Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Learning To Accept Realities and Laugh A Little More

Two months since I found out about the cancer in my body, I try to enforce a change in my lifestyle.
Nothing swiftly radical: just a change of pace, actually a slow-down in the work place, less crowds,  more quiet time, more veggies in each meal, fruits each day, Zumba even right after the once-a-week chemo treatment, and the hardest part, learning to avoid stress and trying to sleep before midnight.

A  few well-meaning friends are warmer now, sending me prayers, fruits, and positive vibes.
Some close family members call and show up more often.
My own staff  struggle to work better, to avoid causing me undue stress.
Acquaintances at my Clients' workplaces are sympathetic when they learn of my condition or 
take notice of the headband I wear to cover my baldness. 
Neighbours, even strangers I meet on the road and in the clinics and a few public places look kindly.

I feel blessed for the tireless support of my Beloved who has even become more affectionate since the cancer set in.  She patiently accompanies me in the weekly blood works and the 6-hour chemo session each week, and on top of these, has to go through what could be an ordeal of listening to  a litany of my reads, discoveries, and complaints as I cope with the mild side effects of the ongoing treatment.

The handful of well-trained nurses and caring staff under Surgeon-Onco Dr. Romeo Diaz of the Springfield Breast Care Center in SMX are like family now.  Friends and colleagues from long ago suddenly make their presence felt and friends of friends reach out with words of Faith and courage. 

I thank God for all the support, as I go through the changes in my lifestyle, and in the way I feel about the reality of a Stage 3B cancer in my body,  and the "85% recurrence rate as Stage 4" 
(a new reality that I have to put on a watch forever starting on the third month after what I am hoping will just have to be a partial mastectomy.)   

But there is One Reality I realise will never change.

I refer to them as an Odd Couple, not to mean oddness for strange, but odd for being different and totally separate from the support system described above. Before any of this life-changing experience happened,  I had felt they never really accepted me despite my many efforts to reach out in both subtle and open ways.

I struggle not to get hurt each time I am in the same place with the Odd Couple, a situation that couldn't be avoided.   For the longest time, I had been hoping to cultivate at least a  friendship,  and I had thought my new situation with a fatal disease could become an opening.

I hoped that perhaps they can become compassionate out of pity for someone who has cancer, or be gentler out of plain courtesy to an almost-elderly,  or just  kinder to someone who will live "no more than five years".

I was wrong in thinking that things between us would change once they learn of my condition.

Every day, I pray for The Miracle of Healing. Heal my body of the disease, and Heal my Soul of the hurt. This is the cross I carry each day, the One Reality  I have to learn to accept so I can laugh inside a little more.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Losing Hair To Cancer But Gaining A Different Perspective

I thought I was getting prepared for it.  Oncologist Dr Romeo Diaz had told me in the most certain terms that hair loss will begin after the third chemotherapy session. Other patients who have gone through the ordeal tossed me ideas about shaving to "restore self-confidence" and "preserve self-image."

But when the usually thick lustre of hair started breaking and falling off my head,
I got a little scared.  Here was an actual part of me that was going away.

I force a smile, thinking of how I used to complain over my frequent trips to the salon each month on account of a healthy fast-growing raven mass of hair.  I couldn't have imagined that my visit to the salon early last month was going to be my last ---- until I grow it back after months of treatment.

Now I collect loose strands on the pillow,  the back of the sofa,  the computer table,  and off my neck, shoulders and arms.  I look closely at the thinned-out strands and realised how they had lost all lustre and luminosity.

I comb my fingers gently through my head, and at the end of each stroke, there's quite a handful of the 'crowning glory' strands that easily land on the palm of my hands. I bathe under a slow shower, careful not to wash away the roots. But the bathroom floor drain collects an amount that frightens me.
I can only wish to slow it down.

It's just been a month since I first confirmed about the cancer in my body.
But the various tests,  visits to the doctors, and subsequently the weekly blood tests, and chemo sessions and now, side trips to nurses who administer boosters to elevate my white blood cell count do not seem so recent.

I  try to look past the physicality now.

Before any of these happened, I had been in a race with life to get it all in. To accomplish as much in a shorter span of time. To achieve more than what is expected.

I chose not to slow down; on the contrary, like most of us in modern society,  I pushed myself to run ahead and overtake time. To rephrase Jordan Matter in #DancersAmongUs, what could have been a light jog became a sprint.

