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Life is celebrated at Carnival for this breast cancer survivor

IU Health Simon Cancer Center

Life is celebrated at Carnival for this breast cancer survivor

She travels the globe dancing, singing and celebrating her culture - even fitting in a trip between treatments for breast cancer.

By TJ Banes, IU Health Senior Journalist,

There’s two pictures that illustrate the life of Lisa Farrer. One shows her dressed in a feathery pink costume highlighted with a breast cancer ribbon. The other shows her - also dressed in pink - standing next to her IU Health doctor Tarah Ballinger.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2022, it wasn’t unusual for Farrer to mix the two snapshots of her life. She loves attending Carnivals and more than once, she came to her chemotherapy treatments dressed in costume - even posting videos on social media.

Farrer’s life is as interesting as her costumes. She grew up Trinidad and Tobago, a twin island country in the southern Caribbean. She moved to New York City in the 90s and lived there until 2002.

“I worked in telecom for Verizon next door to the World Trade Center Complex. I heard the first plane and didn’t know at first what we were seeing. From 100 stories up it looked small. We were thinking about antennas on top of the World Trade Center and the possibility of bombs,” said Farrer, referring to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. “When we saw the second plane hit, it got real. As we were leaving the area in my friend’s car we got a call from my sister and she said, ‘they just bombed the Pentagon,’” recalls Farrer, who is 48.

She continued working for a time after the tragedy and one day when a loud, “bang” frightened her to her core, she realized she was struggling with the long-term effects of the horrific incident she witnessed. She moved to Indiana, a place she felt was safe.

In October 2022, she was preparing to go to Carnival in Miami when she felt a lump in her breast.

“I went to Carnival and came back realizing it was growing. I’d never had a mammogram before and when I did, I got called back for a second one, then a biopsy and I learned I have breast cancer,” said Farrer.

As she was in discussions about surgery with IU Health’s Dr. Carla Fisher, an MRI showed another mass on her chest wall. “Another biopsy showed I had a tumor in my left breast and two lymph nodes, and the cancer was in my chest wall,” said Farrer. The cancer needed to be treated, but first she wanted to celebrate the New Year at Carnival in St. Kitts with friends.

“Carnival is a European thing leading up to Lent and the reverie of Fat Tuesday. But for people of Caribbean decent it’s different because when the Europeans celebrated Carnival, the slaves weren’t allowed to participate,” said Farrer. “Since slavery was abolished, they took elements of Carnival and made it their own.” She now travels to various cities around the country and internationally, to take part in Carnival.

The festivals are highlighted by elaborate wire-bending costumes worn by Farrer and her friends; and pannists performing lively Calypso and Soca music on steelpan drums. Farrer makes all of her costumes and also makes costumes for a children’s band in Atlanta that hosts its own carnival. The group recently staged a fundraiser for Farrer by selling t-shirts.

“It’s become an outlet to relieve stress and a way to express myself freely,” said Farrer, who refers to herself as “carnival crazy.” In Orlando, Fla. she was called the “Guest Queen” and honored as a breast cancer survivor.

“They encouraged me to talk about cancer. Closed mouths don’t get fed. I didn’t realize there was so much stigma around cancer. It has shown me the impact I can have on others. I know about cancer; I know about depression,” said Farrer.

After her last chemotherapy treatment, on April 21, she wore one of her costumes and danced and laughed as she walked away. She had a double mastectomy on June 1 and another procedure on July 13.

“I call Dr. Fisher and Dr. Ballinger ‘the divas of IU Health.’ They are two beautiful ladies and I like how they take time to explain to me what is happening and answer my questions. Dr. Ballinger broke things down for me on a white board. I could feel that she heard me. Their goal is to give me the best outcomes based on oncology. Their recommendations are based on the best goals for the outcomes,” said Farrer.

“Moving to Indiana was a good decision. Carnival never really took off here but it’s a great place to call home and I’m close to an airport to travel,” said Farrer. “Indianapolis has been a safe place for me. I’ve found a stable foundation with my employer and a hospital with people who genuinely care about my wellbeing.”

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