I was nominated by dear friend, Alma Anonas-Carpio to post a selfie daily for ten days and to nominate one person each day to do the same for cancer awareness. The campaign seeks to honor those who have battled and are still battling cancer, and those who have lost a loved one to cancer.
I also happen to be a cancer survivor. I have lost a breast to the beast and underwent chemotherapy.
I have since been pronounced in full remission — no one every says “cured” when it comes to cancer.
I treasure each day … every shaft of sunlight and fall of rain, every meal with friends, every battle that comes, every victory and loss, every song, every splash of color, every tear and every gurgle of laughter.
This treasury of memories will succour if and when the day comes when the doctors say cancer has recurred. It is a day I hope never happens. It is something I know could happen.
Alma’s challenge is an opportunity to share some parts of that struggle.
Call it a 10-day cancer odyssey.
Let me start with how doctors spotted the cancer early enough to avert disaster.
It was early 2008; a high school class thread on the experiences of two buddies who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. Our two brave souls advised everyone — we were then in our late 40s — to get breast mammograms and regular examinations to spot for cancer.
We were mostly well-educated professionals in that group. We’d read plenty about cancer. Few of us had ever had that checkup. I am a doctor’s daughter. Yet no one among seven daughters had ever gone for a beast exam.
There is, I guess, an instinct in all of us to shove the thought of cancer to the back of mind.
I went for a mammogram with this thought bubble: “let’s see if it really hurts as they say it will.” (It didn’t, but then I have a high pain threshold.)
The results came up negative. But the doctor recommended an ultra-sound. I had dense breasts and these sometimes result in false negatives.
The doctor found a few very tiny lumps in the ultra-sound. They were too small for any other tests. She said to come back after three months.
I followed the palpating test for those three months. The first two came up with nothing. On the third month, just before the second ultra-sound, I felt a squishy little lump. It wasn’t hard like a pebble, which doctors cite as a warning sign.
Our family doctor agreed. There was a lump but it seemed, on touch, benign. But she said, get that ultra-sound.
There, the doctor sounded worried. Two of the lumps were clearly benign. But one showed an irregular shape, a red light for possible cancer. Her recommendation: Immediate biopsy.
I asked Nanay’s long time assistant, Lynn Carinal Casia, our dear lifeline to everything medical, to get an appointment with classmate and surgeon, Julian Rizaldy Jr Raca, and the cutest surgeon in town, Dr. Tony Vasquez, also a family friend.
Both were in the US for a conference. So I went to Doc Sidney, the son of doctors who are my parents’ buddies.
It was Masskara festival. Buddy Yvette Lee and I were in town to gambol. I squeezed the biopsy in between a morning press conference and an early dinner with a visiting senator.
Yvette didn’t know to laugh or groan when shown a mobile video of the event. Yeah, I took it, asking questions, getting answers. A bit surreal — siblings went, ewwww, you’re crazy! But that’s how this journalist copes with fear.
The biopsy coincided with preparations for a long-planned, all-girls trip to Thailand — seven siblings, our friend, Effie and our dear cousin, Tess, coming in from the US by way of Cambodia and Laos.
Lynn, who we all call Tita B-bing, was requested to forward the results through email or SMS.
And off we went.
Memories of that trip sparkle, although it was my nth visit. Maybe, it was us celebrating life, pretending there was nothing to worry about.
We feasted land took funny photos of our bellies in diminishing sizes. We scared Mary Anne’s then boyfriend and the driver he hired for our van as we battled to follow our itinerary (no jewellery bazaars, just old palaces and temples.)
The driver fled and was replaced by his brother, a sweet, gentle, funny guy who got us hooked on Korean telenovelas (probably as a way to save his sanity). He even loaned some bootleg series.
Us braver ones got hoisted on elephant trunks. We traipsed through temples. We tried not to bolt at the sight of things dangling from the boys of Patpong — including the two who offered to take Tess and me out for dinner — free, they said.🙂 We graciously turned down the invite.
Tess and I even went on a side trip to Chiang Mai.
One morning, I texted B-bing asking for the biopsy result. It was a day after it should have come out. After my third, text, she got in touch with our doctor-sibling, May.
Turns out, my son, Commie asked them to hold off so as not to spoil the trip. But B-bing and siblings knew me; they eventually decided that revelation was the better part of valor.
