Surviving Cancer is an eye-opening ordeal

– survivors emphasize the need for constant screening

“I have to remain on medication for the rest of my life. I take 200 mg Levothyroxine for the functions of my non-existent thyroid and I have to be regularly screened for cancer because in most cases if you don’t look for cancer, you
will not be able to detect it. So, my advice to anyone is to don’t take things for granted and just get the regular check-ups, get screened for cancer annually.” – Nicola Schultz

By Rehanna Ramsay

Kaieteur News – Though World Cancer Survivor Day (June 5) is still way off, there isn’t a day that a person who has successfully battled this dreadful disease doesn’t wake up grateful for the second chance at life they have
been given.

Dr. Mark Vasconcellos and his Oncologist, Dr. Michelle Beard, during treatment.

Indeed, dealing with a terminal illness can impact someone’s life as is told by survivors, states Guyana-born US-based Dr. Mark S. Vasconcellos and Guyanese chef, Nicola Shultz. They recently shared their remarkable survivor stories. Dr.
Vasconcellos, a born Guyanese who resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, is the CEO and Founder of Victory International, a non-profit based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Those who are familiar with the work of the humanitarian mission,
Victory International and Project life – a local non-profit, would remember Dr. Vasconcellos. He is no stranger to the humanitarian work done in Guyana and has led many dental and medical outreaches here. His work with the elderly,
prisoners, primary and secondary schools, churches, and many other organisations have benefited the people of Guyana throughout the years. His more recent work involves providing electroencephalogram (EEG) biofeedback equipment to help
patients in Guyana with mental health. But in May 2021, after serving in Guyana, Dr. Vasconcellos returned to Raleigh and was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma (a type of cancer). Dr. Vasconcellos told Kaieteur News, the diagnosis was
shocking given that he was in great health with no underlying medical problems. He revealed that “I went to the doctor to check on an injured finger and I had a little lump on my stomach but there was no pain. I just happened to tell the
doctor, who said it might be a hernia but we needed to do some screening…” After the test results came back, Dr. Vasconcellos revealed he was shocked to hear that he had cancer. The US-based Guyanese recalled how he felt when the doctor
told him of the diagnosis. He noted that “Those three words, ‘you have cancer’, takes about three seconds to say, but it can really turn your life upside down…” In light of the diagnosis, Dr. Vasconcellos immediately began treatment, which
included aggressive chemotherapy and bone marrow stimulus. The treatment, as one can imagine, was rigorous and took a toll on his life. Dr. Vasconcellos who is usually a physically active person related that for consecutive days each week
he did “a cocktail of chemotherapy treatment.” The treatment, he said, while it killed cancer does damage to other parts of the body.

Guyanese Chef, Nicola Shultz was able to beat cancer twice.

