For Candace Chin Choy, a 45-year career as a secondary school teacher 45 years is a remarkable achievement, but defeating pancreatic cancer is even more momentous. Hers is a real-life story of faith, hope, support and most of all perseverance.
Almost ten years ago, Chin Choy, who was at the time a Home Economics teacher at El Dorado West Secondary School, was diagnosed with what is commonly a terminal disease.
Recounting the experience recently as she sat in the gallery of her Second Street, Tumpuna Road, Arima home, she said it started with a pain in her lower stomach that she thought was gas. However, the pains persisted and got worse. She went to several doctors and got a variety of diagnosis.
Eventually, “by accident,” she was put on to the doctor that would give her the life-changing news.
“He diagnosed me and told me surgery immediately,” she said.
But the surgery did not go as planned and the tumour could not be removed. Doctors broke the news to Chin Choy’s only child, Janine.
“He approached me, and he said, “Are you an only child?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Get your documents ready, your mom would probably not go past six months.’ Hearing that I just broke down,” Janine said.
However, Janine did not tell her mom the bad news. Instead, she rallied and chose to tap into her inner faith.
“I just prayed prayed prayed and we had a lot of family support and friends support,” she said.
It would be almost a year that she kept that secret. The only person she told was Chin Choy’s longtime colleague and friend Jasmin Samaroo. The two met when Chin Choy joined the staff of the El Dorado West Secondary School. The two hit it off immediately and have made many memories together since then.
When she learnt of the cancer diagnosis, Samaroo was crushed.
“I was very angry and then I was really sad. I said this happened to my good good friend. If she should die, I would lose a really good friend,” Samaroo recalled.
But something in her told her she needed to be a rock for her friend and she quickly went into support mode.
She said, “One of the things was to just be there, keep calling and asking, ‘What’s next? What do you have to do? Do you have people to go with you? Do you want me to go? I would say to her, ‘Just call me, I’m only a phone call away, anything just call.”
In addition to Samaroo and Janine, friends and family at home and abroad swooped in and offered help and comfort when Chin Choy needed it the most.
“I remember when they said I had to get blood for the surgery and my daughter called the school. I was out of it so I don’t know what was told but I remember past students who I hadn’t seen for years and their families just going to give blood and I mean that was so touching,” Chin Choy recounted.
While she knew she had pancreatic cancer she didn’t understand the enormity of it because that information was kept from her, even throughout her chemotherapy.
In addition, Chin Choy said the “angels” at the Sangre Grande Hospital helped lessen her pain.
“You could imagine a nurse sitting with you when you in pain and rubbing your hand and talking to you, bringing lunch for you? That is the kind of thing that you get. You almost forget that you are there for cancer,” she said.
For three years she did chemotherapy then radiation “and they realized that the tumour was shrinking. Every time I did a scan it was smaller until eventually after numerous scans one day Dr Capildeo opened the paper and he said to me, ‘Well you are cancer-free’.”
This was for three years with annual check-ups. One day doctors found “something” on her liver, and she had to do another surgery, this time at Mt Hope. Again, most of the tumour was removed and she went back on chemotherapy. The last scan she did four months ago was clear.
Had it not been for the support of caring family members, selfless friends and compassionate medical professionals, Chin Choy is not sure how it would have all turned out.
Most of all she believes the wise decision by her daughter to withhold the devastating news from her could have been the moment that saved her life. In retrospect, Janine is grateful she made that choice at the time she did.
“I wasn’t aware that is what I was doing at that time I was just protecting my mom, protecting her faith and her strength,” she said.
Pancreatic cancer is still considered largely incurable, according to the American Cancer Society. For all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the one-year relative survival rate is 20 per cent and the five-year rate is seven per cent.