Clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Turnbull discusses how patients can cope with a cancer diagnosis last Saturday at Therapy Works as part of Let’s Wine About It!, an event for Cancer Awareness Month. (Photo: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

Slowly but surely, attitudes about cancer in the Virgin Islands are changing, said Gloria Fahie, president of the BVI Cancer Society.

“Cancer is still a taboo subject [in the VI], but more people are coming out and talking about it now, and that’s a good thing,” she said.

The community could do more to change them faster, however. That’s why she’s excited about a plan to establish in January a register of where and when certain forms of cancers are found.

The BVI Health Services Authority announced the registry in September alongside officials from the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries Caribbean Registry Hub.

“We need to keep proper records; we need to find where cancer’s at; what clusters, what areas, what types of cancer. It’s the only way we’re going to get help,” said Ms. Fahie.

Gloria Fahie, president of the BVI Cancer Society, speaks to attendees at Let’s Wine About It!, a Cancer Awareness Month event. (Photo: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

According to the Pan American Health Organisation, neoplasms, or tumours, accounted for 18 percent of all deaths in the territory.

Ms. Fahie thinks that with a proper registry, the government could team up with regional health organisations like PAHO and start tackling the roots of cancer in the territory. Especially with trash fires burning for months at a time in West End, she said, it’s urgent to try to figure out what kind of toxic effects could be affecting residents.

“Maybe I’m overreaching, but we need to do some sort of research,”she said.

Education In her decade of involvement with the society, breast cancer, one of the more common types of the disease, has tended to get the most attention. Cancer Awareness Month is observed in October to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month worldwide.

Citing anecdotal evidence, though, Ms. Fahie said she’s been seeing more cases of stomach and prostate cancer in recent years. Efforts to spread awareness about those types of the disease haven’t been as effective, since many residents are still reluctant to talk about such intimate parts of the body. But, she said, dialogue is necessary.

“You have to forget your personal hang-ups and do what’s necessary to save your life,” she said, adding that she herself, after being diagnosed with cancer eight years ago, was once reluctant to have surgery performed on her breasts. “It was my breasts or my life, and I chose my life.”

In fighting back, she said, education is key. The society is using “every method available” to educate the public about early detection.Though people sometimes throw away pamphlets she distributes, she keeps handing them out. “When you get sick, you’re not going to know what it’s about because a lot of people — sometimes they feel a pain and they say, ‘Oh, it’s gas.’ Well, it’s not gas. You’re dying.”

Awareness month

This month, Cancer Awareness Month is back after taking a year off due to Hurricane Irma, and Ms. Fahie has big plans.

Friday was Paint the Town Pink Day, and this Saturday the society will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a gala dinner at The Moorings. After some misgivings about whether there would be interest, Ms.Fahie said she was surprised to find that the initial 150 tickets sold out.

Corporate sponsors, some of whom had never gotten involved previously, sponsored entire tables and bought dozens of pins and t-shirts for their staff, she said.

Additionally, at the society’s first-ever “Let’s Wine About It!” event Saturday evening, medical professionals spoke with the public on topics concerning patient care, treatment and physical therapy post-treatment and answered questions while enjoying glasses of moscato — pink, in honour of the month. Free physical therapy screenings and spa specials offered at the event were aimed at promoting overall wellness. Clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Turnbull spoke about the role of optimism in coping with a bad prognosis.

“How well you adjust is based on the ways that you’re able to cope with everything that’s going on in your life,” he said, adding that recent studies have shown that those patients with the most positive outlook are the ones more likely to survive longest. “It came down to hope and optimism.”

For Ms. Fahie, her own diagnosis was the turning point that made her decide to get involved in the society after repeatedly turning down offers to pay the $25 membership fee to join.

“It just goes to show, when they are harassing you, you don’t know they could be saving your life,” she said. All of the events this month are in support of the further aim of opening up dialogue.

“You need to hear other people’s experiences,” she said. “Maybe I had a discharge in my breast and somebody else had a lump in theirs. You must share and try to help other persons; you don’t keep it to yourself. When you share, you heal.”