyllic move to Barbados from her home in Britain.
In January, 2007, her mother died in her arms; and two years later, in 2009, her sister passed away. Two years later, in November, 2012, she would face her biggest battle yet: Stage III breast cancer.
The 51-year-old restaurant manager of Waves Hotel & Spa, a confessed workaholic who is always big on life, first got an inkling something was not right as she was taking a shower one normal day back in September, 2012.
“I felt something that shouldn’t have been there, but I didn’t take notice of it; and the something that shouldn’t be there went on.”
After a couple of weeks, Sandra finally confided in a close friend her worrying find. The friend ordered Sandra to pay a visit to the Barbados Cancer Society to have a mammogram, but still Sandra delayed because cancer was just not on her agenda.
“I was 49 then, and I thought I was going through menopause; so when I felt what I was feeling, I thought it was normally around my [menstrual] cycle. So I just felt that after a couple of periods it would disappear.”
Sandra was wrong.
“Three months later it was still there, and by this time I could really, really feel it; and I went to the Cancer Society for my mammogram.”
At the time, Sandra was not aware that breast cancer was rampant in her family. The very next day, personnel at the Cancer Society called Sandra back to conduct more tests; and shortly after, the dreaded diagnosis was delivered.
“About a week later I met a doctor and he confirmed that I had Stage III breast cancer. I felt I was given a death sentence.
“My family was with me; we all came home from the doctor. I called my best friend at work, and she left straight away. There were a lot of phone calls to the UK; we were calling everyone. I think I just wanted everyone to know, because at first you think you are going to die.”
Sandra says sharing the grim news was perhaps the worst part because everybody reacted differently.
“Some friends are going to be there for you, and they really comfort you. Some friends are not going to want to see you . . . because they are frightened to be with you because of what you are going through. So all of a sudden life changes.”
But Sandra decided not to hide the disease threatening her health. She shared the news with everyone closest to her.
“My staff at work knew; the postman came, so I told him. I just felt everyone should know. It is better to be out in the open.”
Since Sandra’s cancer was already at Stage III, she quickly had surgery to remove her left breast; and she recalls while it was a normal day for the world around her, it was a horrifying experience.
“I was crying so much. There was a lady and she was number one that morning, but because I was crying so much, the doctor asked her if she would let me go first –– which meant she was going to have to wait another four to five hours –– and she very kindly let me go first. To this day we are really close friends.”
The operation was a success, but Sandra would have to continue the battle, first adjusting to losing her breast and then grappling with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
“So you look at yourself a couple days after, and obviously it’s not going to grow back. I think that’s the hardest part; but like everything else, a year later I’ve grown to live with it.
“You lose your hair; you are not well; you have your down days. Say you have chemo on Friday. On Saturday I would clean the house, because I knew Sunday would be my down day when you can only drink ginger tea. I didn’t want anything solid.”
Sandra also ended up having to take a year off from work –– a year in which family and friends were ready and willing to meet her every need. She’s still amazed at the outpouring of support.
After four sessions of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiotherapy, the breast cancer survivor is living life to the fullest. Her experience turned her life around.
“I’ve learnt to appreciate life. I am a stronger person now. Cancer is not a death sentence. You don’t give up. You never give up. You have to live your life, you just have to get on with it, you have to.
“ Today I am happy; I am always happy. I am happy to be here because every day someone has passed away with cancer. So I’m happy to be here and share my story.”
Sandra shares her optimistic spirit and positive outlook through her work as a member of Victorious Ladies, a group of cancer survivors that have teamed up under Cancer Support Services to encourage and strengthen one another through the journey.
“If you’ve had cancer, you can join Victorious Ladies. If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you can join Victorious Ladies. If you’re being treated for cancer, you can join Victorious Ladies. We are all together and we are all fighting the same battle.
“The best tonic for cancer is the Victorious Ladies and Cancer Support Services. They help you. You can’t do it on your own.”
Sandra’s diagnosis also made her realize she had to become a role model for other cancer survivors. She matter-of factly says: “It’s not a curse; it’s a blessing.”
Sandra also wants to remind patients and survivors that there’s always hope, since treatments and technology are improving every day. She stressed that women can empower themselves through education and by conducting regular monthly breast checks.
Currently awaiting the results of a C-scan, Sandra yet works hard to stay positive. And as she continues her journey as a cancer survivor, she offers these words to others like her: “When you’ve got cancer, you’ve got to be outspoken. Don’t hide it, because if you’re hiding it inside of you it’s eating you out. So you need to bring it out . . . .
“If you keep it to yourself, it’s going to kill you. You have to share it!”