FRIENDS received an online invitation to a most unusual event last November 6, Saturday, 10:15 to 11 am.
The Joy of Finding Myself Again: My Breast Cancer Journey had the model and beauty queen-turned-corporate image expert Abbygale Arenas de Leon telling the story of her battle with breast cancer, fought mainly during the pandemic. One would not have been able to tell that the beautiful, glowing de Leon, dressed in bright red, had just fought for her life, other perhaps than the short, chic hairdo, when one had been accustomed to seeing her with long locks.
Abby immediately gave thanks to everyone for allowing her to keep the battle relatively private, closely witnessed only by her sons Ijah, 20, “my sun, moon, and stars”; Eli, 5, “my sun, moon, and stars part 2”; and her husband, veteran photographer Jun de Leon—“my everything; he wouldn’t want to be introduced any other way.”
Abby talked about how she had always been an advocate of women’s health, and had even coached women on how to live well after cancer. In June 2020, after weaning Eli from breastfeeding, she found a small, reddish spot on her breast.
“I casually texted my OB-gyne, ‘Doctora, I have a weird zit on my breast,’ and she told me to get a mammogram ASAP.”
The findings marked “the beginning of our unforgettable journey,” Abby said, exhorting everyone to “please get your mammograms.”
Abby recounted, “I had only two questions for my surgical oncologist: what do I have, and am I critical?”
The diagnosis was stage 3B invasive breast carcinoma with apocrine features. As her doctor put it, “My body has cancer, as well as a factory for cancer.”
In other words, hers was a very aggressive cancer that would require 18 rounds of chemo, surgery, and 30 sessions of radiation.
Before the couple even got home from the hospital, they had decided to sell their home to fund the treatment. As Jun told her, “We can always buy another one. But we cannot buy another one of you.” Because of help that came in from “hundreds of angels sent our way,” however, it became unnecessary to sell their condominium.
After first seeing cancer patients under treatment, looking weak and defeated, she cried herself to sleep
Abby waited until after Ijah’s 20th birthday on July 6 before telling the kids, and she felt doubly bad that her sister and mother in the US could not be with her because of pandemic restrictions. She started the first of her initial eight rounds of chemotherapy at Cardinal Santos Memorial Hospital on July 17; Ijah brought her, although Jun was more stressed out waiting at home.
After first seeing cancer patients under treatment, looking weak and defeated, she cried herself to sleep, realizing how serious the disease was.
The day after chemo, Abby was feeling great, but the flu-like symptoms and side effects hit after the second day; 12 days later, her hair started shedding, so she cut it and eventually shaved it all off. A heartbreaking video was shared showing Eli crying when Abby told him she was shaving her head, reassuring him it would grow back. Jun and Ijah took turns shaving her head, and she actually had fun wearing turbans and wigs.
Her sixth session, one year ago on November 6, was her lowest point, Abby recalled. “I had no energy, I would stay in bed all day, I yelled at everyone. It was hard to see the point. I woke up tired, just waited until 6 pm to pray the rosary, and there was so much pain.”
She drew strength from a reminder of Fr. Jerry Orbos: “Puede pagdaanan, wag lang tatambayan.” “There were a lot of bad days, but on good days we tried to live a normal life.”
Jun and Ijah took turns bringing her to the cancer center, planning what to order and turning the event into a picnic. Abby would go to the grocery, exercise—and even kept working, thanks to sheer adrenaline. When she had a webinar, after Ijah helped her into a chair, she would light up when the light was on.
After chemo, she was allowed to rest for a month before a mastectomy was scheduled—an event that became an emergency surgery because the tumor had actually grown. “Again, heaven sent angels—friends sent us food every day for the next two weeks,” Abby said, sharing a screen where she photographed every single goodie sent their way.
The best New Year’s gift came on Jan. 2, 2021 from breast surgeon Dr. Diana Cua, who declared that Abby had been “super responsive to chemo,” and that all her lymph nodes had tested negative for cancer.
Jun made a memorable comment: “Tao dadalhin ko sa radiation, zombie iuuwi ko.”
Radiation proved to be another challenge because of the threat of COVID exposure, and Abby felt her energy and spirit “being zapped,” what with a lot of nausea and weakness; she couldn’t even stay standing for the elevator ride. Again, Jun made a memorable comment: “Tao dadalhin ko sa radiation, zombie iuuwi ko.”
Finally, she underwent her last 10 chemotherapy sessions, and on Sept. 6, 2021, a video was shown of Abby being given a certificate of completion and ringing the cancer bell, a tradition for patients who complete treatment.
Although she admitted that “my body is never going to be the same,” Abby was glad to have her hair and eyebrows back—“and nothing is going to stop me!”
She acknowledged how the experience led to “better family relationships, bonded friendships, and strengthened faith. Before the pandemic, I would have 20 training sessions per month, a crazy schedule…Cancer taught me to be in the present moment; I sit down and watch the clouds. I can tell the essentials from the non-essentials.”
Abby again gave thanks for the help, which abundantly came in three forms: food, prayers, and financial assistance. “God loves each and every one of us, and He will provide.”
She ended by affirming that her PET scan at the end of the month is “sure to get positive results,” and showed off a T-shirt that Jun had made for her. It reads, “18 chemotherapies, 1 mastectomy, 30 radiations.” It’s a list of her greatest accomplishment, Abby said—and she’s looking forward to wearing the shirt a lot.