Five Things Cancer Taught Me
By Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala
Delivered on October 25, 2004 upon receiving the Bessie Legarda Memorial Award for her contribution to
cancer education and empowerment, Bayview Hotel, Roxas Boulevard, Metro Manila, Philippines
Good Afternoon to all of you. Magandang hapon sa mga kapatid ko sa kanser. Thanks for joining us in
this celebration of life. Thank you for this honor.
After being a broadcast journalist and a documentarian for the last 14 years, I admit I am not exempt
from the cynicism that accompanies the job. Covering the same problems we never seem to learn from,
over and over again, can do that you.
Ironically, it was another bad news, called cancer , that snapped me out of my cynicsm. Cancer taught
me many things I've always known but was too proud to acknowledge it needed re-learning. I will share
the five most important things cancer taught me.
- First, information is power. I am a journalist trained to find out all I can. Yet when I had cancer
I didn't know the first thing. I crammed as much as I could. The best way to defeat the enemy
was to know it inside out.
There are many things I know now, that I didn't know before. I would've done many things
differently if I knew sooner. And that is why I set up a foundation called ICanServe. To empower
women with breast cancer, and breast care health information. To let others learn from my
bumpy journey, so that theirs would be smoother.
We have an ICanServe hotline and e-mail for survivors and their families. Contrary to what most
people think, and what I thought, callers and letters we receive are from women who are
hungry for information, not pity. In its five years of existence, we've only received about 10 calls
where women were sobbing, or feeling helpless and depressed.
In our network, we share basic information, and tips that we never hear from our doctors, or
read about in books. But the most important piece of information we learn is that God never
forsakes us . It's the common thread of all story telling.
And that's one of the things that keeps me going in my advocacy. The learning and healing never
stops once you're done with your treatments. As I reach out to a newly diagnosed cancer
survivor , I too am renewed. I am reminded that I have to keep the end in mind all the time. I am
reminded of the time I was sick but my prayer life was at its healthiest, and that it should always
stay that way.
- This brings me to my second point. The cancer survivor is one of the best kinds of people I
know. When you are on the verge of extinction, your life takes only two meanings: love and service.
And you pursue it with a tunnel vision. Life is too short to dwell on the bad.
Every cancer survivor I meet is in a hurry to give back. She is thankful for being alive and for finally realizing the point of her life. All wounds turn into wisdom. As she goes through treatment, its harsh side effects, she always finds a way to serve. Just look at the sharing that goes on among the patients in the waiting line outside the oncologist's office or at the radiation clinics. You can't even tell they're sick.
When my good friend Trisha Borromeo, fashion model and teacher, found out her cancer
returned, she didn't postpone the appointment we had set for the following day. We had a
shoot on how to use bandanas and wigs for cancer patients . This pictorial was for my book I Can
Serve. It's a publication we produce every two years and distribute for free.
She chose to volunteer her services and postponed catching her breath to process the news of
her deteriorating condition.
All the cancer survivors know are filled with hope even when vital signs run low and their
prognosis is the worst kind. In fact, the more advance the cancer, the more the survivor glows
with optimism . Just think of the late Rio Diaz you'll know what I mean.
Cancer survivors do things that people normally do only when someone in the family dies. They
say exactly how they feel, seek forgiveness, and give thanks knowing their time can run out
I remember Tita Bessie Legarda. Loren's mother. Just before she died, she phoned me for no
special occasion. She kept telling me she loved me and was thanking me. I've known her to be
affectionate but she was different that time, there was some urgency in her tone.
At the time she called, I didn't know how sick she really was. And I suspect neither did she. After
her first bout with cancer, she lived as if there were no more tomorrows. And when her cancer
returned, she quadrupled her efforts.
Can you imagine what life would be if all of us behaved as though we were to die tomorrow?
- The third thing I learned is this. Prayer is the first option and not the last resort. In fact I
learned that His answer to my prayers are always better than what I had hope for.
When I found out I had breast cancer 7 years ago, it was no big deal. I never questioned. Then
Dr. Stockdale in Stanford Hospital told me I wouldn't have children after chemotherapy. That's
when I stopped breathing! During that time , I was single and engaged. My Tita Nats told me,
what do they know, they're only doctors? Just pray.
And so I did. While on chemotherapy I also prayed to Marie Eugenie, founder of the Assumption
order. I pleaded with her to help me pray that I become a mother one day.
Three years later, I was assigned by ARD German TV to cover the Abu Sayyaf Sipadan hostage
story. I had to live in Zamboanga and Jolo for nearly four months. It was a stressful time. Besides
being on top of the story, I had to make sure no one in my German team including myself would
be held hostage by Commander Robot.
