By Maria Fatima L. Tioseco
Cancer is such a frightening word.
In the presence of my cousin Timmy or classmate Julie, who was afflicted with it, I recall being squeamish just even hearing about it. I remember my constant silent prayers to the Lord, “Please don’t give me cancer. I don’t think I can cope.” But in the second week of July this year when I woke up from the recovery room with just a breast, I realized, and had to accept, I had cancer.
My surgeon, Dr. Mario de Villa, told me if the mass in my breast was benign, he would merely remove the mass, but if it had cancer cells, then he would have to do a mastectomy. I remember crying to my Mom, enveloped in such heart sinking self-pity, when I arrived at my hospital room as she welcomed me back in after the operation.
“It’s only a breast,” she tried to reassure me.
Then, I stopped myself, switching emotions upong realizing, it’s done. I can’t cry all my life.
Chest bandaged with two long rubber tubes attached, which had grenade-shaped plastic containers at the ends to hold drained liquid, I wondered why God let me have cancer — the one sickness I had often begged him not to inflict on me.
I closed my eyes and decided to count my blessings.
“Focus on the good things,” I psyched myself. Suddenly I felt happier. The blessings I assessed were abundant.
Because my operation had to be delayed for a week since my cardiologist wanted me to complete all the necessary tests, I had in those seven days before my mastectomy been at the receiving end of so much compassionate love.
First, I was deeply grateful I still had a Mom to cradle me through. She is a beautiful 70-year-old who walks with a cane due to her arthritis. Her constant, comforting presence through all my pre-tests especially when I am pricked for my blood or sugar tests really made me feel so lucky. Her incessant, soothing words of comfort, her singing to me, “Come my Lord Jesus I love you…,” as the nurse extracted blood from me, my face smeared with tears, my heart wrenched at my ordeal, helped me so much.
And, because of the technological wonder of the cellphone and email, I was also the recipient of barrage of long and short distance telephone calls, text messages and emails from classmates and batchmates from the six sections of Assumption High School Class ’77, family and friends from all over the world. I was overwhelmed with their powerful love messages of prayers and encouragement.
I felt cheerful and blessed also because I was “suffering” in comfort. I was recuperating in a big hospital room perfumed by a mini garden of flower arrangements from friends as far as Australia. Even the softdrinks I was serving my hospitalguests came from college classmate Tere Albano, who is based in Los Angeles!
There was also the colorful paper hearts drawn by six-year-old Joshua and four-year-old Hannah, children of classmate Vicky Veloso-Barrera, hanging just beside the crucifix across my hospital bed. They had told their Mom to tell me that they drew me hearts so wherever I looked there was love.
“You’re okay, you look so cheerful as if you just had a haircut,” classmates Tony Yulo Loyzaga and Tina Cuyugan teased as we shared a Japanese dinner in my narrow hospital table.
I tried to maintain a happy disposition during my recuperation. I kept trying to shift my attitude to positivism, to appreciate all that was around me, what I had and can still have, pushing or even erasing the thought that I had only one breast left.
I forced myself not to dwell on what I had lost — a breast, or what I can no longer have.
Perhaps God let me have cancer because he knew I could take it and even make fun of it, like texting everyone after my mastectomy that I was a gay or bakla already.
When I went home from the hospital, the pain in my armpit was so intense I sometimes thought an animal lived there and tortured me.
I resorted to drinking Holy Water from the big bottle which my Senate friend, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada’s staff Myrna de los Reyes, hand-carried all the way from Lourdes, France. I would take pain killers only if I truly couldn’t stand the pain.
“Heal me, heal me,” I would chant to the Lord.
Then, I would think of who I wanted to offer up my pains, those in more difficult conditions, so that I could turn my pain into grace.
I refused to allow any feelings of self-persecution. I didn’t want to waste a moment of my life to be sad. Life, they say, is made up of millions of moments — it’s up to you how many of those moments you want happy or sad.
So I reinforced myself by visualizing that God had taken my right breast to save a place for me in heaven and that I must spend the rest of my life surrendering to His will, so that I can reunite with that right breast someday.
I’d like to think that in that same hand that God brought my right breast to heaven, He filled it with much love from family, friends and strangers.
Cancer had made me become a ‘spoiled brat’.
Everyone is just so nice. I always receive love gifts — more flowers, cookies, fruits, rosaries, holy water, prayer books, wigs — not only from friends in Manila, but also from those abroad like my favorite special, sugar-free, seedless sampaloc packs and dried baby pusit from Babette Resurreccion from Bangkok.
