First lady of Belize Kim Simplis in January (far left) and August 2012
Lebawi Lily Girma & Jeremy Spooner
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Kim Simplis Barrow is my friend. She’s your friend, too, even though you’ve probably never met her. She’s a friend to the ideals of smart growth and fair housing; to education and the pursuit thereof; to all living creatures; to humanity. Throughout her life, she’s been committed not only to her native land, but also to the global community. Her philanthropic commitments have taken her around the world. She’s met kings and queens, presidents and premiers, noblemen and dignitaries. And they’ve met her. As the first lady of Belize, Kim Simplis Barrow and her husband, prime minister Dean Barrow, have represented their Central American country from continent to continent. Kim Simplis Barrow is my friend, and friends stick together. That’s why I thought this column would be the perfect forum for telling her story to American Airlines’ passengers. Especially now, in October, which is, as you hopefully gleaned from the pink ribbon on the cover of this issue, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And my friend has stage-three breast cancer.
I met the first lady of Belize in 2009. I was in her country to write a cover story for this magazine, a story which ran in our June 15, 2009, issue. If the first lady’s face looks familiar to you in these pictures, it’s because she was the cover model for that June 15 issue.
We’ve kept in touch over the years, but as is too often the case with friends in faraway places, not nearly enough. In fact, I didn’t know she had breast cancer until she posted a somber note on her Facebook page. She was asking for prayers. She instantly had mine. I’ve known way too many people who’ve had breast cancer. I know you know way too many as well. And it always seems to strike the people who are textbook examples of healthy living.
In October 2011, the first lady was attending the World Disability Union’s general assembly in Istanbul. While taking a shower that same evening, she did a self-examination. She found a lump.
Initially, she was skeptical. At the time, the first lady of Belize was only 39 years old. By United States insurance standards, she wasn’t even due for a mammogram yet. “I felt an overwhelming sadness,” she told me. “I saw my life and all my plans coming to a sudden halt. I was doing so much and was very active as special envoy for women and children and with the charity I founded in 2005 — Lifeline Foundation. I just couldn’t believe this was happening.”
But happening it was. Doctors scheduled her for six sessions of chemotherapy; mastectomy and lymphadenectomy surgery; and 30 sessions of radiation. After the 15th session, she suffered heart failure, so they had to stop the treatment. The first lady went from being a cancer patient to being a cancer patient and a heart patient. With so much going on, and with the impossible-to-answer questions coming from her 7-year-old daughter — questions like “Are you going to die, Mommy?” — Kim Simplis Barrow was overwhelmed. And terrified. She manages to stay in high spirits because of the love of her husband and daughter. Because of the love of her mother, her sisters and brothers. Because of the love for her country, and the love her country has for her. When she made the courageous move to appear in public after losing her hair, students at the University of Belize responded by organizing a unique campaign: They shaved their heads in solidarity.
Her energy level is slowly coming back. Yet even when she was in the throes of chemotherapy, she continued her charity work and her philanthropy. Instead of taking on less work, she took on more. The first lady is now a front-line advocate for early testing and screening, as is this month’s cover celebrity, actress Christina Applegate (page 46), herself a breast-cancer survivor. Additionally, you can do your part to support breast-cancer awareness by shopping pink.
“Do not be daunted by the clouds that share the sun-filled sky of your recuperation,” the first lady stresses to women who are similarly battling. “They will move and shift as time goes on.”
Kim Simplis Barrow is our friend. She’s asking for prayers for her and for all the other women around the world who are fighting with all their strength and all their might. Please give them to her.
Fighter’s TaleBy Kim Simplis Barrow
I was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer in October 2011, after I discovered a lump while I was in Istanbul attending a World Disability Foundation conference. After taking a shower, I did a self-examination and found a small lump. I first felt overwhelmed and incredulous — then shock, fear and sadness set in.
I was in complete shock. “Why? How can this happen?” I knew the statistics, the risks, but I thought that I was healthy. … I exercised every day for an hour and a half at the gym with a trainer. I eat healthy, follow a well-balanced diet and drink eight to 10 liters of water every day. Added to that, I’m only 39 years old and wasn’t even technically due for a mammogram yet. So when I found that lump, I thought, “It must be benign! How can I have cancer?”
Then I felt an overwhelming sadness. I saw my life and all of my plans coming to a sudden halt. I was doing so much and was very active as Belize’s special envoy for women and children and with the charity I founded in 2005 — Lifeline Foundation. I just couldn’t believe this was happening. My doctors prescribed six sessions of chemotherapy, a mastectomy and lymphadenectomy surgery, as well as 30 radiation treatments. At one point during my treatments, my lungs started filling with fluid. My husband flew immediately to Miami, where I was under doctors’ care, and we were thrilled to learn that the fluid held no cancer cells and that the reaction was not unheard of during radiation treatment. My husband returned to Belize. Memorial Day weekend 2012 was less than a week later, and it was supposed to be a fun time with family and friends, as I was eager to celebrate reaching the midway point of my radiation treatments. On that Saturday night, though, I started feeling very weak. Still, I wasn’t too alarmed. However, by Sunday I was experiencing trouble breathing and ended up in the emergency room at South Miami Baptist Hospital.
