Business executive Maan Hontiveros had breast cancer on the sly.

A routine annual breast mammogram and ultrasound in 2005 led to the diagnosis of invasive cancer on one breast and localized cancer on the other breast. She immediately went for second opinion consultations with surgeons and oncologists and chose to have bilateral mastectomy with simultaneous reconstruction using tissue from her own belly. She refused to undergo any other treatment—no chemotherapy, no radiotherapy—which she believed were no longer necessary.

However, she intentionally kept her diagnosis and treatment under wraps to spare her father, then 80 years old, from worrying.

“My mother died at age 58 from breast cancer and his mother, my lola (grandmother), also succumbed to breast cancer. I saw how he suffered through mom and lola’s battle with breast cancer and I swore he would not have to endure (it) a third time,” recalls Hontiveros, who conscripted her siblings, closest cousins and a few very close friends into her scheme.

“None of them violated my trust. I am truly grateful to them because dad peacefully passed away 12 years later not ever knowing about it,” she says.

Other than swearing her collaborators to secrecy, she made sure no news about it would leak by going overseas for treatment.

Her US-based younger brother took time off from work to be with her during her 14-hour surgery in a New York hospital, as well as the three days that followed. “He assisted the hospital staff and actually took over my care, including sponging me and changing my surgical dressings. When I was ready for discharge, the nurses said they were happy to see me go home but could they please keep my brother! They had not seen a more devoted family member in their entire careers than my baby brother!”

Friends in New York and family in Virginia took care of Hontiveros throughout the six weeks or so that she needed for recuperation and follow-up check-up.

“By the time I returned to Manila, there was hardly a trace of the surgery noticeable in my newly acquired breasts, even while wearing my usual two piece bathing suits during weekends with dad at the beach!”

Hontiveros led a generally healthy lifestyle. She had totally given up smoking and was a pesco-lacto-ovo-vegetarian (eating only vegetables, fish, eggs and dairy products) for 20 years before her diagnosis. She drank loads of tea, occasionally drank wine and avoided sugar in her diet. She was quite fit, swimming and snorkeling every weekend and practicing taichi intermittently. Looking back, she felt she was somewhat of a workaholic and “sometimes bordered on being a perfectionist”, recognizing these are areas to modify in her life.

What did she learn from her journey with cancer?

First is to focus on meaningful work and activity, something that is bigger than oneself. “I promised not to ever waste a single minute on tasks or work that I could not find joy, meaning or purpose in. So I immediately dropped all extraneous work activity, focusing mainly on my advocacies for the arts (she was president and now vice-chair of Ballet Philippines and trustee of Cinemalaya Foundation) and marine and coastal environment protection. I decided to pursue my love for music and enrolled for a second degree, a bachelor of music major in classical guitar performance. I spent the next five years studying and playing guitar to the great delight of my biggest fan, my dad! It was during this time that I was asked to take over as president of Manila Symphony Orchestra. Those five years immersion in music must have helped me heal so completely that I was strong enough to take on the challenge of setting up AirAsia in the Philippines,” says Hontiveros, who was the first chief executive officer of Philippines AirAsia and was its chairman until last month (August 2019).

Second is to focus on meaningful relationships, avoiding negative persons and “energy vampires,” and relying on a few good, genuine friends who truly care and bring out the best in a person.

Third is to lavish love and time on family. “I spent more time with family I truly care for. I was nearly inseparable from my dad who was the only parent in St. Scholastica’s College who attended every single school performance where I played guitar or sang in the choir, alongside my young classmates.”

Fourth is to bask in nature. “I stayed at the beach as often and as long as I possibly could, breathing fresh air, swimming, snorkeling and diving.”

Fifth is to share the journey with friends and family. “I bonded with my co-warriors, (actress/broadcaster) June Keithley, (journalist) Abby Tan and (film director) Marilou Diaz-Abaya, sharing experiences, thoughts, dreams, hopes and fears. I traveled to Turkey with Abby before she passed away, and together with her scuba diving friends, brought her ashes underwater to her favorite reef in Anilao on her birthday, where we sang happy birthday blowing air bubbles through our regulators as her ashes floated away to open sea. To this day, every time I swim or dive at sea, I feel Abby’s presence. I am truly blessed!”

Hontiveros joins Silver Linings, a summit for all cancer survivors, their families and supporters, on September 28, Saturday, 8am-5pm at the Philippine International Convention Center.

NOTE: A shorter (edited) version of this story, written by Carla Paras-Sison, was published on September 23, 2019 on page B8 of The Philippine Star.

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