And "the faster we run, the less we see."   I've been sprinting big leaps the past three decades, over-achieving and collecting 'big treasures but sacrificing many little gems along the way."

Now I want to seize each moment,  celebrate the everyday miracles, and dance while I can.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Seeking What IT Means

Seeking What It Means To Have Breast Cancer 

With chemotherapy now underway, and surgery forthcoming when the 6cm tumor shrinks,
and while the nagging scientific hows and medical wherefores are momentarily silenced, I turn inward to find answers to why cancer did happen.... To me.

I must have forgotten something.
Perhaps I had been too hooked-up in work, in achieving, in serving others, in beating deadlines to include self-imposed ones. Managing stress had become more of a way of life.
And I had forgotten to learn to have fun, to slow down, to spend more time away from work, to imbue Nature as I once had in my youth. Or to just sit around with loved ones doing nothing.

Friends and family say it's time to slow down.
Surgeon-oncologist Dr. Romeo Diaz says it is a wake-up call. And arrogant me wonders:
a wake-up call to what?

All along, I had thought of myself invincible. The rock my Beloved and the entire family can always depend on; the force behind the corporate leadership; the wings beneath many aspirations. Now, I have to steer for My Own Path, to conquer the disease, and not be engulfed by it.

A  close cousin implies that the meaning of it could be one of karmic effect,
a life lesson by Fate, where I am being taught Humility because I too am suddenly vulnerable when I had thought I was indestructible....

A  twist of fate perhaps, where suffering has to surface to bring out an Inner Strength.

The purpose, the raison d'etat (the reason for being) behind WHY the cancer is there must have a larger usefulness, a higher motivation, a deeper merit.

Perhaps it is a way to Pay Forward. A time to payback and give thanks for the blessings
I have reaped in life, (when I'm not even supposed to be here.)

As I approach the twilight, I had feared getting old, and getting old alone. FOGO.
But being told  "no more than 5 years",  I fear no more...

With very little Time left, my  pursuits for the advocacy film, the illustrated book and Europe have become more serious NOW than at any other moment before. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

BEATING BREAST CANCER: Getting A Second Opinion Saved Me

Getting A Second Opinion Saved Me

While I was all set for a hurreidly-decided March 13 "double set-up" "frozen section" procedure,
where the right breast was to be removed if the 6-cm tumor was found malignant, there was a nagging question on my mind if indeed this was a good decision.

Days ahead, and in my talks with family members equally ignorant of other options in beating cancer, everyone seemed to accept my decision as good and most probably the best and quickest way to get the cancer out of my system. Everyone, except my Beloved, who had expressed we must find a second opinion. I hesitated at first, thinking it will only delay things; after all, we had talked to 3 doctors already at the UST Hospital.

Fortunately, and perhaps by Divine Intervention, at a social get-together dinner we hosted for a visiting friend  a week before the dreaded March 13,  some nieces who were practising nurses
came over.  I did not want to talk about the disease at a party time like this and not to the younger ones at that. But in the course of the evening when we got to talk about their hospital duty caring for children with cancer, our conversation led deeper into a discussion of my case. I ended up showing them my lab results.

Vernice Tamayo the company nurse at SM conglomerate referred us to Surgeon-Oncologist Dr. ROMEO DIAZ who has set-up the Springfield Breast Care Center at the SMX, in the Mall of Asia. Dr. Diaz, a gentle-smiling, and highly experienced  oncologist used to practise at Ohio and Springfield in Massachusets USA before deciding to move his practise to his homeland in the Philippines.

The appointment was for Monday, 4 days prior to Friday the 13th. After the physical examination, Dr. Diaz prescribed a different approach to treating the cancer on my right breast. In fact, a total  reversal in approach. Instead of rushing to remove the tumour, and the entire organ, he explained very calmly that a BIOPSY must be done FIRST:

1. To determine the type of cancer, how aggressive it is
2. To determine if it has spread to lungs, liver, bone or brain.
3. To determine the stage of the cancer,  so a WHOLISTIC treatment plan can be achieved.

This sounded plausible, especially when he explained that he might be able to SHRINK the tumour first with CHEMOTHERAPY,  kill the surrounding cancer-stricken  LYMPH NODES and if possible, save my breast.

His approach made more sense to me;  I never imagined that he could even make use of the tumour as an indicator if the chemo will work for me.

I was all set that very day.  I cancelled the appointed March 13 surgery at UST Hospital.

