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Sunday 19 January 2020
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‘I will rise up’

Omavi’s journey to being cancer-free

Kester "Omavi" Langevine with medical staff at a hospital in Cuba.

He’s an author, songwriter, photographer, musician, poet, and the most recent title – fighter.

Kester “Omavi” Langevine, 31, is now on the path to being cancer-free.

Many know him as the Canvas Poet, Omavi, Mavi, or Ras.

Langevine, originally from La Brea, now lives in Point Fortin. Less than two weeks after his birthday on February 22, he was admitted to the San Fernando General Hospital with a low blood count.

He told the Sunday Newsday, “I thought I was going to the hospital to get some oxygen – I couldn’t breathe and by that time I had anaemia.

“And then the doctors from the haematology team at the hospital were like, ‘Well, something causing the anaemia,’ and I was like ‘okay, what we looking at?’ and they said, ‘Possible leukaemia.’”

On March 11, he was officially diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), a very rare type of cancer. He said, “I remember my initial reaction was laughing, but then I cried a lot after. It was a lot of shock and confusion.”

The US National Cancer Institute’s official website lists being male as a factor that puts one at risk of getting AML. Other risk factors include smoking, especially after age 60, previous exposure to chemotherapy, and a history of blood disorders.

Initially, Langevine only shared the news with close friends and family, but made the news public on May 12 via a Facebook post.

He said, “AML is an aggressive bone marrow cancer with eight different strains, where the bone marrow which is responsible for creating and distributing all the mature blood products necessary for your body to survive, stops or struggles to produce these cells. This is because the bone marrow becomes cluttered with immature white cancer cells. Due to this cluster, there isn’t enough room within the bone to allow for the production and maturity of good white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets, that in turn can be distributed into the bloodstream. The result of this is a very low blood count, very low white blood cells to fight infections and disease, and a very low platelet count which results into bleeding or passing blood uncontrollably.”

Cancer 'fighter' Kester 'Omavi' Langevine is the author of Letters to Honest Folk. PHOTOS COURTESY OMAVI LANGEVINE

On April 6, he went to Cuba, which he says was the cheapest, nearby alternative to continue his treatment. The sight of the walls of the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital in Havana became all he knew for months, as he was unable to leave the building. He jokingly called himself “green pyjama boy” on Facebook, referring to the green and white, striped hospital pyjamas he was given to wear every day. He posted, “All I get is green PJs lol... anyone coming Cuba soon, buy a five yards of cloth for meh nah.”

The initial Facebook post now has some 4,000 likes, and over 1,000 comments and shares, with an outpouring of support from friends and strangers.

Langevine began documenting his journey on social media, using pictures, videos and statuses. The recurring line in his initial Facebook post was “Still the Lord kept me,” and in many of his posts, he mentions thanking God. One video shows his progress in increasing the number of steps (163) he could take without assistance from hospital staff. He said Cuba was wonderful and he has picked up a few Spanish phrases.

“The people across here have been beautiful, the staff treats me excellent. They really like me too because I’m not a difficult patient, I just have a difficult case.”

Cost of living

His initial, five-week treatment cost approximately US$30,000 (TT$202,000), which did not include the cost of drugs. In addition, his hospital room cost US$70 (TT$472)a night.

“The other options were the US and Colombia, and we called Colombia and it starts at US$140,000 (TT$945,000). And you cannot fly to Colombia with something like this, they send a chopper for you – an air ambulance, and that’s an additional US$23,000 (TT$155,000); and the US is way more,” he said. “Once you talking about cancer, you talking about expensive.”

A GoFundMe page was created to help raise funds for his treatment, but has since been suspended. In a Facebook post on July 11, Langevine explained that it might have been suspended because it was set up to pay for treatment in Cuba; US relations with Cuba have deteriorated since President Donald Trump took office.

A dread-locked Kester “Omavi” Langevine, a master of many talents from poetry to songwriting, before the onset of acute myeloid leukaemia,

He has mostly been using his personal savings, with some assistance from his family. He said despite the setback, he is grateful for all the support he has been receiving. While in Cuba, he needed emergency surgery. Unknown to him, he had only a 30 per cent chance of surviving, because of the risk of blood loss and post-surgery infection.

“I didn’t know anything. What happened is, after the first round of chemotherapy, I was getting these bad fevers and they didn’t know where the fevers were coming from.”

