Imagine facing your greatest fear, a sense of foreboding formed as a child seeing your mother snatched from you by a merciless disease. Think about that fear being compounded as you watch your own child fight valiantly to escape a similar fate. Now, consider how you’d react if you then discovered that your life was also under threat. How strong would your faith be? Strong enough to conquer your fear?
Lystra Cudjoe could have lost all faith when, as an 11 year old, she watched her mother succumb in three short weeks to breast cancer. Although she admitted to sobbing uncontrollably on the day of her mother’s funeral, Lystra’s strong family-instilled faith made her refuse to give up on life. Instead she became an aspiring model and cosmetologist, then after marrying and relocating to Atlanta, worked her way up through positions at Fashion Fair Cosmetics, Caché, Lancaster Fragrances and Christian Dior. Little did she know that in 2001, her faith would again be tested when her 15-year old daughter, Shevonne was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin Lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system).
“Back then, my husband and I were so strong in our church and faith, we never allowed ourselves to think the worst,” Lystra said. “The only time I remember us crying was the day we received the news of Shevy’s diagnosis. After that, we went home, shaved our child’s head bald and told her, ‘Cancer will not take you.’ We built our strength through prayer and by talking with each other.” It took punishing chemotherapy sessions and radiation but her young daughter drew upon her mother’s faith, survived and, at 26, is now a mother herself despite repeatedly being warned that she would never have children.
“I have a very healthy 16-month old grandson. Isn’t that amazing?” Lystra beamed. Watching this stunning 53-year old woman so obviously in love with life, few would guess that she had to face her greatest fear – the fear of being 49. “My mom was diagnosed at 49,” Lystra clarified, “and I’d always feared what would happen to me at that age.” In 2007 – then separated and in Florida working for Saks Fifth Avenue as Giorgio Armani’s Business Manager – her fear became reality when she learned that she too had breast cancer and that surviving her Stage II diagnosis meant costly treatment, which she couldn’t afford.
Refusing to let cost determine her fate, Lystra applied to Liga Contra de Cancer (League Against Cancer) – a Cuban-run, non-profit Miami organisation providing free medical care to cancer patients. To her surprise, La Liga accepted Lystra on the condition that she become one of its spokespersons, to which she willingly agreed. Having beaten the odds after intense chemo and radiation treatment, Lystra became one of La Liga’s most successful fund-raising champions.
“I think the fact that I was black, spoke English and willingly share my many experiences with cancer made a difference,” Lystra added, then went on to relate how she’d escaped death yet again when in 2008, she was seriously injured in a major car accident on a trip to Trinidad for Carnival. The accident prompted her decision to retire and return here to the small guest house she now operates at her Woodbrook home.
Today, Lystra continues to enthusiastically support cancer victims through the Cancer Survivors Group of the Cancer Society of Trinidad and Tobago and open-heartedly shares her fashion industry experience with unknown aspiring young designers and models through her self-founded Fashionista Caravan.
Since her battle, she lost her sister to breast cancer and has had a brother diagnosed with lung cancer but with still unwavering faith, she shared this advice: “I’ve learnt we must enjoy every day was if it were our last. I want to be there for people, to let them know that the ‘C’ word is not a death sentence. You have to fight and struggle but always have the faith to believe that you are stronger. You can beat cancer. Don’t ever let it pull you down.” If that’s not unshakable faith, what is?