And for the first time in my 56 years, I went under the knife of Dr. Diaz for a BIOPSY right there and then at his homey clinic Springfield Breast Care Center.

The specimen, looking more like fatty bone marrow meat, was analysed at the Makati Medical Center,  where Dr. Diaz also sent me for Liver Ultrasound, Bone Scan and several Blood Tests.

Although I came clear with the tests for lungs, liver and bone scans,  the biopsy results bearing the Breast Panel and Ki-67 tests confirmed the 6-cm malignant tumor and several cancer-stricken lymph nodes. The scans could see about 6;  Dr. Diaz says that there might be more, smaller that the scans cannot see.

I was diagnosed Stage 3A. But hopeful now with a better, perhaps the best, Treatment Plan ahead.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Displaying A Brave Front To Beat Cancer

Displaying A Brave Front To Beat Cancer

In a hurried bid to remove the cancer in my body,  I rushed to decide to go under the knife  on Friday the 13th. Under the "double set-up" or 'frozen section' procedure, the UST doctors explain they'll  take out the 6-cm tumor off my right breast, and while undergoing surgery, the UST Benavides Cancer Institute can do a biopsy right there and then. 

If it is malignant, I am giving consent that they remove the whole organ. 
If it is benign, they just take out the tumor.

I announce to my immediate family and closest friends what I thought was my courageous decision to get the disease out and done with. I timed it to happen within that incoming weekend,  after considering work schedules.

A shower of prayers, biblical passages, positive vibes came forth. 
A friend who just had a cervical cyst removed spoke about the healing of Padre Pio. 
Another friend who has had to survive a stroke offered masses at Christ The King, 
and bought me a jar of herbal supplements.

A close cousin went to pray at Aquinas Healing Chapel. Half-sisters in Cebu sought the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima in Cebu. 

My Beloved's only daughter handed a rosary blessed at the Lady of Manaog.

I don't know how to pray for my situation. I wish I could just ask God for a miracle 
and  make the cancer disappear. Or make it shrink from its 6-cm size so when 
I have to go under the knife, the incision doesn't have to be a long slice. 

While I put up a brave front, meticulously absorbing details from doctors and reads, 
and projecting a cheerful attitude so my beloved, my family and friends keep up with courage, I get to think through at each waking moment, the nagging question of 
how did it happen. And why?

Am I forgetting something? Am I being taught humility?

Have I to slow down, from work and stress? And learn to look at the other purposes 
for which we are here?

Friday, March 13, 2015


Taking Things for Granted

What I thought was a pulled muscle somewhere under the right breast, and took for granted for about 3 months, turned out to be 4 solid lumps that clustered to an aggregate size of 6 cms. It started to feel heavy, even as I sleep on my usual right side.  While bathing, I could get a sense of its hardness. Lately, the right breast has gotten bigger and an oddness over its shape has become apparent. 

My OB-Gyne, who we usually see every April,  but who I summoned on March 3, was alarmed when she examined me.  She suspected the 6 x 6-cm size right away and wrote it in the rush Request Orders for mammogram, sonography and chest X-rays.  

Being a breast cancer survivor herself, she did not mince to emphasise that these tests had to be done that very same day.  

In a couple of hours' time, the UST Hospital Buenavides Cancer Institute released a 2-page report that details the findings for 4 oval dense masses with an aggregate size of 6 cms,  
as my OB-Gyne had earlier suspected. 

The Diagnostic Radiology Unit cited these description:

"Oval isodense masses," meaning solid. 
Fixed non-moving, as my OB-Gyne had earlier suspected.

"Inhomogeneous echopatterns."  To mean not uniform, per Oxford.

"...with irregular margins."  To indicate malignancy, as opposed to when the border linings are smooth characterising benign tumors .

The Report ended with a recommendation for " appropriate action to be taken" and had pushed the alert level by pointing out a 


In pathology medicine, a Grade 1-2 indicates benign. Grade 3 has to be watched. Grade 4 is suspected malignancy. Grade 5  is worst in the scale.

I had long thought of myself as a healthy person. I watch what I eat. I keep meat under 
30% of my food intake. I do Zumba regularly.  I lead a physically active life. I travel. 
I read.  I explore. I work, and never plan to retire.

I have never been hospitalised, never got sick, I don't smoke and I never learned to drink more than a bottle of beer at any given time in my youth, nor in my recent past. 

In my family, even if my Grandmother suffered from leukemia, there appears no genetic connection to my present condition.