The doctors did an ultrasound which revealed a problem with his appendix, and told his girlfriend to call friends and family in TT to say he might not survive. Langevine said he was only told he had to have surgery, so he was calm about it. The doctors said he would not have survived without the surgery, but he described his post-surgery experience as the worst part of his journey thus far.

Langevine said music has been his most effective coping mechanism.

“I remember playing Skankin’ Sweet (by Chronixx) a lot and I used to real dance in the room and stuff. This is like 1 am and 2 am, I was frustrated, confused, didn’t know what to expect. I used to be really crying. I had this chemotherapy playlist with upbeat songs and thing, so coping mechanisms would be music lately; reading as well. I’ve completed some books from my favourite authors and that’s good for the imagination.”

On June 29, a benefit concert, Rise, was hosted in Port of Spain to raise funds for his medical bills. Event organiser Jivanna Panchance posted on Facebook: “I met Omavi a couple years ago and he performed at one of my shows. I’ve probably seen him in person three or four times. He is a beautiful, caring soul and a great writer. He’s giving and kind, strong and humble, and I saw this by our first meeting. We do not need to know someone for a lifetime to love them and care about them. I love Omavi and I want him to live.”

Langevine said he found out about the concert via a Whatsapp message from a friend, who told him not to worry, as he was working with others to do something to assist. He then got a message on Instagram from Panchance saying it was important she did something to help. The concert featured performances by Marge Blackman, Kalpee, Nehilet Blackman and Panchance, among others. It was titled after his 2019 soca release Rise, which has over 7,000 views on YouTube.

Asked about how much support he has received so far, Langevine said, “Immense, thank you. Even now it feels so weird, it does be overwhelming. I just want to say thank you, words can’t explain. Just a heartfelt thank you.”

Apart from the diagnosis, what also shocked most was seeing images of him without one of his most identifiable features – his locs. This September would have made it 12 years since Langevine began growing dreadlocks, but they had to be cut for chemotherapy.

Kester “Omavi” Langevine had to cut off
his dreadlocks for chemotherapy.

“At first I was cool, inno, I actually cut it with the intention of putting it back in to be honest, so I have it saved and stuff. What had convinced me more that was the right thing was that I heard of a story of someone who had locs and did chemo with the locs, and a day they went to bathe and they just passed their hand in their hair and a whole lot of the locs fell out, and I didn’t want that to be my portion. It was well planned and I was like you know it has to be done and it was just hair. I didn’t feel any way about it, really.”

A tough battle

He said his mood throughout his journey has been fluctuating, but he still regularly posts positive and inspirational content when he can to his social media pages.

“Yesterday I was angry with the world, didn’t want to talk to anybody, felt like what I was going through was very unfair. Most of the times people see the strong Omavi on Facebook but it does be a tough battle daily. I go through a whole lot, I just don’t share it. It’s always something, always something. Some days I’m too weak to go to the bathroom and bathe, some days I’m up like 7 am.”

In 2017, he published a book, Letters to Honest Folk, as part of the Letters Project, which “provides a platform for young, dynamic, African and Caribbean authors to address social, relational, economic and political issues in a bold and transparent manner.” His book includes both letters and poems. He told the Sunday Newsday he has written a lot of new material since his diagnosis, and that he has even started writing a new book about this journey.

Langevine is currently in Trinidad for a few weeks before returning to Cuba. He posted on Facebook on June 20, saying how happy he was to be home again. “In the few hours that I’ve been here, I got a chance to taste bake and saltfish, eggplant choka, and bodi, plus wings from Royal Castle and I almost wept in chadon beni sauce, and bowed my head in reverence to the Trini Jesus lol. I missed home.” He added, “No: Me being home doesn’t mean that I am ‘ok’...what it simply means is that my blood products, except for my platelets are in co-operation with some of the medication I’m taking, thus allowing them to be stable enough for me to get a ‘holiday’ lol from the hospital.”

He said his time here is to “rest and recuperate” before phase two of his treatment when he returns to Cuba.

To quote his song, Rise, “If I say that I can, best believe that I can, matter of fact you know I will,” and Omavi Langevine is indeed doing it.

You can follow Langevine on Facebook:Omavi Langevine, Instagram: canvas_poet, and Twitter: @OmaviLangevine

Anyone who wishes to assist financially assist can do so at:

Republic Bank account name: Kester Omavi Langevine

Account number: 970026864231

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