I would return home to Manila once in awhile for a few days. At the time, I had been married for
two years and wondered how I would find the time to be pregnant especially since the Abu
Sayyaf never ran out of hostages! And Commander Robot didn't have to work hard as he had so
many walk in hostages - mostly journalists who wanted an interview.
Then, one day, I found out I was pregnant. It was a delicate pregnancy and I was re-assigned to
Manila. And guess what? I found out I was pregnant on the Feast of the Assumption.
I named my miracle, Mariana Eugenie to honor the lady who helped me pray for a miracle.
When you reach a point in your life when you feel solutions to your problems are no longer
humanly possible, that's when letting go and leaving it all up to the Lord is the only recourse.
So when my Tita Nats told me to pray hard, I had to because I had no choice. I couldn't at will let
my body keep its reproductive functions intact as it succumbed to chemotherapy, a treatment
notorious for being worst than the disease.
Yet for a TV producer like me who is obsessive compulsive, giving up control and allowing the
Lord to take over, came easy. When you reach the worst point in your life, and realize
everything in your life becomes better because of it, you realize there's no reason to resist
cancer or any crisis for that matter.
Life is only difficult if you stand in the way of His plan for you. The only way to breathe is to pray.
It's the first option, not the last resort.
Fourth thing I learned is that our faith is constantly evolving. People probably think that just
because we had a life threatening experience , our faith is more mature than most. And just
because it seemed like we've had our quota of trials enough for more than a lifetime, we are
exempt from further pain.
I wish that were true. But it's not. Each time I have my faith down pat, a new challenge rams my
When the doctor took my baby out of my tummy, she didn't cry. In fact she didn't move. She
had an apgar score of ZERO. Everyone was still in the delivery room when I asked, what
happened? I could only pray and say Lord, please let my baby live! Again, I was reminded of who
was the real producer, director and scriptwriter of my life.
After a few minutes that seemed like forever, my daughter Ariana started to breathe. Right
there I learned what every mother fears she has to learn. You're baby is not really yours, just as
our lives are not entirely ours. We are mere stewards of His gifts. There will be many more tests
of faith. It's just like going to school. The higher the grade or year, the higher the level of
Life is not about climbing the corporate ladder of success. It's about climbing the many rungs of
the ladder leading to Him. Each trial is a step that takes us higher till we reach Him all the way to
the top and embrace Him , even if it means being pierced by His crown of thorns.
- Lastly, I learned that the fight against breast cancer comes down to this. It's advocates are
more than crusaders. We are endorsers of a kind of life we hope everyone will buy into. Our
message? Don't get sick to know you have to manage your health. Don't wait for a crisis to love
and serve ferociously as if each opportunity you get were your last.
I humbly accept this award. But I insist I accept this in behalf of all cancer survivors who live their lives
no different than mine. I hold this recognition in trust for all of them.
I dedicate this to the family of cancer survivors and their caregivers who share in our journey.
I personally thank the Bessie Legarda memorial foundation, Woman Today and its sponsors, Bosom
Buddies, Senator Loren Legarda, Dr. Diana Cua, Monica Aveo for making the issue of breast cancer a big
deal. I know it's not headline material and thanks for insisting it can be.
Thanks to all my cancer survivor friends who continue to nurture me like Linda Panutat, Dulce Saguisag,
Cecile Alvarez, Elvira Se and Dorothy Chavez and many more.
Thanks to my Dad for saving my life. Thanks to my Mommy Letty and Mommy Digas who never stop
praying for me in the loudest possible way.
Thanks to the continued loving support of Daddy Jun, my brothers Nikko and Marti, my sisters in law,
Gina , Eileen, my brothers in law, my aunts and uncles like Tita Ansing, Ellen and Dan, Ely and Tad, Butch
and Pilar, Nancy and to all my friends for never treating me like a patient.
Thanks to my husband Dondi for his calm in any crisis and for sharing in his duties as parent to our
second child we call cancer survivors.
Thank you God for my daughter Ariana who reminds us miracles small and spectacular happen every
He has given us a lot of gifts and reasons to celebrate life today and everyday.
In closing, let me tell you one more message we cancer survivors would like to impart: The biggest fear
there is to cancer is not death but dying without having led a meaningful life.
Thank you and good afternoon. God Bless you all!
Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala is a breast cancer survivor, founder and President of I Can Serve. She's a
broadcast journalist and documentarian. She is founding partner and managing director of Asian Eye
Productions, and producer for ARD German Television and member of the Foreign Correspondents
Association of the Philippines.