Neither of the three doctors could sufficiently explain why a healthy person could develop cancer. No one knows, perhaps only the Mind of God ( as Stephen Hawkings pointed out.)  

If I had not taken it for granted, if I had just gone to the OB-Gyne the soonest I felt that strain of a pulled muscle which I had so quickly dismissed a few months ago, if I hadn't thought I was in perfect health, maybe the extra cells that grew along the walls of the milk ducts did not have to become abnormal to reach cancer stage, nor could they have multiplied too quickly inside those duct walls. Could I have at the outset  been able to detect that "pulled muscle" feeling as cells abnormally growing IF I  had paid real attention to my body?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Filmmaking With A Mission

The feelings lay buried, unspoken, for many days. I couldn't bring myself to talk about it, not even to my Beloved who contained her uproar while I turned the bedroom into a research den. Nor to the staff who had labored long office hours to put the numbers together, edit-compile reels and print and bind six hard copies of the 100-page Proposal to beat the nationwide deadline.

I refuse to even think about it now. But, it happened again.

Last month, the sponsoring film arm of a major TV Network had called, advising me that the full-length screenplay I submitted had been shortlisted by the Nominating Committee. Because of this, a Sequence Treatment (equivalent to a chapter outline/plot breakdown) was needed for final jury purposes. That same night, I jumped on the keyboard and finished the Treatment within one seating of just a couple of hours. It was easier to deduce that from an already completed screenplay replete with dialogue.

As I pressed the SEND button on the email, the visual design of the film became even clearer to me: the rustic locations in land and sea, the docu-style camera mood and high-contrast tone of lighting, the pockets of action and dramatic pacing, the rhythm of suspense and romance, the mystery of the past era entwined in a paranormal experience of today. I was certain it was going to find its way to the silver screen.

Inspired by true stories, the film proposal entitled LUTANG (meaning, Afloat) is about the contemptuous killings of journalists who are on a crusade exposing the massive corruption in government that has allowed illegal mining and illegal logging by big business and multinational companies. In my country, and in the remotest of our virgin islands, there are over a hundred of these unsolved cases, and the film intends to be an important voice in unraveling the hidden mysteries.

To land a slot among the final 10 winning screenplays didn't only mean recognition for me as a bonafide screenwriter, who would then be capable of getting commissioned to write for local film houses. In addition to the long-term rewards, winning one coveted seat will earn me the prize money: a million pesos seed fund for actual production shoot!

A number of my colleagues had been as confident as myself. Having worked in television for many years, and on this film script for many months, I felt secure it had all the ingredients of a good screenplay worthy to be co-funded and produced by a huge cable channel here that has likened itself to HBO Originals.

I had tossed the script to my peers in the TV/film industry, and they have gone beyond praise, even suggesting character actors in the major roles, and offering locations and post-production facilities for editing and musical scoring --- certain as I was that this was going to be made.

Worse, as industry professionals, we all thought my credentials as an active practitioner and a few calls to network executives would have enough clout to influence the jury.

I was, we were wrong. The screenplay LUTANG (Afloat) failed to capture a slot in the final ten to be endowed with a production seed fund of one million pesos each.

Minutes after receiving the lethal email, I called the competition secretariat hoping to find some clues for my own learning as to why the screenplay was rejected, or who composed the jury, or did it rate even just as a runner-up in the final tally. Was my screenplay too heavy, were they looking for something more entertaining than enlightening? Did they prefer small personal stories rather than something that might spur some controversy of national interest and inspire some action from the youth? Did they want a simpler movie made for TV, and not a full-length picture that will help save the Palawan islands, or the Sierra Madre mountain ranges and the aboriginal tribes being driven away from their ancestral lands in order that foreign investments can pluck and yank the minerals underneath?

The program manager on the other line was deft in saying they couldn't divulge any more information than the list of winners contained in the email. She went on to say Thank You for participating and the standard line 'hope to see you next year'.

As I hanged up, all my hopes for the film shut down. I went over the script a few more times that day, and every day there after. And in each time, I felt I had done it its best: there was nothing more I could have done better character-wise, content-wise, story-wise.

A journalist friend of mine who has a huge interest on the subject of murdered journalists and broadcasters, once told me that TV professionals such as myself must refrain from entering open scriptwriting competitions for the sheer fact that like any other writing contest, works are judged subjectively by a jury that might be inept to the purposes of 'filmmaking with a mission' and can not therefore be measured on their entire merits.

Now in hindsight, I feel I should have listened to him.