Tamara Leonard’s message after breast cancer diagnosis: “Stop being shy about it, you did nothing wrong”

POSTED: 07/6/14 6:58 PM

St. Maarten – Tamara Leonard announced at a press conference yesterday that she has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. The former President of the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce and candidate for the United People’s party in the August 29 elections wants her story to be a warning to all women – and men, for that matter – to take their health seriously.

Seconded by Dr. Kalkidan Bekele (St. Maarten Medical Association), Shelly Alphonso (Positive Foundation) and Martha Thewet (St. Maarten Heart and Stroke Foundation), Leonard spoke freely about her medical situation – not from the position of a victim but, as she expressed it, from the position of a breast cancer warrior. “I am going to survive this,” she said. “I wanted to call myself a breast cancer survivor, but you are only considered a survivor five years after the diagnosis.”

Leonard called on women to check their breasts, and she made no bones about her own failure in this respect. “Had I checked my breasts as I should have, I probably would not be in the situation I am in right now. This is not only about me, it is about all the people who live here. Check your health,” she urged.

Leonard wants to use her situation to break through the stigma many cancer patients experience. “The minute you have cancer, that’s it,” she said. “But I choose life, there is no other option. From now on I will be more responsible.”

That was not always the case, she admits. At a hospital in Miami, she was diagnosed on June 9 with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Earlier tests had suggested that the tumor in her breast was benign. But this was not to be.

Leonard was already for some time aware of a lump in her breast. Colleagues and friends noted that she kept stroking her left breast. When a friend told her to have her breast checked, Leonard initially did nothing, until she received an email from her friend. “When I asked what this was about, my friend said: this is your appointment with the doctor to have your breast checked.”

From there on, the firebrand Leonard, who seems to be bursting with energy, entered a new reality. Soon her care plan will kick in, with chemo therapy and radiation. In May, she resigned as President of the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce to pursue a political career as a candidate for the UP. How will the disease affect her political ambitions?

Leonard smiles – she smiles a lot during the press conference – and says: “It puts me into overdrive. It made me so much more aware that we not only have to take common responsibility for our country, we also have to encourage people to take care of themselves.”

Leonard said that she had two breast augmentations in the past, “because I wanted to have nice and sexy breasts,” but this desire for appearances has now come to haunt her. The changes to her breasts made it necessary to subject her to different kinds of tests that otherwise could have been avoided.

First and foremost, Leonard wants her story to promote breast cancer awareness in St. Maarten. “We have the resources to make us aware,” she said. “Also for the uninsured there are opportunities. Everyone can have access to support. Checking your breasts is the best way to avoid breast cancer. I would like people to become more health conscious.”

Shelly Alphonso said that the Positive Foundation has been encouraging women to get checked for the past sixteen years. She added that Leonard’s announcement about her diagnosis was “shocking” and added that the message is to get checked. “The goal is that every woman will get herself checked.”

The Positive Foundation initially distributed information material only in October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Now the foundation has switched to an all-year round approach. “The point is to make woman comfortable with this issue, so that they feel free to ask questions,” Alphonso said. The foundation works already together with the AUC in Cupecoy. “We will soon come knocking on the door of the SMMC as well.”

Dr. Kalkidan Bekele has been working for the past nine years in St. Maarten. “There are a lot of resources in St. Maarten you can take advantage of,” she said. “Screening should ideally start between the ages of 35 and 40. I am one of the doctors who will be there for breast cancer patients.”

The age perimeter is interesting: Tamara Leonard will turn 40 in October, so she will be the first one to concede that she has let years go by without bothering to check.

Martha Thewet of the Heart and Stroke Foundation said that, while her foundation focuses on other health aspects, there are also similarities. “We are bringing a message to the community,” she said. “It takes courage to come out publicly like Tamara does.”

Leonard has one last message for women: “Stop being shy about it. You did not do anything wrong. Get away from the negative approach to disease. I certainly will, and I will survive this.”

Lastly, for those who thought that breast cancer is something that only happens to women, they are wrong. Breast cancer also occurs in men. They have a chance of 1:1,000 to be struck by the disease. For women, that risk is eight to ten times higher.

For information about breast cancer, contact the Positive Foundation, P.O. box 929, Philipsburg, or email to positivefoundation@caribserve.net. The Positive Foundation is also on Facebook. Shelly Alphonso can be reached by phone at 580 96 58.

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