I recently managed to sit down and talk to Gertrude Abela and Anna Zammit, both survivors of breast cancer, and both active members of Europa Donna Malta, which is part of the European Breast Cancer Coalition. Gertrude Abela, the President of Europa Donna, has been a survivor for fourteen years, and Anna Zammit has been an active member since 2004.
How long have you been a survivor for?
Gertrude: Fourteen years.
Anna: Nine years.
Can you walk me through what it was like finding out? Who did you tell first, what were your first thoughts?
Gertrude: I used to have regular mammograms. In August of 1999, I found a lump. I told a friend first because I didn’t want to shock my husband. My friend’s husband was a doctor, and he checked me and told me that the best thing to do was an ultrasound. The radiologist later told me that there was something there. It was a shock, and I didn’t tell my husband until the pre-op.
Anna: The first person I told was my husband, Vince. And to be honest, the only thing I can remember was that I felt incredibly distraught and crushed.
We all know cancer is a difficult thing to get through, but how did you find the strength to stay strong and make it past?
Gertrude: And the time I had just become a grandmother for the first time, so I was looking forward to looking after my granddaughter. My youngest child was 11 years old and I wanted to be strong for my family so I carried on. I did all the treatment. The worst thing was actually losing my hair! I went to the first support group meeting which was very good for me because it was an outlet for my anger.
Anna: My daughter was nine years old at the time, so it was mainly wanting to see her grow up, and also the support from my family gave me strength.
How did your family help through all this? What about your friends?
Gertrude: My family were very supportive and still are. At the time, though, it was much more because it came out of the blue and no one expected it. Even my friends were very supportive.
Anna: My family was always there for me and would come with me to the clinic and treatments and doctor’s appointments. My friends would call to check up on me and take me out to get my mind off of it. When I couldn’t drive, they drove me to work. Family would come and help out around the house, and my friends would involve me in activities to take my mind off of it, like volunteering with the Malta Girl Guides.
Do you think it’s true that positivity is fifty percent of the recovery process?
Do you think more awareness should be raised for breast cancer?
Gertrude: There is a lot of awareness, but I think we have to work more among the younger people. Young people, say from 18 onwards, never think it will happen to them. Recently a 21 year old was diagnosed, so breast cancer can happen to everybody.
Anna: Yes, definitely.
How did you find out about EuropaDonna?
Gertrude: At the time, when I was part of the support group and the committee, a member found a link to their website, and in 2004 we applied to be part of the coalition.
Anna: I found out through friends in the Malta Girl Guides, who directed me to my first meeting with them.
What exactly is EuropaDonna?
Gertrude: EuropaDonna is the European breast cancer coalition.
How does the organization raise awareness in its own way?
Gertrude: By organizing events. Besides walks we have talks, fairs like the one at Baystreet recently. We print a lot of awareness material about self-examination and health which we give out free at our events. We have printed a book for school children in Forms 4 and 5 about the environment, teenage pregnancy, tattooing, skin cancer, and health issues in general.
Do you think that support groups – for any type of situation – are beneficial in the long run?
Gertrude: Yes, because when you join a support group you know that those people there have passed through the same experience you have, and you can talk to them and you know that they can understand you and you can say anything which you wouldn’t say to your family to alarm them. It’s helpful for every kind of situation and very important.
Anna: Yes they are, of course. You can talk to people who know what it’s like and you know that these people can understand you better and you can be of help to somebody else who is going through the situation and doesn’t know anything about it.
While breast cancer is the main concern of women, men can also be affected by it. Does EuropaDonna help male survivors as well?
Gertrude: Every country is autonomous, so if we – as Malta – want to support men with breast cancer, we can. They do not come to our meetings, but we can have men on the committee. However they are not allowed to apply for delegate and representative. The organization is not strictly women but it mostly is, obviously, made up of women.
Can you tell us what you know about Make A Pink Difference?
Gertrude: Make a Pink Difference are five young lads who wanted to raise awareness because they have been affected by breast cancer in their family, and they did so by climbing a mountain in September.
Do you have any advice for any people currently suffering from an illness or a difficult situation in their life?
Gertrude: Speak out about your illness, because if you do, treatment might not be so aggressive. Also, to go to the national free breast screening when it is available because it can save your life and pick up your cancer at least two years before.
Anna: Seek support and advice immediately, and never give up.
For women who are concerned with breast cancer, what do you think is the best prevention?
Gertrude: Women should take care of their health by not smoking, not drinking excessively, exercise – even a thirty minute walk will do, eating well by avoiding fats, eating fruit and vegetables, and limiting red meat to once a week.
Most of the people reading this will be University students, so relatively young at the age of 18. What is the best age to start screening for breast cancer?
Gertrude: Eighteen is too young and the breast of an eighteen year old is very dense and very difficult for it to get ‘sick’. It depends on family history. However the best thing to do is self examination and in a few years time, to start with an ultrasound.
Anna: Eighteen is too early. The best thing to do at that age is self-examination.
What’s the advice you would give to people who have a member of the family currently ill?
Gertrude: Listen, be positive. If possible, don’t talk about the trauma to that person unless they initiate the conversation because sometimes they like to be left alone with their troubles and some people who don’t understand will sometimes make a fuss over nothing. The person would like to know that she can make it through and not hear about other people ‘like her’. Her family should also tell her about us and she can call us, because as a support group we cannot reach out, but can be reached out to.
Anna: Try to understand, especially when the person is emotionally vulnerable.