In 2009, Afatia Pala’amo noticed a small, pea sized lump on her left breast. After a few months, it grew, so she went to a doctor, who said her bra might be causing some problems.
Nearly ten years later, Afatia is still suffering the consequences of two bouts of cancer, and is sharing her story in honour of Pinktober, and the late Manamea Schwalger who inspired the annual cancer awareness month at a Pink Luncheon at the Sheraton today.
“I was too relaxed, and I should have listened to my body and not the doctor,” she said.
It wasn’t until August 2011 that Afatia finally sent samples to New Zealand for a biopsy, and found out by chance, that December, her results had come back with bad news.
“I went to the doctor for a different matter, and he said oh, right, because of the cancer? I was shocked.”
Turns out Afatia’s biopsy results had been returned to Samoa, but no one contacted her. The doctor attending her visit read her results and assumed she knew.
That wouldn’t be the last time medical professionals let her down. The doctor, who delivered her diagnosis, albeit by accident, offered her two options: to remove the lump, or the entire breast. Afatia didn’t feel she understood the full ramifications of either, but was told to go away and think about it.
Weeks later, she revisited that doctor, who asked her why she didn’t arrive for her surgery, scheduled for the week before Christmas.
“What surgery? He never asked me to book, I never consented to a surgery, he said to go away and think about it,” Afatia said.
Finally in March 2012, she was able to travel to New Zealand and successfully underwent a double mastectomy and three months of radiation.
“I came back with a big burn on my left breast from the radiation, not a bad souvenir to come home with,” she laughed.
Three years into her recovery, life turned upside down for Afatia. Heavy drinking and poor eating habits, and unhappy conditions at home sunk her into a depression, and eventually, she thinks, caused her cancer to return.
This time, she presented to hospital with deep pains in her side and back. C.T scans revealed metastasis in her spine, and Afatia was recommended for urgent radiation.
When her application to travel was denied, her new doctor set her up immediately with counselling.
“I really needed that,” said Afatia.
In January 2017, she was accepted to go to New Zealand again for radiation, but this time it was not as quick as before.
After radiation, Afatia said she lost feeling in both her legs, a result of the radiation working closely to the spine. Doctors told her it would be six to eight weeks before she got her strength up – it would become nine months.
“Those would be the darkest times of my recovery,” she said.
“My family had to do everything for me. I couldn’t even feed myself, or eat more than two tablespoons of food.”
Last year, Afatia began a physiotherapy regime with the help of a volunteer. They helped her strengthen her muscles and work on her breathing to relax the tension in her back and spine, she said.
“Finally, last October I could stand on my own two feet, and walk with crutches.
“Last White Sunday was the first time I had been to church all year, and I could sit on the bench,” she said.
Afatia said after everything she has been through, her priority is helping others learn from her experiences.
“I would waste my cancer if I thought of it as a curse, and not a blessing,” she said.
She has improved her eating and cut out sugar, salt and most carbohydrates, and said her family has begun to follow suit, as well as maintain an active lifestyle.
She urged people not to be complacent, and to seek treatment and reach out to the Cancer Society if they are worried they might have the symptoms of cancer.
“Back then, pride stopped me from treatment, from seeing the Cancer Society for help, but I did need help. And they did so much for me, and that is why I joined them.”