Our Life, Our Story: Bernadette McCarthy

Bernadette’s demeanor was reserved. She was quiet and well-meaning, but from her physical appearance, it was easy to tell that there was more to her personality than she let on. She had a tattoo on her right ear and half of her head shaven into an undercut.

“I like to be me. I like to do me. I like to shop, and I like to buy shoes,” Bernadette said. It didn’t take long for her bubbly personality to shine through when asked the question – “Tell us a bit about yourself.” Bernadette spoke about her love for God and how she handles situations in her life.

“I often tell people that I don’t get angry at a person. I get angry at a situation, and I don’t stay angry for long.”

Listening to Bernadette speak about her faith and family, it was evident that both maintain great significance in her life and were powerful pillars of strength during her cancer diagnosis.

At 25, Bernadette felt a small lump in her breast. Her doctor at the time told her it was nothing to worry about, but a determined Bernadette sought a second opinion.

“They didn’t call me for the results, but my doctor had already told me it was nothing to worry about, so I thought nothing of it.”

After a period of no communication from her doctors, Bernadette, accompanied by her mother went to retrieve the results of her own volition. The attending doctor brought Bernadette into a room and delivered four words she never thought she’d hear after being told there had been nothing to worry about – “you have breast cancer”.

“My first question was ‘Am I going to die?’ but after I said that, I told the doctor, ‘you are not God and you can’t say whether I’m going to die so what’s my next step?’”

Recounting the start of the treatment journey and her experience pre and post-surgery, Bernadette started to cry.

“Dr. [Kavi] Capildeo is a God-send doctor…” she said, trying to hold her tears back.

“Initially, my husband didn’t want me to do chemotherapy because of how damaging it would’ve been to my body, but I had to explain to him that I needed to do it to survive.”

Bernadette did three rounds of chemotherapy all while working a full-time job. When she started her second round of chemotherapy, she began losing her hair.

“I had asked my husband to use the clippers to shave my hair off, but he refused. I didn’t want to go to a barber, so I took the clippers and I shaved off all my hair, and I started wearing wigs. Normally people just talk about the hair loss, but inside your hands, your fingernails and even your feet will get dark. You become bloated, but all in all you’re alive.”

According to the Chairman of the Trinidad and Tobago Cancer Society, Dr. Asante Le Blanc, the side effects of chemotherapy vary depending on the patient. “It depends on the type and dose of the drug being administered and how the patient reacts to it. Some side effects can be short term and others can be long term. Patients often become discouraged at the thought of the side effects associated with treatment, eventually opting to forgo treatment. It’s always recommended that you have frank discussions with your medical team, including your family doctor, oncologist, and counselor, among others. Even survivors and family members should engage in these discussions. If you don’t know where to start, you are encouraged to reach out to the Trinidad and Tobago Cancer Society.”

In addition to dealing with her diagnosis and the side effects of treatment, Bernadette was tasked with dealing with the pitfalls within humanity, specifically the reaction of her coworkers.

“I remember one particular girl was planning to take my job. That one really surprised me. Some of my staff said, ‘Mrs. McCarthy are you going to die?’”

“If I didn’t have my family it would’ve been more difficult, but my family was always there supporting me.”

In January of the next year, Bernadette started a full month of radiation.

“I remember one day I went to St. James [Medical Complex] for radiation and a guy asked me what I was there for, and when I told him, he was surprised. He said I didn’t look like I had cancer.”

“Cancer doesn’t have a look. You don’t have a look when you have cancer. It isn’t written on your chest. There’s no way someone will know you have cancer.”

According to Dr. Le Blanc, “being diagnosed with cancer can evoke a rollercoaster of emotions within patients.” For Bernadette, after remaining resolute for most of her treatment journey, she ultimately experienced a period of great introspection.

“One day I went for radiation and I broke down. I was crying in the room while staring at my breasts – one of my breasts was good and the other one, I had half of it, maybe three quarter. One of them was actually darker than the other. You just feel helpless. I just felt like ‘what next? What next do I have to endure?’”

That period of introspection led Bernadette to affirm that her diagnosis was not a death sentence, but an opportunity to bring herself and her family closer to their faith.

“I don’t think I ever experienced a period of “why me?” I just thought that if this was the journey the Lord was giving me, there must have been a reason He was giving me this journey.”

A survivor since 2015, Bernadette admits that she isn’t scared at the possibility of recurrence.

“I’m not scared, but should that happen, I know that God would be putting me through that for a particular reason. He had put me through that [initial cancer diagnosis] journey maybe to bring my family closer to Him. That’s why I tell people about my testimony, because that was a journey for me.”

“Looking back, that cancer was a journey. The Lord really gave me the strength to go through it.”
Bernadette McCarthy
Survivor since 2015
November 17, 2020
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