I was diagnosed with heart failure. My heart was only functioning at 10 to 15 percent of its capacity because it had been severely damaged by one of the chemotherapy medications. Because every organ in my body was failing — I was anemic, and my white-blood-cell count was low — I was placed in the intensive care unit for a week, and my remaining 15 radiation treatments were canceled. I went from being a cancer patient to a heart patient in a matter of minutes. I am currently on medication for my heart.
Cancer is a great equalizer.
This truly life-changing experience has made me very aware of both the fragility and strength of the human experience and the incredible flexibility and adaptability of the body, mind and soul. I must say that at first I was simply incredulous that this could be happening to me, as a young and healthy woman who worked hard, ate well and exercised daily. As a mother of a 6-year-old child, it was especially hard. I so want to be there for her birthdays, graduations, prom and first date and give her advice. That is perhaps the most difficult part of my battle.
As time raced on, I was forced to recognize that cancer does not filter through its recipients, and the only recipe for a successful outcome is to prepare for war, lace up your boxing gloves and get to work. I have fought this enemy with everything I have, and I will continue to do so. I have also met many angels on Earth who have stood beside me as sentries along the way. They and all of my wonderful countrymen have filled my heart with incredible joy and buoyed my spirit just when it needed it most. I am forever changed, in that my appreciation for the true goodness of the human spirit now knows no boundaries, and my faith in God remains forever true.
Cancer affects all the family, always. For my husband, who has the gargantuan task of running a nation during times of great economic challenge and yet somehow always found the time to come up to be at my side. To my little girl, who gets very sad every time I have to leave for treatment and is tormented by that possibility that I may die (she has asked me a couple of times, “Are you going to die, Mom?”). To my dear mother, sisters and brothers who have traveled from far and wide to look after me. To my friends who have visited, cooked, cleaned, chatted and just sat quietly by.
When I think of the many of my countrymen who do not have health insurance and cannot receive the quality of care that I have, and yet gathered for prayer vigils and sent wonderful messages of love, I am overwhelmed. And I have made it my personal crusade to educate people about early detection.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that there is always a universal balance. For all the sadness, there is joy, and for all the desperation, there is love.
For my many cancer warriors who remain in battle with this dastardly foe, I say try to remain positive and calm. Stress and negativity are cancer’s best friends. Focus on yourself and make sure to eat well, continue your exercise when you can, remember to say your prayers and be thankful for every small step you take toward recovery. Do not be daunted by the clouds that share the sun-filled sky of your recuperation — they will move and shift as time goes on. Remember, cancer does not have a brain or a heart or a spirit. It doesn’t have the ability to plan or be cunning. We, and the doctors, have the brains and the ability to strategize cancer’s demise. And we fight not just with our brain but also with our hearts and souls. I have my battle plan, and every day I attack and choose to fight cancer. Keep fighting, keep the faith and always remain hopeful.
For those who have battled and are cancer-free today, I applaud you for making it — you have been through hell and lived to tell the tale. Like me, I am sure you probably have a new perspective on life; it should not, and cannot, be taken for granted. Revel in the small moments that make life worth living, and of course lend a helping hand to those who are still in the midst of their battle when you can.
To the loved ones of women who have lost the fight: I can only imagine how difficult it was for you to watch your wife, mother, sister, aunt, or daughter go through this terrible ordeal. Please take care of your health; learn from the experience; grasp the importance of regular breast exams, mammograms, and checkups and become an advocate for others to do the same. Living your fullest, healthiest life is a great way to honor the memory of those who have gone before you.
Fortunately, I have been able to maintain my workload with the various charities that I administer to in Belize, and this has been a wonderful distraction that takes me away from my own troubles as I concentrate on helping others. Once again, the incredibly positive power of giving and receiving has upheld my spirit.
Recently, I overheard a friend of mine who had just lost her husband to cancer respond to someone who said, “It’s such a shame that Mike lost his fight against cancer.” My friend replied: “He did not lose the fight … he finished the race.”
One of the most powerful statements I have made about cancer in my country came when I decided to wear/show my baldness. In Belize, breast cancer is still a stigma. Many women are ashamed or they feel they did something terrible. Their husbands leave them because they are no longer “complete” — can you imagine that?! My decision to not hide my baldness sparked the Balmiration campaign at the University of Belize, where students volunteered to get their heads shaved as a sign of solidarity with everyone who is fighting cancer.
The Belize Cancer Society held a cancer walk in May, and it turned out to be the biggest cancer walk ever in my country. In February, my office (Special Envoy for Women and Children) and the Belize Cancer Society hosted a Let’s Talk Cancer forum in Belize City. It was such a huge success, and it reaffirmed my attitude toward my fight against breast cancer: I’m not slowing down. I’m very much speeding up.