In quoting Dave Pelzer, an American author, of several autobiographical and self-help books, Barbadian-born breast cancer survivor Cecille White says “you can be a victim of cancer or a survivor of cancer. It’s a mindset.”
With this mindset, White, 62, a Canarsie, Brooklyn resident, told Caribbean Life, over the weekend, in an exclusive interview, that she was determined to beat the odds, with the help of family and close friends, when she was first diagnosed with the deadly disease in February 2015.
“It was very difficult to process, and even harder to treat,” said White, stating that treatment included 45 “long rounds” of radiation therapy, as well as “many lifestyle adjustments.”
“It has been a battle for me, but, with the support of my children, family, and friends, I am continuing on, and am a 4 1/2 year-SURVIVOR,” added White, an active member of Fenimore Street United Methodist church in Brooklyn, where she serves as a Certified Lay Servant, United Methodist Women member, choir member and all-round “helping hand.”
“To be told you have cancer should not be a death sentence,” she continued. “I’ve truly learned to put God first in everything. He has been my nurse, doctor and all-round healer.”
White – currently a rehab assistant at Palm Garden Rehabilitation Center in the Kensington section of Brooklyn, and has been working there since 1986 – said the road to recovery has been eased with the help of close friends, family and church sisters, “some of whom were there for me from the diagnosis to this very moment.”
She identified retired, Trinidadian-born, Registered Nurse Marlene Ferguson, a former nursing administrator at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and University Hospital of Brooklyn, as one of those persons.
“From the day of my diagnosis, she helped me through making all the tough decisions, took me to appointments and was there for me when I woke up from surgery,” said White about Ferguson, who had initiated and coordinated an annual Breast Cancer Survivors’ Day celebration at Downstate Hospital, and who also worships with White at Fenimore Street United Methodist Church.
White said her daughter, Candice, who lives with her, helps prepare meals “to abide by the many dietary changes one has to make when they are diagnosed with cancer.”
In addition, she said her sister Harriet Griffith, as well as retired Jamaican-born Registered Nurses Glenner Strachan and Doreen Thomas – both members of Fenimore Street United Methodist Church – “have also been a constant source of care and concern.”
“I am still on medications, and I visit my oncologist every six months for check-ups,” White said. “But I am here, living my life to the fullest extent.
“As I said, cancer is not a death wish; it has only made me stronger,” she added. “I will continue to celebrate the life God has given me each and every day until He calls me home.”
White said she was undergoing a routine mammogram “when they noticed a spot.”
“It felt so surreal and numb,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it – how and why it was happening to me.
“However, initially, my first reaction was to think to myself, ‘okay, I can beat it’, even though I was scared of the word ‘cancer’” she added.
A month after diagnosis, White said she had a partial mastectomy on her right breast at Brookdale Medical Center and University Hospital.
“My surgeon at the time was Dr. Wong, who was very kind and sympathetic during his time there,” she said, stating that she continued treatment, through radiation therapy, at Brookdale Medical Center.
White said the Director of Nursing, at the time, at Palm Garden Rehabilitation Center also “showed empathy, and encouraged me to take care of myself by allowing me to take as much time as I needed off.
“My position remained open for me to return, but they did hire temporary assistance, and I was out of work for three months,” she said.
White said the cancer remains in remission, based the last set of scans taken three weeks ago.
“Everything was clean,” she said. “You know, even though I know it can return, I maintain a very positive attitude knowing that God doesn’t allow you to carry no more than you can bear.”
Throughout her life and through all her struggles, White stressed that God has been her “main stay.”
Before breast cancer diagnosis, in 2008, she said he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, “followed by a total knee replacement surgery in 2011, which was very brutal.”
“I take one day at a time,” said White, referring to the arthritis. “It’s painful sometimes, especially in the mornings. But I take my medication as prescribed, and, again, I stay positive.”
Regarding left knee surgery, at the then Methodist Hospital, renamed New York Presbyterian Hospital, she said it was “tough, because I had to learn to re-use my own muscles with this artificial component now implanted into my body.
“I had to re-learn how to walk,” she said, disclosing that she was also out from work for three months while recuperating. “Mentally, I had many anxieties. There was a fear of infection, fear that my body would reject the foreign component. Physically, I still can’t run, or walk as fast as I used to, but I’ve learned to adjust.”
White, who was born in December 1956, was educated through the public education system in Barbados, attending various schools until she finally graduated from Springer Memorial Secondary School with Certificates of Pitman Script, Typewriting and Ordinary Levels (O’Level) in the Cambridge British Overseas Examination.
She said she then continued to the Barbados O’Level Institute, where she obtained more certificates.
White said she briefly worked in the hotel industry at the then Brigade House, then moved on to various departments in the Barbados Government, including the Accounts Payable Department at Central Purchasing and the Treasury Department.
But while she enjoyed working for the Barbados Government, she said she “always had a passion for helping others and a love for nursing.”
So, with the help of her brother, Ralph White, she migrated to the United States, at 27, with my son, Jason, and “immediately took the opportunity to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)”, continuing to work in the nursing field to today.
“My passion for helping people didn’t stop at nursing, but it was through my nursing profession that I was able to become a union delegate for 1199 SEIU Labor Union, representing my coworkers and fighting for fair wages and benefits,” White said.
But she said, though she has had some “hard times,” her life “hasn’t been all uphill.”
“Then, in 2015, I was diagnosed with the ‘Big C’ – cancer,” she said.
In quoting Robin Roberts, ABC TV News anchor, who was also diagnosed with breast cancer, White said: “’I’m stronger than I thought I was.’
“My favorite phrase has been ‘this too shall pass,’” White said. “I now understand it really well.”
Her message to others who have been diagnosed with breast cancer: “Be true to yourself; be positive. Put Christ first, and follow a healthy diet and lifestyle.”