“Chemo breaks down your system and makes you weak,” he said, adding that “it kills good and bad, so I had to do booster for bone marrow because it was affecting my bones.” He continued that “going through cancer treatment is the most
difficult thing, I have ever faced. Your physical health is affected but so is your mental health.” Dr. Vasconcellos stated too that having good support from his family, helped him, especially mentally. After six months of chemotherapy,
under the supervision of a great oncology team in Raleigh, North Carolina, Dr. Vasconcellos is in full remission. He noted that he will continue to take his medications for many more months and will require labs and follow-ups every three
months; however, he thanks God, his oncology/medical team, and the support of his family and friends during the most challenging time of his life. He further emphasises that cancer is no longer an automatic death sentence, unlike decades
ago. Medicine and treatments have come a long way. “Knowing that you have cancer is an opportunity to seek treatment immediately before the condition progresses. There is no shame in having cancer or a terminal illness. Trusting God and
knowing He is faithful, will help us walk through the valley of the shadow of death without fear,” Dr. Vasconcellos, who is an ordained Christian Minister, said. According to Dr. Vasconcellos, he is looking forward to returning to Guyana
very soon to continue his humanitarian work. As usual, he is expected to be in Guyana with a team of about 15 members in May 2022. The team will also include Pastor Joel Beckham, President of Victory International and a long-time servant to
the people of Guyana. Needless to say, Victory International is planning to include assistance to cancer patients as a new addition to their humanitarian work in Guyana. All humanitarian work provided by Victory International is free of
charge and is done in association with Project Life, Guyana, a local non-profit ( which embraces the motto: “Helping the Needy and Serving Humanity.” In the interim, Dr. Vasconcellos is advocating for
persons to be regularly screened for cancer. His advice to everyone is to regularly monitor your body for any unusual symptoms and do annual wellness check-ups. “If you feel unwell or suspect something is wrong with your body or mind, seek
professional medical assistance. There is hope once you have knowledge of a condition,” Dr. Vasconcelloss advised. Ever Mindful Similarly, Nicola Schultz, age 50 years, is advocating for persons to engage in regular screening for cancer.
Having successfully dealt with the disease twice, Shultz is now ever mindful of the reality of cancer. Shultz told Kaieteur News that she never thought she would have to deal with the disease because she has no family history of cancer and
was very health conscious. “I was very mindful of what I ate; I was a vegetarian and did my regular doctor’s check-ups but I never screened for cancer until I started experiencing some issues with my health and came across a newspaper
article which had stuff about thyroid cancer,” she said, relating that her first diagnosis came after a misdiagnosis. She explained, “I was diagnosed with an overactive thyroid in 2013; there was a swelling in my neck and we thought it was
goiter but I came across a medical article in a Sunday newspaper. I like reading the medical part of the papers and I saw an article about the thyroid and everything I read I was experiencing, so I called the doctor and made an
appointment.” Prior to the diagnosis, Shultz said that she experienced symptoms such as darkness on the area of the neck, swelling in the throat, tiredness, loss of appetite, and consequently notable weight loss. After visiting the doctor’s
office, Shultz did some blood scans, and other types of tests, and that is when it was decided by the doctor that she needed to do surgery to remove the right side thyroid. However, following the surgery in 2014, the doctor told Shultz that
he found lumps in the left side too so he took out the entire thyroid and sent it for biopsy and it came back positive for cancer. Consequently, she was referred to the Guyana Cancer Institute where she was told that there was no treatment
for her. She needed to go to Trinidad to undergo treatment. After bouts of aggressive radiation, Shultz was in remission. She explained, “I was in remission and all was well, then in 2019 I went to the clinic at the cancer institute where
the doctor discovered two lymph nodes in the neck but on returning to Trinidad nothing was seen. In 2020 they were still not seeing anything.” She added, “I had to do some special diet. I was able to come home but I had to go back in six
months for another check-up.” But last year, when Shultz decided to visit the US for her 50th birthday, her health took a turn for the worse. She related that “I wasn’t feeling well and being a survivor I went to the doctor. The doctors
didn’t take any chances and began doing one test after another, then a biopsy. I was in shock and feeling all kinds of emotions that they discovered cancer again; this time the lymph.” As a result, the Guyanese chef decided to extend her
time and went ahead with the surgery there, because, in her opinion and from how she was being treated, it was best for her to stay and do the surgery in the US. On November 10, 2021, the surgery was done and doctors there took out 27 lymph
nodes, seven of which were positive for cancer. Looking back at what she experienced – the diagnosis, the costly radiation treatment which came with side effects such as headaches and tiredness – she is ever grateful to be in remission a
second time. According to Shultz, on both occasions, the doctors caught the cancer in the early stage. But she still noted that having the deadly illness has impacted her quality of life. For instance, Shultz said, “I have to remain on
medication for the rest of my life. I take 200 mg Levothyroxine for the functions of my non-existent thyroid and I have to be regularly screened for cancer because in most cases if you don’t look for cancer, you will not be able to detect
it. So, my advice to anyone is to don’t take things for granted and just get the regular check-ups, get screened for cancer annually.”