TEN years ago, I was diagnosed with Stage 2a invasive ductal carcinoma, a.k.a. breast cancer, on June 7, 2013, at age 48. I wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with the illness, although we had no experience of it in my family. I had written about it frequently, interviewed my close friend Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala and other ladies from the non-government breast cancer organization ICanServe (ICS) several times, and knew all about their advocacy for early detection.
Still, nothing really prepares you for the moment you learn you have an illness that could potentially kill you. I had moved pretty fast—after the doctor reading my ultrasound results stated that she saw something “I cannot dismiss as benign” in the images on a Tuesday, I was in front of breast surgeon Dr. Michelle Uy on Wednesday, had a needle biopsy on Thursday, and left to cover the World Street Food Congress in Singapore on Friday (where I met Anthony Bourdain). When we got back the following week, I returned to Michelle to learn my diagnosis.
I remember sitting in a daze outside Michelle’s office. I was a bit taken aback that she showed me pictures of post-mastectomy breasts, while reassuring me that breast reconstruction was a readily available option. I love my boobs; I didn’t care if I lost my hair, because I welcomed the challenge of rocking a bald look—although, I would later learn, this was a huge deal for many other women—but I love my boobs. Also, foremost on my mind was the money: Did I have enough? Would insurance cover it? Would I survive but end up impoverished on the other side, with nothing left for my old age?
I was already living with mental illness at the time as a diagnosed depressive, so I surprised even myself when I did not fall apart. Instead, I remember my laser-like focus to make sure I was prepared for all the treatments, which left very little room for self-pity. Cancer gave me something to concentrate on for the next few months, and by all accounts, I handled with flying colors the surgery, the 12 sessions of chemotherapy, and the 33 sessions of radiation (which burned my breast) that my oncologist, Dr. Charity Gorospe, put me through. And yes, thank God, my medical insurance covered most of it.
What I do remember was how my depression boomeranged and hit me hard after the treatment was over. How could it not? Breast cancer turns your life upside down; nothing stays the same, and the renewed perspective can require some serious reassessment of your life and priorities. I even told Michelle, who is much younger than me, that doctors should be aware that this can happen to patients. Luckily, I was led to my late psychiatrist, Dr. June Pagaduan Lopez, herself a cancer survivor, and because she understood where I was, I like to say that she helped me finally dig up whatever dirt remained in my wounded psyche and set me on the road to healing.
Breast cancer turns your life upside down; nothing stays the same, and the renewed perspective can require some serious reassessment of your life
Just this month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month all over the world, ICS launched an updated version of its breast cancer patients’ manual, titled “You Can Do This” (download here: https://www.icanservefoundation.org/patients-manual/?fbclid=IwAR075vY97ni04IqJj7GzhXYE67QwNPqVpwwMNx0YgB5y0xlghQiVgP9PoDE), which I had the privilege of editing. I am proud to say that mental health was definitely discussed in the manual.
When I marked my 10th year as a breast cancer survivor, it was a quiet celebration, although the next day, I left for a scuba-diving trip to my happy place, the Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea. I did, however, pause and think of how far I had come and how much had changed. That time outside Michelle’s office, feeling woozy from chemotherapy, and yes, feeling alone and overwhelmed—they all seem so distant now. For any survivor, a decade is a big deal, and not every woman gets a chance to last this long. Here’s what I have come to realize:
The vigilance never stops. Survivors call it “scanxiety” when the time for check-ups rolls around. The fact is, many women who can’t afford it hardly even get checked anymore, although I was fortunate—and cautious—enough to never miss my schedules, even if the prices of tests have increased about tenfold since my diagnosis. I had completed treatment in 2014, was consistently classified as NED (no evidence of disease) for five years, and was declared officially cancer-free in 2020. I could finally stop drinking the expensive anastrozole tablets that women with hormone-dependent breast cancer, as mine was, had to take, as added insurance against recurrence.
I still get scanxiety; when a recent CT scan of my chest revealed some weird little spots on my right lung, I couldn’t quite rest easy until Charity confirmed they were not cancer, and looked more like lung scarring from my bout with the first wave of COVID-19 in 2021. Such is our “new normal.”
You are responsible for you. I reeled from my own family’s seeming lack of understanding at the beginning, prioritizing other people’s needs over my own even when I was the patient (“Don’t tell Mama, she might get nervous”—Say that again?). Then I realized they were clueless, and were taking the cue from me. When I stopped being so anxious, they were able to respond, as well. Even then, as now, I chose my next steps, my doctors, the time and sequence of treatments. I got help, but I made the decisions, because it was my body. My job was to get well, and not to worry if people were okay with my being sick.
I reeled from my own family’s seeming lack of understanding at the beginning. Then I realized they were clueless, and were taking the cue from me
It has become easier to let go. If there’s anything I learned in the last 10 years, it’s to just breathe and let things go after a bit of unavoidable stewing. Friends, situations, things you thought you wanted to achieve, even the need to socialize, do more, know more, be more—I’ve ceased to know what FOMO feels like, actually. I do make time for dear friends and worthwhile occasions; otherwise, I’d rather stay home, cuddle my dogs, and plan my next trips under the sea. “Relax,” as the meme goes. “Nothing is under control.”
I’ve learned to accept my limitations (read: ageing). Time was when my body could handle the toughest yoga poses, dive in cold water, endure sleepless nights with little damage. That was before, and while the changes initially left me dismayed, I figured I had to learn to work with them, not against them (I would never win, anyway). So, no more cold-water diving for me, I’ve modified my yoga, and I just have to know when my aching muscles and joints could use a rest, because I’m no longer 25 years old (even if I still think that way).
I care less about what people think…Good thing I’ve never been a big party girl, because I am relieved to no longer be on guest lists for launches, parties, and the like. I just turned down a wedding invite (nobody very close to me, though) because I didn’t want to put on a gown and drive myself to Makati. I will wear what I want, say what I want, and believe in what I want, as long as it’s fair and won’t hurt anybody.
…but I tolerate less b-llshit. I will find a way to tell you if you are being rude or unkind, or overstepping your boundaries. If I don’t like somebody’s face, I avoid them or don’t engage. I can’t begin to tell you what a relief this is.
I’ve learned to live in the moment. Over the years, I stopped making new year’s resolutions—not because there was nothing I wanted to change, but because I decided to just be open to what each new month would bring. Of course, there are the usual givens—make sure you have enough money in the bank to support yourself, schedule your annual check-ups, work well, and don’t be irresponsible. Otherwise, it’s yes to the trip, why not to the new shade of red lipstick, and of course! to theater, concert invitations. Life is shorter than we think.
The best place to go is inward. I’ve discovered, with much delight, the true difference between loneliness and solitude, and the latter is such a privilege. I’ve deepened my faith in a much more meaningful way; you can’t survive breast cancer and depression without believing that Someone is in charge. And He has never, ever let me down—thanks to a lot of nudging from Mama Mary!
Everything is truly a gift. Would you believe me if I said cancer was one of the best things that happened to me? The clarity, perspective, and gratitude it has given me would never have come to me otherwise. Top that off with my bipolar disorder, and living with these “gifts” from day to day has become quite the experience. I think I’ve grown more in the last 10 years of my life than at any other time; the reason behind every heartbreak has never been clearer, and I finally know what it means to be truly happy.
Worth a burned breast? Absolutely.