Marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Stacie Morton, a teacher at Qatar Foundation’s Awsaj Academy, talks about living with the condition, and how COVID-19 has made it more challenging as it left her wondering when she will return to her students.
Who is that woman in my mirror? This is not me; she does not even look like me. Where is my curly hair? And where is my femininity? What the surgeon's scalpel did to my body to made me feel that I am less than a woman? I try not to stare at my deformed breasts, but I cannot. Every day I check my scars, and whether there are any signs of healing. The scariest part is that not only I have been scarred, but I am still in pain.
What the surgeon's scalpel did to my body made me feel that I am less than a woman. I try not to stare at my deformed breasts, but I cannot
From the point where I was diagnosed with breast cancer until today, when I am still undergoing treatment, two pictures from the past have never left me. The first picture is of two girls in their twenties, walking on the beach in the Virgin Islands eating seafood, then returning to their home and planting peony flowers in the garden.
The second picture is of the same two girls, my sister and I. I was lying in my bed after having my first of four hip replacements, my sister – who had sickle cell anemia at an early age, and also two hip replacements herself – was with me, and I was blaming her: “Why didn't you tell me that the pain is so great?” She held my hands and told me: “I know the pain is severe, but you must resist and get up again.”
My sister died years later, and I was left to face life’s challenges without her, unaware that my biggest battle had yet to come.
Years later, I recalled my sister’s words, “You have to resist and get up again”, when the doctor told me that I had breast cancer, I told my mother, who lost two daughters and had nobody left except me: ”Everything will be fine, I will continue treatment in Qatar, and will return to Qatar Foundation to play my role as a teacher at Awsaj Academy. Nothing else can give me strength to fight more than being there”.
In Doha, I started the treatment, and had an operation before returning to Awsaj.
Some people say that scars are a sign of honor, strength, and courage. But for every 10 people who tell you this, it only takes one person to say something harsh to make you hold your breath in fear
Returning to Awsaj
The day I came back to the school, my students welcomed me by placing a large pink ribbon on my desk, with messages of support, I thought “My days may be few, but I am here for these children, and I will not stop until my role in life ends.”
I had to be treated in hospital five days a week, and I asked for appointments in the afternoon so I was still able to teach the students, I had great support from the Awsaj Academy staff; they realized how much I needed to be there, and how it acted as my motivation to get up every morning.
I had great support from the Awsaj Academy staff; they realized how much I needed to be there, and how it acted as my motivation to get up every morning
As the treatment progressed, the pain became more powerful, and I was trying hard to hide it so that the students did not feel it too. Only a week after finishing radiotherapy, I began receiving chemotherapy, which lasted for six months. Scars have grown on my body, my hair has fallen out, and my features have started to change. I am no longer the same woman I was.
Some people say that scars are a sign of honor, strength, and courage. But for every 10 people who tell you this and you believe them, it only takes one person to say something harsh to make you hold your breath in fear.
Coping with the pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have faced more challenges, I was completely isolated, away from my students. And a colleague at Awsaj Academy passed away after losing his battle with cancer. He sent me a last message: “Hi Stacie, I hope you are fine. I am currently at the hospital sorting a couple of things but hope to be in good form when we meet again.”
We were fighting the disease together, and we went through chemotherapy together. Once again, I felt that I was resisting alone.
At that time, I was very afraid that I might not have long to live, I wanted to go on a trip with my family, so we returned to the Virgin Islands, as I felt it might be my last, and so I did.
At the beach near our old home there, the place was very quiet, I recalled my memories with my sister and my family, although I had severe swelling in the breast area, I was suffering whenever I wanted to dress or move, and I also had symptoms that resemble inflammatory breast cancer. My skin was swollen, hot, and inflamed constantly.
When I left the island, it was with a heavy heart. I was staring at everything around me – the sea, trees, and flowers – as if It was the last time, I would see it!
I know that I must wait a few years before I can be free of cancer, some might say I should be happy because I am alive, and I am. It is just still hard to look in the mirror
I thought I had finished the chemotherapy and that my exhausted body would be able to relax, until the doctor prescribed me new pills. At first, I refused to take them because I did not want the chemicals to destroy my body anymore, but my doctor told me: “This pill will prevent your body from producing the estrogen hormone, that the cancer feeds off of. You do not want this hormone in your body, do you?"
I had gone through menopause, I had a hysterectomy 10 years ago because I had fibroids, and this was like going into menopause again, but worse. More chemotherapy, bad mouth ulcers, chapped lips and dry eyes, heavy sweating, hair loss, constant muscle pain. Until you lose it all, you do not realize how valuable the estrogen we need as women is.
Taking this treatment for the next 5 to 10 years, undergoing a test every three months… but I had no choice except to do what I had to do to survive.
What I miss
Working from home, I miss Awsaj Academy, and I keep thinking of some students who have specific educational challenges and how they contact me directly, I miss them so badly, and I realize how much the pandemic has made us appreciate the little details in our lives that we never expected to lose.
I know that I must wait a few years before I can be free of cancer, and that I must accept my scars. Some might say I should be happy because I am alive, and I am. It is just still hard to look in the mirror.
One of the most beautiful things I miss today is the home my children grew up in, in the Virgin Islands, my garden at my home in Maryland and how my grandson and I used to feed the birds, and how we watched the caterpillars turn into butterflies. I wonder whether I will do that again with my younger grandson.
And when in the garden, I think of a lot about my sister and what would she plant where. And how the new peony flowers I planted in my garden bloom in May every year, after being destroyed by rain, wind, and winter. I wonder if I will see them bloom once more, and whether my life will bloom with them again.