Stories of hope and courage resounded through the region at the closing ceremony of the 6th Southeast Asia Breast Cancer Symposium (SEABCS), held from September 23-25, 2022 in Taguig City, Philippines and online.
Hosted by ICANSERVE Foundation and Global Focus on Cancer, and supported by the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the Union for International Cancer Control, SEABCS 2022 had close to 2,200 registrants from 24 countries, gathering doctors, caregivers, patient advocates and cancer survivors from Southeast Asia and beyond.
Emceed by actress, writer and ICANSERVE spokesperson Bibeth Orteza, the last session featured five breast cancer survivors: journalist and mental health advocate Alya Honasan, triathlete Sheilla Gagui, patient advocate Marivic Bugasto, pediatrician Dr. Anna Lisa Ong-Lim, and entrepreneur and ICANSERVE president Nikoy de Guzman.
The survivors recounted their diagnosis and treatment experiences, and shared how they were living with cancer.
Honasan shared how experiencing clinical depression in her youth actually helped her focus on what she needed to do to beat breast cancer. She encouraged participants to look after their mental health and make use of counseling and other resources to resolve issues that stem from anxiety, morbid fear and restlessness.
Gagui, a mother of two, said her ‘world stopped’ after hearing her diagnosis. She believed she was at her fittest, having done gymnastics and participating in triathlons, marathons, ironman and spartan races. She was rarely sick and did not even take medicine even when she felt unwell. She is most grateful for the full support of her husband, “who never missed a race nor a chemo session with me.” She is now back in competitive races and advises fellow survivors to “never lose hope and faith, because that is all we have left.”
Bugasto, a Stage 4 breast cancer survivor, narrated how she learned how to be a patient advocate from ICANSERVE when she attended the foundation’s very first Patient Power Summit, a training course to capacitate patient groups in the Philippines. Held in 2006, she echoed her learnings to her support group, Minda’s Buddies, and was then elected as its president, a role she has held since. She is now an award-winning civic leader in her home city of Baguio in Northern Philippines and continues to live in “love and service”, the words with which the life of cancer survivors are described in the first ICANSERVE patient handbook.
Ong-Lim, a doctor and professor in pediatrics, recalled a series of ‘divine’ appointments with a fellow doctor and the mother of a former patient that somehow led to her early stage breast cancer diagnosis. As chief of the Infectious and Tropical Disease Division of the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (UP PGH), Ong-Lim became a leading public health expert during the COVID-19 pandemic, called upon to answer queries and educate Filipinos through media interviews and other fora.
De Guzman, who twice battled breast cancer as she was diagnosed on each breast 12 years apart, plunged headlong into a life of learning, getting international certifications to teach Bikram Yoga, Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors, Kids Yoga, Chair Yoga, Zumba Kids, Zumba Gold, Pound Pro (cardio workout using drum sticks and Pilates-inspired movements), Generation Pound Pro (for kids), Nirvana Fitness Restorative Yoga, and Make Up Artistry, for both conventional and airbrush make up. All these while managing the family business and heading up Collaboration for ICANSERVE. De Guzman has led ICANSERVE as president since 2018.
The stories shared gave everyone a full dose of inspiration, showing how a disease that afflicts millions in Southeast Asia need not stop women from living life to the full.
ICANSERVE also launched a free online patient manual, “You Can Do This”. Edited by Honasan, it is meant to be a breast cancer patient’s companion throughout their journey. It also contains information for women who just want to be vigilant about breast health, supporting ICANSERVE’s advocacy of early detection and timely and correct treatment. Download it from the ICANSERVE website (https://www.icanservefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/ICS-Patients-Manual-FINAL.pdf).
The session ended with participants on-site and online dancing to ‘Hold my Hand’ by English singer and songwriter Jess Glynne, accompanied by a dance video showing patient groups and advocates from Nepal and various parts of the Philippines following the choreography of De Guzman.
The next SEABCS will be held in Vietnam in 2023.