Right after the monster pain in my armpit decided to die a natural death, faithful classmates Jackie Dayrit Boncan, Vicky Veloso-Barrera, who are always at my hospital bedside praying for me before every major operation of mine, hosted a thanksgiving turkey dinner for me with Sony Celdran de la Calzada, their husbands, Lulet Alibudbud and Pastor Kenny Mills.
Sen. Loren Legarda, another Assumption high school classmate who, aside from gifting me with a year’s supply of sugar-free ampalaya tea, also hosted a healing mass at her home for all the girls who were not able to visit me in the hospital, inviting Father Nico Bautista. Sen. Loren’s mom passed away because of breast cancer. Her Bessie Legarda Foundation has been sharing anti-cancer medicines to thousands of breast cancer patients all over the country.
What really touched me most during the healing mass was that despite the dark, gloomy, rainy weather, classmates came all the way from Ayala Alabang and Quezon City that night, bringing healthy food for me and stretching out their hands in prayer, asking the Lord to heal me.
Nowadays, my usual remark is, “God is so good. He gave me everything. He gave me cancer, but he gave me good doctors, a family supporting and loving me, friends praying for me and inspiring me, including money to afford treatment and medicines.”
Another old, old Senate friend, Baby Ritualo, who I met with one night for a chat long overdue, not only treated me for dinner but insisted on paying for my week’s medicine.
I can’t help but liken the latest development in my life to that come-on touristy Hongkong slogan, “Where wonders never cease.” Being afflicted with cancer seems to be that.
One of my newest and greatest blessings is being embraced by fellow breast cancer survivors who have banded themselves into the I Can Serve group, having been invited by email by Malaya columnist Ellen Tordesillas.
What a joy it was to receive emails from breast cancer survivors, complete strangers to me who called themselves artista names like Maui Taylor while having chemo sessions together at St. Luke’s hospital.
“Don’t be afraid of the needle of the swero, kaya mo yan,” another wrote.
Being single, I was especially touched by those emails from married women who had to be emotionally strong not only for themselves as they battled with cancer, but for their young children as well while having to cope with their wifely duties to their husbands.
These phenomenal women I truly admired and was so grateful to for going out of their way to console me as I was about to start my first chemo session.
I was so thrilled when Bibeth Orteza emailed me, recommending her acupuncturist to whom she goes to help ease the pain of chemo.
“Jesus is healing me!” is what I was chanting as the doctor inserted the needle that would start the input of one tray of chemo medicines, some red, some yellow-colored, into my body. Close friend Peachy Urquiola was holding my right hand tightly, my Mom was sitting behind me, her hand on my shoulder, praying with me.
I cried from deep, deep within, thinking with such great disappointment that I would have to go through this five more times to prevent the recurrence of cancer cells in my body.
Thankfully, I heard Peachy finally say, “It’s in na, stop crying.”
Miraculously, because of the prayers of so many who cared, I was so thirsty during the chemo session, I kept drinking water and urinating the unwanted or unabsorbed medicines out of my body.
If my head and eye hurt that night, it was because I cried so many times the whole day before the actually chemo and during the insertion of the needle and some parts during bouts of self-pity and depression while the chemo was going on.
I was so afraid to sleep because I was frightened that pumped with so much medicine intravenously, I might not wake up the next day.
The morning after, my heart leapt with joy because I was feeling so good. I immediately dressed and had my Yaya Lumeng pack our things so that by the time my oncologist Dr. Antonio Villalon came to check on me I was looking and feeling cheerful, bejeweled in my trinkets with makeup on, ready to go home.
I felt so triumphant that I successfully got over my much feared first chemo session.
Cancer had taught me that God really makes all things beautiful “In His Time.”
“You’re so lucky, sis, God even gave you a support group, others go through their chemo alone,” my sister Ulla commented a few days after my first chemo when she picked me up after my first meeting with my new friends — the I Can Serve sisters who were organizing the Silver Linings breast cancer awareness activity, which was held last Sept. 25 at the EDSA Shangri-La Hotel.
I happily told Ulla I felt so fortunate and privileged to be among women who, despite their being afflicted with cancer, are cheerfully raising money to buy Tamoxifen, a medicine breast cancer survivors are required to take for five years after being diagnosed, for women who can’t afford to buy it.
