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‘I want to show my gratitude’

Survivor: Sherlyn Swan-Caisey (Photograph supplied)

People often ask Sherlyn Swan-Caisey how she’s still smiling.

She’s battled three different chronic illnesses, and faced death twice.

The 64-year-old singer said: “My mother, Madge Swan, would say it is not what you go through but how you go through it and look good going through it.

“It does not make sense feeling bad and looking bad too.”

Ms Swan-Caisey will be telling her story at an Evening of Thanksgiving at the Crawl Hill Gospel Church.

“I want people to leave inspired to take a look at where they are in their life journey whether ill or healthy,” she said. “I want them to recognise that it does not matter if difficulties arise in the time they are living their life. It is about recognising the value of time itself, and not go about postponing their lives.”

She was diagnosed with diabetes in 2001, but didn’t think much of it.

“Diabetes ran in my family,” she said. “Some of these chronic diseases are so common, you almost take them for granted.”

She was taking yoga and Tai chi classes, but she still had a weakness for chocolate bars and potato chips.

She also didn’t eat properly because her life was hectic. In 2011, she was singing with her band Next Level six nights a week, and running the now- closed Ship’s End Book Gallery in Dockyard, seven days a week. She believes her poorly controlled diabetes may have contributed to her developing a rare form of cancer: multiple myeloma, formed by malignant plasma cells in the blood.

Normal plasma cells are found in the bone marrow and are an important part of the immune system.

“I don’t know for sure that diabetes contributed to it,” she said, “but over time, mismanaged diabetes can break down everything in your body.”

The cancer was detected in August 2011, when she was 51, after she fell during a yoga class.

“I’d been feeling breathless at work, but attributed that to allergies,” she said. “After the fall my hip just kept hurting.”

Her doctor ran tests and found her vertebrae were full of tiny cracks and lesions. A bone marrow test revealed the multiple myeloma.

“It was near-end stage because it had been undetected,” she said. “When I heard the diagnosis I wasn’t actually scared because I had never heard of this. The oncologist said: ‘It is serious, but you might be a good candidate for a bone-marrow transplant. But first we have to kill the cancer’.”

After seven months of strong chemo infusions, the cancer was beaten back, allowing her to have a bone-marrow transplant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Doctors used her own stem cells.

After the transplant, she went into remission, and was able to reduce the frequency of chemo infusions and adjust her medications.

She resolved to visit Ghana after reading Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes.

Doctors wouldn’t let her go in 2014, but she was finally given the all-clear last December.

“I told my daughter, Desiree O’Connor, that if I died somewhere like Australia, just find out how much it would cost to bury me there,” she said. “Don’t waste your money bringing me home. Just know that I died having a good time.”

She could not do her regular chemo infusions on the trip, so her doctor gave her a host of pills to take.

She had a great time, but when she returned home in February, her health was not right. Back at her job as Bermuda College assistant librarian she was breathless again.

The prognosis was not good.

After five years of remission, the multiple myeloma was back and she was in renal failure.

“The doctor said if I’d left it another day I’d be dead,” she said.

She spent all of March and April at KEMH, and saw every floor in the hospital including the Intensive Care Unit. She battled numerous infections during that time, but somehow, managed to pull through. Now back at work, she is on three different cancer medications, and dialysis three days a week.

“Right now, I am in good care,” she said. “I am not out of danger because the myeloma is not in remission now. It is just arrested and being controlled. The fact that I am on dialysis means there is always the danger of a heart attack.”

Through the experience, she learnt to respect KEMH.

“The nurses in oncology and dialysis are dynamic,” she said. “But I have also learnt that you have to advocate for yourself.”

Ms Swan-Caisey is donating a portion of her Evening of Thanksgiving to the dialysis and oncology departments.

“I would like to get 250 people out to the event,” she said. “I do not know what the departments will use the money for, but every department and every floor requires something.”

She had to give up her band when she became ill, but she will sing during the event.

“As I have been getting stronger, my voice has gotten strong again and I decided that I want to do something to show my gratitude to KEMH,” she said. “I wanted to do something particularly for the two departments that I will have to depend on for the rest of my life, however long that may be.

“I want to do it this year, as no one knows what will be next year.”

The Evening of Thanksgiving will be on November 19 at the Crawl Gospel Hall Church. Doors open at 6pm and the programme is from 6.30pm to 8.30pm. Tickets, available at the door, are $30, $5 of which will go to KEMH. Refreshments will be served.