Fighting the big C with all their might
I’m a fighter, not a victim — the brave and inspiring message of two young women who refuse to let cancer beat them.
Bermudians Giovanna Watson and Kamala Smith are battling different forms of the disease but are united in their determination to defeat their illnesses — and hope their positive attitudes will inspire other patients and their loved ones.
“People hear the ‘c’ word and automatically think death,” said Ms Watson, 38. “But life goes on, it has to. I want people to see what I’m going through, and that through it all I’m still me. I don’t want cancer to define me, to change who I am.”
Ms Watson was told in February she was suffering from colon cancer. She told her doctor during an annual physical that she had noticed blood in her stool and was sent for a colonoscopy and biopsy.
Days later she received the damning diagnosis.
“I’d never heard of anyone my age having this — I was told I was the youngest person to be diagnosed with colon cancer in Bermuda,” she said. “After letting my friends and family know, I had an unconventional way of sharing my experience with everyone else. I’m usually a social but private, independent person, so my approach has been a shock to everyone close to me.”
Rather than keep her condition a secret, Ms Watson decided to be unorthodox and be as open as possible about her journey.
“I had an announcement party and documented everything — I put a lot of time into taking pictures and recording everything,” she said. “That was important to me because you always hear of people talking about their experience after the fact and not during, and especially not from someone who is so young with a type of cancer that applies to both men and women.
“My thought was, ‘this is all new to me, so why not all of us learn what it’s like together?’.
“I wasn’t big into support groups or helplines so this was my way of getting through this. Once people knew I got a lot of support, I’m amazed.
“I was very honest about what I was feeling — when I was having a bad day people were always aware. I wasn’t trying to pretend I was having a good time through all this.
“But it’s important not to stay in that place. When I was down I needed people to be positive.
“Some people backed off because they don’t know what to say. I encourage people to support someone going through this, however you feel comfortable. Everyone has a different way of expressing themselves.
“I had a friends visit, or just call. One cleaned my house. I have a fully rounded support system.”
Ms Watson flew to Lahey Hospital in Boston for radiation and chemotherapy on March 25 — and ensured everyone in Bermuda could track her progress on Facebook.
“I took pictures at all my appointments and of the machines and took fun ones with my radiation team — my ‘Freaky Friday’ pictures — to mark the end of each week of treatment. In Boston I had a family reunion — a brother drove up from Toronto to meet me for the first time and my cousin’s wife flew from Texas.
“I could’ve missed out on that if I’d kept it to myself — new relationships can happen when you’re open about things. I’m blessed to have that happen.”
Ms Watson returned to Bermuda on May 28 and had surgery at King Edward Memorial Hospital on June 27 to have her colon and large intestine removed.
“I was there for nine very long days,” she said. “I was throwing up for four days straight, I was sleep-deprived and depressed.”
Her progress updates, positivity, bravery and determination inspired fellow cancer patient Kamala Smith, who learned about Ms Watson’s journey through a mutual friend, Nicky Stovell.
Mrs Smith, a mother of two, was diagnosed at 28 with a leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancerous tumour of the smooth muscle cells, found in her uterus.
She had surgery and “was cancer-free for two years” — but the disease returned. In September last year she began suffering from pain in her right leg and by December she could not sit, stand or walk because of the intense pain.
She was flown to Boston on January 17 and a biopsy on her spine found metastatic leiomyosarcoma in the bone of two sections of her spine. Mrs Smith, who will be 32 next month, then needed five weeks of radiation therapy.
A clot was also found on her lung. Her treatment continues and she suffers daily from severe pain. But she refuses to complain or be downcast, and reached out to a kindred spirit in the form of Ms Watson.
“I said I was going through something similar and we became friends,” Mrs Smith said. “We’re a support system for each other.
“Most of the support groups in Bermuda are based around breast cancer, there’s no real support group for cancer in general. I have to be positive because I’d go crazy if I thought negatively. I’ve a constant reminder with the pain that I’m sick but one day it’s going to get better, I keep telling myself that. I’m not going to live with that pain.”
Ms Watson is full of praise for her friend’s bravery.
“Kamala was enjoying my posts, found them inspirational and said we were sisters in our fight against the c word, and that we would get through this together,” she said. “After I heard about her story I thought she was the inspirational one.
“Her circumstances are way worse than mine, I don’t have children. She has the emotional pressure of being strong for her children.
“Her being so open with me about what she was going through allowed me to help her in any little way I could.”
A group of Ms Watson’s friends from salsa dancing with Latin Vibes Bermuda decided to throw a fundraiser for her to help with her expenses — but she insisted the money go to Mrs Smith’s family.
Mrs Smith has not been able to work because of her illness and her family — sons Kenori and Nakai, aged nine and seven, and husband Nakai — have to live on his wage as a plumber.
“It’s hard to get by but people have been very supportive,” she said. “People I don’t know have reached out to me.”
Latin Vibes’ fundraiser, Black Tie and Ribbons, was held at Masterworks on August 23 and raised $1,500 for the Smith family and $1,300 for Bermuda Cancer and Health Centre. Mrs Smith and her husband were the guests of honour at the event and the cheques were presented yesterday.
“It was important to me for them to be there because sometimes we give to a charity but don’t always get to put a face with the name,” Ms Watson said. “As much consistent pain Kamala is in on a daily basis, she still dressed up, showed up at the event and had a good time.”
Mrs Smith is “very open” and honest with her sons about her illness.
“They can tell you exactly what’s wrong, what might happen,” she said. “I’ve made memory boxes for them, they know where they are.
“They show they are emotional when they feel it. Every time I leave the Island they are emotional.”
Mrs Smith is due back in hospital today.
Ms Watson has three more rounds of chemotherapy, starting early next month.
“I’m trying to think of it as a second job — like there’s something I want to buy but can’t do it on one salary, but at the end of the year I’ll be done with it.”
Ms Watson said her employer, Arch Insurance, had been “completely supportive” and thanked all of her friends, family and loved ones for being by her side.
“I have three more rounds of chemo to go and my final surgery in the new year of 2015,” she said. “While my approach isn’t for everyone, I have learned a few things through my journey.
“One, anybody who is going through this has nothing to be ashamed of — you still have the right to enjoy your life like everyone else.
“Two, if you are honest about your good and bad days, you don’t know what new support/friendships you will develop during your journey.
"Three, no matter what you are going through, you are always in a position to help somebody else. And that can be something from a fundraiser or as simple as food, a phone call, an e-mail, a picture, or a smile.”
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