It was positive. I had cancer.
Everyone was calm but watchful. I requested B-bing to book surgery, asking for a few days to inform my Philippines Graphic family and ensure that managing editor, Joel Pablo Salud, was up to holding up the fort.
Waiting for Barack
I had read up by then and decided to take the route of radical mastectomy. It helped that Doc Tony, the main surgeon, was eye candy and calm. He’s also a talented photographer; we chatted about light and shadows in between medical notes.
Julian was the second. Both were amused when I lobbied for a specific date and time for surgery.
You’re not going anywhere for days, they pointed out. The wound would need draining.
The rolled their eyes on the reason: I wanted to be awake and lucid when America elected Barack Obama.
It was Nov. 5, 2008 our time; it was Nov. 4 for Americans. (Photos below fro, http://patrickfallonphoto.com/2008/11/04/election-2008-barack-obamas-election-night-grant-park/)
Shaking off the fog and nausea of anaesthesia, I asked for the laptop and weirded out the nurse by writing a column on the rise of my Bama to the presidency of the US of A.
The drainage went smoothly and I went home to heal. The next time the doctor saw me, he asked who had changed the dressing.
I had, by facing the mirror. He broke out in a chuckle and said I did a better dressing.
The second time, he frowned at a request to go Macau. He threw up his hands. Why?
Because Nadal and the Fed were playing an exhibition and there was a standing invite from a friend. He laughed, but warned about the possibility of the stitches breaking. I had a ready answer: Doc Julian was going escort and baggage handler and changer of dressings (which Julian knew he didn’t have to do.)
I’d also sat down with oncologist, Dr. Adonis Guancia, as straight-forward and grounded a doctor as anyone could hope for, and a passionate campaigner to ensure poor women are not deprived of checkups and intervention for cancer.
I opted to take chemotherapy. I knew other friends elsewhere took the alternative route.
He gave wonderful advice: Not to let cancer interrupt your life. To rest when energy flagged but to continue doing the things one loves.
I kept on working, flying back home for a couple of days for chemotherapy sessions. Joel and the Graphic family were wonderful colleagues. We joked about the one remaining boob being more than equal to other pairs.
Sister Malou and her daughter, Alex, went shopping for wigs. I had decided to shave the head on the first sign of falling hair.
But the wigs were hot and I looked like some refugee from a Marx Brothers film.
Besides, the mirror showed a strange gal — the Shaolin runaway this kid always wanted to be, although I doubt warriors of yore wore dangling earrings and ruffled jammies.
Ties that bind
I’m not fearless. I’m just good a not showing it. Sometimes, too good for my own sake.
But we grew up with elders who laughed and mocked at their adventures and disasters.
And we grew up singing, “Whistle A Happy Tune.” We believe in the song and in that other childhood ditty, “My Favorite Things.”
It helps to have a big, sprawling clan of chaotic individuals who will argue and skirmish but come together when shit happens, clowning around but letting people cry if they need to.
Commie and his sister, Mutya, were pillars of strength. I’m sure they schemed behind my back for ways to negotiate more days of rest. Commie stood between his mom, who has a hard time saying no to people, and the rest of the world.
It also helped that Doctors’ Hospital in Bacolod was our second home — I’d eavesdropped as a kid in the emergency room, hoarding stories of lives unknown. The nurses and doctors didn’t blink as we gossiped during chemo sessions.
It was a wonderful Christmas. Dad and I went to arts events. Nunelucio Alvarado’s Nami-nami became a bonding place with old and new friends.
Once the siblings had straggled home, we sang a concert of carols and broadway songs and guffawed and cried through old film favorites.
And there was Facebook, a new gift then, a perch from where to watch the world those days I couldn’t be in the thick of it. There was the Mac, for taking selfies, and there was photoshop for mucking up.
Life IS wonderful. Breast cancer is easy to overcome if you catch it early.
How you do your checkups, what tests you take are issues still being debated by the medical profession. The stories seem to morph with every year. Consult with your doctor, read up and decide for yourself.
Shit happens, yeah. But we don’t have to let it cover us, whether we’re dealing with cancer — or dictatorship.
For the first day, I’m nominating high school classmate and friend, Alpha Shanahan, a great singer, a former nun, a wife and mother, and an artist who came into bloom while in the midst of struggle.