My mother, Rachel Bhagwan, introduced me to the practice of walking for a cause. Over the years we have “walked” (a term I prefer to “march”) in for women, girls and children who suffer from violence, to reclaim the night, to raise our concern at the issues of water rights, human rights. We have walked in celebration. We have walked to raise awareness. We have walked in protest. We have walked in solidarity.
The last time I walked with my mother through the streets of Suva for a cause was last year’s Reclaim the Night March, on Saturday March 8th – International Women’s Day. It was not an easy walk for her. She was battling breast cancer at the time. Yet to encourage her two youngest grandchildren, to affirm the work for women which her daughter and eldest granddaughter we now doing and to support my efforts in rounding up some of our young men from the Dudley Church youth group to join the march – she walked. She set her best foot forward and kept her pace throughout the march. So consistent was her pace that at one stage during the march I had to ask her to slow down. When she asked why, I informed her that because the young women leading the march had tired and slowed down and, because of her consistent pace, she was now leading the march!
Earlier this year, she was “not feeling well” enough to walk in the solidarity march for West Papua. But she sent her blessings to share with her friends and those who knew her who were walking.
Last Saturday my dear mother walked with us in the FASANOC Women In Sports Walk & Talk to raise awareness on breast cancer as part of “Pinktober” the month of raising awareness on Cancer, particularly on breast cancer and other forms of cancer affecting women and funds for organisations that work with those facing the battle with cancer. Unfortunately dear mother was only present in spirit and in a picture that her little granddaughter Antonia carried during the walk. She had won the battle with breast cancer, but lost the war, passing away on July 31st this year.
Last year when she announced to our family about her “lump” we rallied around her, as we had done in 2010 when my sister Sharon was diagnosed with breast cancer. Like Sharon she had her mastectomy and chemotherapy. We were grateful that she did not have to go for radiotherapy as Sharon had endured. The initial results were good! She recovered and was back in action, carrying on with her civil society work and generally doing good, listening to and helping those who needed an ear, or an advocate. We celebrated her 76th birthday in November. We celebrated Christmas. This year we marked her 1st anniversary of her mastectomy. Mum was strong. Mum was a survivor. But this was not to last.
Following Mother’s Day this year, her health declined. Rapidly. By the time test and scan results came back it was too late. Because mother had left it too late. The cancer had been removed from the breast last year, but had already made its way into the blood stream and to her brain. The test of the lymph nodes and all the focus on the breast cancer was clear, but the damage was being done elsewhere.
She struggled with dignity and with her amazing sense of humour, until she could no longer fight. It was a struggle for me, who had known this woman all my life as a vibrant, beautiful, spiritual force of energy, of activity, to see her lying helpless in bed. It took all my faith and courage to minister and care for her with my family members and finally guide her into eternal life.
The irony of it all was that along with my late father, my mother was one of the early advocates of breast cancer awareness. I grew up knowing about breast cancer in both women and men and have always known about self-examination for breast cancer. Both parents discussed cancer in men and women openly at home among other issues affecting life in Fiji. She had seen her own daughter’s battle with breast cancer and supported her through it. Yet she had neglected to trust herself, her instincts in addressing her own condition until she was compelled to do so by the family.
Last Saturday, I held my daughter’s hand (and carried her on my shoulders when she got a little tired) as she carried her grandma’s photograph. We walked for mum/grandma. We walked for sister/Aunty Sharon. We walked for the mothers, sisters and daughters of our community, who have struggled, fought, survived and lost the battle with cancer, in particular breast cancer. We walked for our friends who have walked on and walked strong for their children and now for the children of others. We walked to remind ourselves to be aware of cancer as a reality in our family.
Later that morning I heard one of my sisters in ministry, Deaconess Asena Senimoli, share her experiences to those who participated in the FASANOC Women In Sports Walk & Talk. Like many women, she went through denial and looked at every reason and option under the sun to avoid facing the fact that she had breast cancer. Yet she was able to face her condition and fight it successfully. It is sad that we are only able to celebrate a few who face their fear and fight. Far too many of our mothers, sisters and daughters - as well as our fathers, brothers and sons - choose denial until it is too late to do anything but manage symptoms.
Yes, the idea of having cancer, any kind of cancer can be scary, for both women and men. Yet we must not let our fear paralyse us. To those who have family members facing cancer, or possibly facing cancer – support them to make the right decision to get tested and get treatment.
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”