Once a year, the creme-de-la-creme of Cayman society don their finery and spend an evening of entertainment and education in support of the Cayman Islands Breast Cancer Foundation.
This year is no different, except that the tickets sold out even faster than usual, no doubt due to the guest speakers, celebrity couple Giuliana and Bill Ranzic.
The couple not only lend an extra layer of glamour to the already glamour-heavy affair, but they also bring with them their own story of overcoming breast cancer.
“Tickets sold out in a little over three weeks,” said Heather McLaughlin, chief administrator of the Breast Cancer Foundation. “That’s much faster than usual. Normally, from the time we put the tickets on sale, we’re selling them up to within a couple of weeks prior to the event. Now we’ve sold out two months before and we have quite a long waiting list.”
Among the guests at this year’s gala will be Rene Dixon, who as a fashion student is looking forward to meeting fashion commentator and style icon Giuliana Ranzic. Ms Dixon is one of Cayman’s youngest breast cancer patients.
Aged only 23, Ms Dixon is undergoing treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer, which had already spread to her hip, back and ribs by the time it was diagnosed last year. She writes a blog, called “With Love, Nae” in which she shares her battle with cancer with her friends, family and readers.
When she was 20, she found a lump on her right breast, which was checked by three doctors – all of whom told her it was most likely a cyst and she was too young to have breast cancer. She underwent an ultrasound at the first examination back in 2009, after which her doctor told her it was probably a benign cyst and said a biopsy was optional.
“I was about to move away for college that year so I thought ‘they said it’s nothing serious’, so I decided not to do the biopsy,” said Ms Dixon. Two other doctors she saw in Miami also told her it was a cyst.
“Then in October 2010, I started having back pains and I started seeing a chiropractor to see if that would relieve the back pain, but nothing was working… I came back to Cayman in February  and the back pain got so bad that I could not move – my back just kind of froze and I had to go to hospital,” recalled Ms Dixon.
She was put on injections of painkillers but those did not help, so she sought a second opinion at another hospital, where blood work showed “some kind of infection, but they could not pinpoint what it was without more tests,” she said.
At that point, her hip also started hurting and she was limping. Her doctor suggested she undergo an MRI at a hospital in Miami, to where she was about to return to school. After that MRI, her doctor requested more scans, including a full body CT scan and bone scan, which found a tumour on her right hip that was displacing her lower back muscles. A biopsy of the tumour showed it was malignant.
She was referred to an oncologist at another hospital and what happened next shocked and surprised her.
“I did not know that oncologists specialised in cancer, I thought my doctor was referring me to a hospital closer to where I lived… When I went to the oncology department at the hospital, the oncologist was quite blunt. He wasn’t a people person at all and when we told him we’re here for the results and we don’t really know why we’re here… he said ‘you’re here because of a tumour in your hip which was malignant and it’s being caused by the tumour in your right breast.’
“I was just sitting there, thinking ‘breast cancer?’ My mom asked what stage it was and he said ‘It’s stage 4, it’s in your bone marrow.’… I don’t remember much after that, I just kind of blanked out,” said Ms Dixon.
There is a history of breast cancer in Ms Dixon’s family – her aunt and grand-aunt both passed away from the disease.
Ms Dixon said she was referred to another oncologist, who recommended she undergo immediate radiation treatment to tackle multiple tumours in her hips, spine, shoulder blades and ribs. She then started on the hormone blocking drug Tamoxifen, but she showed no improvement. At that point, she believes her oncologist gave up on her, because she refused chemotherapy and or to agree to have her ovaries removed.
“She basically wrote me off. She [said] ‘we’re just trying to make you feel good for as long as possible’. You don’t tell a 23-year-old you’re not trying to help them anymore. I searched online until I found the Cancer Treatment Centres of America and that’s where I started going. They immediately started working to get me over there, to their centre in Tulsa, Oklahoma… They were completely helpful and they gave me any and every option,” said Ms Dixon.
The centre’s holistic approach of working in teams of practitioners, including the oncologists, nutritionists, naturopathic doctors, surgeons and radiologists, has also made her feel more cared for.
“Of course, chemo was inevitable and I just figured, OK, well, is I’m going to do it anywhere, I’d prefer to do it here because they made me comfortable and they treated me like an person and not a statistic, which is very important when you’re being treated for cancer.”
She has finished her chemotherapy treatment and has undergone a lumpectomy and intra-operative radiation. She is now on Femara, another hormone blocker, which her most recent check-up showed appeared to be working well. She will go back for her next check up at the centre in October.
She started her blog more than a year ago as a means of giving her friends and family updates on how she was faring. “I’ve always been a person to keep a journal. I said jokingly to my friend that maybe I should start a blog and she said I should. I found [blog website] Tumblr, so I started posting my updates on there… When people caught onto it, it turned into something way more than me just updating people. I’ve done general posts on breast cancer awareness and I share my story or someone else’s story or pictures.”
All funds from the sold-out gala, which will be held on Saturday, 29 September, at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, are used to support the local community and breast cancer patients and survivors.
For those who have been unable to get a ticket to the gala, an after-party has been organised, for which separate tickets are being sold. That event will be held at Blue Cilantro restaurant on West Bay Road.
“People will get an opportunity to meet Bill and Giuliana at the after-party,” said Ms McLaughlin.
In total, 540 seats have been sold for the main event, the same number as last year. The Foundation would have liked to have expanded the number of seats, but the size of the ballroom at the Ritz meant that seating capacity could not be increased.
Already high-value auction items are flowing in, to be sold in a silent and a public auction. The bidding list already includes items donated by Cartier, Better Angle Photography, Bliss Yoga, Fresh Image Public Relations, Cayman Luxury Boat Charters and Funky Monkey.
For the first time, members of the audience will be able to bid on bundles of mammogram vouchers, donated by the Chrissie Tomlinson Memorial Hospital. The vouchers will then be distributed by the Breast Cancer Foundation for women who cannot otherwise afford to have mammograms done. “Whoever bids on the vouchers will feel they have helped out in the community,” said Ms McLaughlin.
Supporters of the Foundation this year also have the chance the donate their unused Cayman Airways air miles to help out cancer sufferers who need to travel overseas for treatment or aftercare.
“Patients are always looking for air tickets to go to Florida for treatment or consultations and if anyone has any mileage they are not using, if they go on Cayman Airways website, they will find a dropdown menu of our charity and they can donate their air miles there,” Ms McLaughlin said.
Ms McLaughlin is the first full-time member of staff at the Breast Cancer Society, having taken up her post as chief administrator in June this year. Prior to her appointment, the Foundation’s staff were all volunteers. She said the Foundation felt that since it was getting so many more requests for assistance directly from patients, it needed a full-time member of staff to do administration, which she carries out at the Remax office in Seven Mile Shops.
For more information about the Breast Cancer Foundation gala or about the foundation, contact Ms McLaughlin at [email protected]