Pretty, perky, talented Kara Magsanoc Alikpala started the miracle of organizing, mobilizing and rousing fellow breast cancer survivors to help women recognize the signs, to help women who cannot afford treatment, and to help them to emotionally and spiritually cope with the disease.
Having worked for politicians for the last 17 years and attending numerous political rallies and conventions, I was taken aback by the new experience that was Silver Linings.
Assigned to the walk – at the reception table, my morning started listening to whining breast cancer survivors who complained they were being stressed out waiting for registration to start. This was when I started to compare my old and new life. Previously, at political or even out of town Senate hearings related to work, our attendees were local leaders, civic groups, educators, the religious, in short — the electorate.
In my regular life, during political rallies, the video presentation would be about the candidates, but that morning at the Ballroom of EDSA Shangri-La Hotel, a video presentation of the I Can Serve sisters was shown. It made me cry.
When I met them, they had hair already and the video showed them bald yet cheerfully mouthing inspiring lessons they have learned because of their cancer — Cancer is my best friend, Cancer changed my life, etc.
What moved me is they are all alright now, hair growing, glowing and in such happy spirits and disposition.
I want to be like them, I told myself.
What was heartbreaking and made me drop more tears was one’s testimonial at her hospital bed, holding her newborn baby after having recovered from her breast cancer.
As we, the I Can Serve sisters in our black t-shirts, pink pashmina shawls and pink IDs waiting for Kara to call us and be introduced to the crowd of 500 brave women from all over the country, I saw a sister get a chair for the one who had her cute, chubby Chinese baby girl in her arms. It was the same girl in the video who was interviewed at her hospital bed.
She calmly lifted her shirt to breastfeed her baby.
I couldn’t help asking my I Can Serve sister beside me, Lani, “Is she breastfeeding with one breast?” To which Lani replied, “What do you think?”
Amazing! I learned we had a sister who even gave birth to twins after her breast cancer treatment!
I attended the nutrition lecture and makeup demo session in the two function rooms the rest of the morning with some breast cancer survivors receiving medical care through the generosity of Avon Philippines at the Philippine General Hospital.
Pain management, healing, consultations with oncologists were what was going on in the other function rooms, all with standing room only participants because all walk-ins were accommodated.
Another surprise for me was in my usual life, as a Public Relations Officer tasked to organize parties, the raffle prizes I usually have available are appliances or gift certificates. That lunch, the breast cancer survivors excitedly looked under their chairs in case they had won any of the 50 free mammograms at PGH at stake.
Tiangges are very much a part of the Filipino culture. Even our conventions can’t help but have a few tables selling native products. Wigs, hats, breast cushions and bras were up for sale along with books
and t-shirts that day.
The afternoon session was very emotional as the family of the late Rio Diaz and Geny Lopez were there to talk about their last few days together.
At just past 5 p.m., Kara was gathering us all, “Come on, let’s be together, we are about to end!” as she invited us who were manning the ICanServe registration table.
Rocker Bituin Escalante was electrifying everyone with her “Aint No Mountain High Enough” as the< sisters wove themselves all over the ballroom to converge near the stage. By the time our pink group was together, Bituan and I Can Serve Sister Bangge had the entire ballroom dancing and rocking to "I Will Survive!" Who would have thoughy one day I would enjoy dancing to the song other with breast cancer survivors? "Life is like a box of chocolates, you'll never know what you'll get," the film character Forrest Gump said. And that's exactly how I felt: God gifted me with the many changes that went on in my life that day as shiny pink and silver confetti rained on all of us. Everyone went home with a present from the sponsors — bath gels, lotions, hand santizers, magazines and goodie bags which were handed on the way out. As if prepping me, my hair started to fall the next day. It was all over my pillow, my bedroom floor and the bathroom floor when I bathed. Thank God, I was emotionally ready to accept this because the last days had been gloriously happy. Just before she flew back to Singapore where she is based, my youngest sister Anna texted me "Ate , please don't shave your head first, I might not be able to take it seeing you bald and you might not be ready for it." I broke down and cried. I felt what my married I Can Serve sisters felt as they also had to answer questions of "Mom are you dying?" to their kids who see them bald, dizzy and vomiting. As I type this, I will be braving four more chemo sessions. My silver lining is that everyone tells me I look better in my wig that in my reg ular hairdo . I guess I owe that to God, too, he did give me EVERYTHING!