March 2019, I was declared 8 years cancer-free.
It was a milestone that seemed, at times, impossible to achieve. It only seems like yesterday that I was diagnosed with “The Big C”, as people like to call it.
I don’t like that term – “The Big C”. I don’t like it because it denotes something that is larger than me, than us. Something that is scary, something that will overpower, take control, defeat us and all those who are dear to us.
Don’t get me wrong. It is scary, it does take control for some time in our lives, but I refuse to believe it will defeat us.
It was late Nov. 2011, during a routine mammogram, that a lump was discovered in my left breast.
It was not good. The doctor did not wait for my final results, but came out immediately after, to talk to me. At this time, the reality still did not set in that I might have cancer. It was not in our family history, and I did not have any symptoms. But what could I do?
I went to see a highly regarded surgeon who had saved the son of my mother’s friend. He gave me options. “If it was your daughter, what would you recommend?” my mother asked. “I’d go for a mastectomy if it’s malignant”, was his reply.
The next decision was to do a needle biopsy or to do a surgical removal of the lump, and a straight mastectomy, if they found out that it was indeed, cancer. I opted for the latter and signed the waiver.
The surgery was scheduled and in I went.
By this time, it was the 2nd week of December and all around me, Christmas was in the air.
I woke up from the procedure with the words, “You still have your breast.” I was honestly not expecting this. The lab was not sure if it was DCIS (pre-cancer) or cancer. They needed more time. Final results in 3-5 days. My joy was short-lived.
It was Dec 21 when I went back to the doctor with my results. It was cancer – Stage 2A, Her2- positive. Early stage but the aggressive kind.
At this point, I just wanted it out of me.
I did not want to wait and envision these tiny, crazy cells multiplying inside of me. I went straight from the doctor’s clinic to being admitted.
“Don’t worry. We treat cancer as a chronic disease nowadays.”
These were the words that were said to me by the resident oncologist the night before my procedure.
These words kept me going during the darkest days of my treatment…and these are words I continue to say whenever I talk to someone just starting this journey.
I was lucky it was not bad. I expected a lot worse.
I went home on Dec 23, a day before Christmas Eve. As my family celebrated in my aunt’s house, a family tradition, I stayed home, alone with my mother, who opted to stay with me. I remember sitting in our living room, gazing at our tree, quietly praying, silently trying to reason that God would not give me something I would not be able to handle. It is a Christmas I will never forget.
I was about to go through a long, arduous journey, but they caught it early, and I was alive. I prayed I would live to see another Christmas.
Christmas is gift-giving tine. Little did I know I would get more worthwhile gifts from this.
My oncologist was, and still is, a well-respected doctor who was the former president of the Philippine Society of Medical Oncology. My mother knew him because she had written and directed the show for their international convention a few years before that. He struck me as a kind, caring man who truly cared for his patients. I have seen this repeatedly and have recommended patients to him since then.
Chemotherapy was scheduled to start on the 3rd week of January with Herceptin treatment to continue every 3 weeks. Six cycles of chemo, 18 of Herceptin – hospital visits every 3 weeks, a whole year and a half of my life. Would I survive?
The weird thing was that I did not want anyone to know what I had.
I was embarrassed. I guess it was the stigma associated with this. And I didn’t want people knowing I was ill. In fact, it took me more than a year after treatment to be able to talk about it openly.
I’ve always been a positive person, but life really threw me a curve ball this time.
On hindsight, it threw me a huge amount of blessings, too.
Despite not wanting anyone to know about me, friends , acquaintances, and even people I had not met, came out and showed me so much support – prayers, practical tips, advice, even just messages to show they cared.
“How did you know?, I asked each one.
I guess when people care, word gets around, and the good in them comes out. All they want is to show you’re not alone.
My friends took me wig-buying and we made a fun day of it.
We laughed a lot, but I am sure they were also wondering if this was going to be one of the last times we would share together.
My body was about to break down, but my heart was full.
So, armed with the emotional support and my faith in God, I took my first steps in enduring the physical, mental and psychological pain I knew had already started.
First thing I told myself was, “Ok, other people have to go through dialysis, bypasses, etc. I guess this is mine. Let’s just be done with it then I can go on with my life.”
I took it as a good sign that, after numerous tests, my first session went without incident.
In fact, I gained some new friends as I sat in one of the recliner chairs in the outpatient room and we chatted about our different diagnoses and treatments. I felt like I belonged.
I was expecting the loss of hair, nausea, bruises…signs that are portrayed on screen when they show cancer patients.
Those things you see on TV? Don’t believe all of them
another of my friends whose mother had cancer, told me.
I chose to believe him.
That’s another statement I also tell those I’ve talked to about this.
Luckily, with modern medicine and good advice from my doctor and friends, it was true.
My hair thinned out, but I didn’t lose it all.
I wore a wig but ditched it a month after my last chemo session because my hair started growing back almost immediately.
I never got nauseous, thanks to anti-nausea pills, and I took great care not to bump myself because my white blood cell count was way down. I also took care not to be in crowded places, and no raw food. Any infection could be potentially fatal. There went my salads and sushi.
