Just imagine your family day at Walt Disney World theme park being interrupted by a doctor’s phone call with the bad news that you have breast cancer.
Trinidadian human resource and marketing consultant Alicia Powell experienced that devastating reality almost two years ago. With her Jamaican husband Ricardo – a former West Indies cricketer – and their two young sons, the August 1, 2009 Orlando theme park trip was expected to be a fun-filled experience for the first time visitors.
“As a child, I did not crave to go to Disney, but as a parent it was a priority for me and my husband to take our sons there,” Powell told Share while in Toronto last weekend for The Olive Branch of Hope’s (TOBOH) 10th anniversary celebration. “Here I was at Disney when I got the phone call saying that my biopsy came back positive. That was the worst news I have ever received in my life. I did not want to spoil the day for my sons, so we finished the day. Luckily for us, our big son did not realize that Disney World could be a one-week experience. He thought it was just a day trip.”
Powell felt a lump in her left breast a few days before the trip and sought medical attention in Trinidad & Tobago. She obtained a second medical opinion in Florida that confirmed her worst fear.
Nearly three weeks after being diagnosed, Powell underwent a bilateral mastectomy with partial reconstruction followed by three months of chemotherapy.
With the support of her husband and family, Powell overcame the harrowing ordeal and has become a leading advocate for Caribbean breast cancer survivors. She launched Basia Survivor Network (BSN) to provide emotional support for women suffering from the disease, secured sponsorship from private corporations in T & T to fund imagining scans for those who did not have the financial resources and enlisted the help of American and T & T surgeons to perform reconstructive surgeries free of charge for women associated with BSN.
Powell and her husband also launched a talk show aired weekly in 10 Caribbean countries, a magazine and a musical festival – supported by some of the Caribbean’s top artistes – to raise breast cancer awareness and funds to help patients who lack financial support.
“When I was thinking of forming BSN, people were telling me I should concentrate on my own health and getting better,” Powell said. “I, however, wanted to use my situation to help others since I believed that was what God wanted me to do. I cannot supply a medical solution but what I can do is provide mental, emotional and spiritual support.”
A graduate of the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus and Florida’s Southeastern University with a Masters in Business Administration, Powell aspired to be a successful entrepreneur.
“People used to tell me I should be a model or a pageant participant, but my reaction would always be I wanted to own the pageant,” remarked Powell who spent almost nine years working in Jamaica and volunteering with the country’s cancer society.
Powell and her husband – who was a member of the West Indies cricket team at the time – met 11 years ago while she was employed with the Jamaica Public Service.
“Ricardo has been my rock,” she said. “He has been there with me every step of the way. The best thing for me was having him there when I was doing chemo. He has never shirked his responsibility as a husband and a father and for that, I am very grateful.”
Powell shared her experiences in her feature address at TOBOH gala at the New Paradise Banquet & Convention Centre in Vaughan.
“Alicia is just as passionate as I am about the work we are doing,” said TOBOH co-founder and executive director Leila Springer. “When I found out about what she was doing in the Caribbean, I wanted her to come here and share that with us and also network since most of the people we deal with have a Caribbean background.”
Breast cancer is the leading cause of death among middle-aged women and Springer is obsessed to help those afflicted with the disease in Canada’s Black community cope with distress and crises associated with cancer.
Diagnosed in 1999 with the most common cancer that afflicts women, Springer and six other women founded TOBOH in 2001 to provide encouragement, support, telecare and referrals for Black women diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It was difficult back in those early days because people were not talking about breast cancer,” said Springer, president of the World Conference on Breast Cancer. “There was a stigma attached to it and some cultural issues. Back then, few people even knew how breast cancer affected women of colour because, at the time, the research that was done took place from a perspective of White women.”
Springer promises that there will be a strong Caribbean representation at the World Conference on Breast Cancer in Hamilton in June.
As part of last Saturday night’s celebration, TOBOH presented the Eugenie Gardner memorial award to entrepreneur Kike Odusanya.
“I feel truly blessed and honoured to be the recipient of this amazing award,” she said.
One of the organization’s seven co-founders, Gardner was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2000. She often reached out to the support group by sharing stories of her courageous life and valuable information she picked up on the disease at conferences she attended in Canada and in the United States.
Gardner lost her eight-year battle with the disease in December 2008 at age 71.
Senator Anne Cools was the event’s keynote speaker.