What I did not expect was an unspeakable, unexplainable loss of energy, so severe that it took great effort to even speak a word, much less lift a finger. Up to now, I cannot explain it to someone who has never experienced it. This would happen about 2 days after a chemo session…and this is when the darkness would set in.
When you cannot move your physical body that is when the mind becomes most active. And in this state, all the doubts, fears and anxiety play havoc within you. You feel totally helpless.
It is also the time to grasp every ounce of inner strength to shift your thoughts away from the negativity. Sometimes, you do not even think there is anything to grasp.
That is what I tried to do.
During that time, I thought I was not succeeding, but the fact that I am here today means that I did, I guess.
Depression is a bummer.
A dark hole you may feel you will not be able to climb out of, but it can be tamed, if not overcome. And those who continue to fight this daily may think they are weak, but they are some of the strongest people in the world.
Another decision that I made was to keep working while going through treatment as long as my body could handle it.
I remember reading an article recently on Twitter about working while depressed. I know it is possible. I’ve experienced it.
I did not have clinical depression, but I know too well the feeling of having to keep working, smiling, pretending that you are ok, not sick, while inside, you are crying desperately and literally struggling to go on. Many times I just wanted it to end. The physical struggle was the easiest to cope with, the mental and psychological, the hardest.
It is said that if you feel you cannot go on, take it a minute at a time. If you cannot take it a minute at a time, take it a second at a time.
And for a year and a half of my life, and a long time after that, that is what I did.
Waking up each morning pretending to be strong. Not for my sake, but for the sake of my family, who I knew were all just trying to put on a brave face for me, but were also scared inside.
Going to work, showing others I was fine, knowing I might be dying a little inside each time.
The tunnel was long…dark… endless, and in my mind, I walked alone.
Throughout this whole time, I did not notice that my views on life had changed.
While before material things mattered, now I would walk through the mall, see things I would like, then the question would pop into my mind, “Do I really need that?” “No, I don’t”, was the constant answer.
I learned not to take things for granted. My family, my friends, people I would meet, those I would still like to meet, they are infinitely more important than all the riches the world has to offer.
It is said, “Strangers are friends you have not yet met.” I treat each person with that in mind. A smile. A word. That is important to me now.
When faced with my mortality, I discovered, deep within me, the truth that I could not bring things with me, but the joy and memories of each person who had crossed my life would be with me forever. And I would be in theirs.
Other things I realized is that work is a means to an end. It should not give you un-needed stress, but personal fulfillment and self-worth.
I now try to live life to the fullest.
I try to travel to new places every year, and indulge in my passions whenever I can.
Whether it is watching a play, tennis or an F1 race, cooking and baking for work or pleasure, or just quietly reading one of my stacks of books, I make time for it. Simple joys but valuable to me.
I also believe one of the blessings of my journey is that I have somehow developed an inner sense of what others may be going through inside, cancer or not. From their words, expressions, posts, I feel I can sense they may be struggling with something, even if outside they seem fine. I know how it feels to have so much pain inside and not be able to show it.
If I’m able to talk or post to them, I sincerely wish them inner peace, strength, and the knowledge they are not alone. Sometimes they respond, and sometimes they do not. I just hope I have touched them in some way.
Paying it forward has given me so much more fulfilment than anything I had ever done before my diagnosis. I will continue to do this as long as I am able. Maybe this is why I am still here.
People say I am lucky. They will say it because it has not come back.
Yes, I am lucky, but not only because of that.
- I am lucky because I have been given a second chance at life.
- I am lucky because I have felt so much love and I am able to give that love back.
- I am lucky because I have had the chance to realize what is important, so I will have less regrets later on.
- I am lucky I am able to give back and help others.
- I am lucky to be given the chance to learn to be a better person.
- I am lucky just to be alive.
I guess, in a way, I am lucky to have gotten cancer, because cancer has given me all these things.
I know that the cancer can come back anytime.
I know that the hospital will be my second home throughout my life, although I now only have to do my medical tests annually.
Whenever it is that time of the year for my barrage of tests, the anxiety and the fear come back. It is a constant in every cancer survivor’s life. I have accepted that a small part of that darkness will never go away.
But I also know that cancer has not defeated me…and it never will.
Because with each word I write, each person I reach out to, each time I share my experience, each time I share my worldly resources for the good of others, I pass on hope, strength and determination, for others to go on.
And while there are others who go on, as fellow survivors, as medical practitioners who care for us, as researchers who are looking for a cure, as family and friends who walk this journey with us, cancer will NEVER DEFEAT US.
Cancer is a word that begins with “c” but for me, it is not, and never will be, “The Big C”.
Pauline is from the Philippines and is a Corporate Chef. She was also a chef instructor in various culinary schools before becoming a corporate chef and a pastry chef by profession.
She has been lucky enough to be part of the Philippine team that competed at the Asian Pastry Cup in Singapore in 2008, and also the Philippine team that competed and won Silver at the HOFEX 2009 held in Hong Kong.
She was diagnosed with Breast Cancer Stage 2A, Her-2 positive in November 2011 and went through 6 cycles of chemo and 18 cycles of Herceptin, a targeted therapy and has been cancer-free for 8 years.