Life… As I Knew It

On December 15, 2019, I sent a message to a select group of people. It said:

“Eight days ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I have a tumor on my right breast that, after going through a Core Needle Biopsy, was confirmed to be malignant.

I have been undergoing different procedures in Asian Breast Center since the beginning of the month, and I intend to continue having their clinic take care of me as my condition progresses. I am currently waiting for the results of my Breast Panel, which will tell us what the subtype of my cancer is. In turn, the subtype will allow my doctors to determine the treatment needed post-op.

Although there is no date yet, I am scheduled to under a Lumpectomy + Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy + Axillary Lymph Node Dissection soon. I am not depressed and I am trying my best to not be unnecessarily stressed. But I would like to think that my husband and I are taking it well, considering all things.”

It was strange, when I think about it. Prior to that, life was normal – I went to work, did my job, hung out with my husband and my friends. We were looking forward to the holidays because we were thinking of going to the province to be with his family and escape the drama which comes with mine. All I needed to do at that time was survive a couple of session days and Corplan. Then I could rest.

One Saturday changed all that.

It began with a consultation with an OB-GYN (my Ortho’s wife, since I didn’t have a regular one). I told her I had a lump in my breast and I honestly didn’t know what I should be doing about it. When she checked it, one look on her face told me that it probably wasn’t the best idea, waiting for so many months before finally going to the doctor. I went in for a consultation and ended up getting an ultrasound before we left. She, my now-OB-GYN requested for a rushed reading, bless her heart, told me to pick up my results on Monday, and go straight to Dra. Alonso, who was a surgeon. She did say that I was probably going to need a biopsy.

So Monday came. November 25th. I remember all the dates so clearly through all of this. The plan was to pick up my ultrasound results, have my consultation with Dra. Alonso, and then head to the office to attend Mancom. All I had asked for was the morning off. It was supposed to be another normal day.

Then I saw the results of my ultrasound.

BI-RADS 5. Highly suggestive of malignancy. Almost certainly cancer, appropriate action should be taken.

And there it was, in black and white. CANCER.

I never made it to the office that day. For the first time in a really long while, I felt afraid. And not your normal “OMG-I-have-session-tomorrow-I’m-scared-I’m-going-to-bomb” kind of afraid. In recent years, so many people we knew were diagnosed with cancer. I always thought that it was so much common now than it was before. But I never thought that it would be so common and I would have it.

I had my first biopsy the same day I got my ultrasound results. The lab said it usually took them 10 to 14 days to release the results, but I that I would probably get it earlier since my doctor had asked them to rush it. So much rushing. Looking back now, there were so many signs.

I was never sit-around-and-do-nothing-while-waiting type, so I looked up BI-RADS 5 as soon as I could (I’m purposely leaving out all the moments that I cried, but there several of it). That’s how I found out that having that category meant that I had a 95% chance of malignancy. I told some people at that point – some opted to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, some opted to focus on the 5% chance that I would be cleared. But I knew it then – without the results, without anyone telling me – I knew it my heart I had cancer.

When my biopsy results came out it said that I had “hemorrhagic smears”. My husband, bless his heart, held on to that. I knew he was hoping against hope that it meant I was cleared. I tried to believe that, but I didn’t. Dra. Alonso, thankfully, went out of the country the following week, so I took it as an opportunity to get a second opinion. So I switched doctors and found myself in Asian Breast Center.

I LOVE Asian Breast Center. I love it so much that I will probably write a separate post just for that. For now, though, let me finish my story.

ABC works fast. As in fast. As in the first time I was there (this was December 3rd), Dr. Norman went through my entire medical history, gave me a bedside ultrasound (where I found out that the mass on my breast – we all still referred to it as a “mass” at this point – was NOT 2 cm. It was BIGGER.) and had me undergo my first mammogram in my life. I was also told to come back the following day to undergo a Core Needle Biopsy.

Core Needle Biopsy. New term. Sounded scary, so of course I looked it up. I found out it was a procedure that would allow them to take tissues samples from my mass using a REALLY BIG NEEDLE. ABC was kind enough to give pre- and post-biopsy instructions, which freaked me out more because now it sounded really complicated and serious. I also found out that I needed a sports bra, which caused additional stress because… well, do I look like someone who owns a sports bra?

Anyway, so Core Biopsy day came. I met Dra. Buenaflor (now forever known as Dra. Tisay), my Radiologist. She explained the procedure to me and my husband. Then they started prepping me and I knew there was no turning back. As it turns out, my mass was vascular – meaning it was wrapped in veins. When my first biopsy was done, my then-doctor opted to do it by feel. She hit the veins, not the mass, which would explain the hemorrhagic smears. It took Dra. Tisay a bit of time to find the right angle for the needle guide. She explained that the needle guide was put in place so that when they inserted the needle gun, they were sure to get samples each time. So she found her angle and we began.

The Core Needle Biopsy was not as painless as the Fine Needle, even with the anesthetics that they applied. It begins with a small incision – just 3mm – for the needle guide to go into. Right before the cut was done, I was told that I was going to feel a mosquito bite. When it happened, the only thought in my head was “that must have been the biggest fucking mosquito on the face of the earth.” But then the anesthetics were applied and so I went back to not feeling anything. Three samples were taken. The first was painless. The second felt like it was compensating for the fact that I didn’t feel anything during the first. The third was anticlimactic since the previous one hurt so bad. But after that, things went pretty fast. Soon I was being cleaned up and was helped into my newly-bought sports bra.

Going through Core Needle meant no excessive weight on my right arm. I had to sleep with sports bra on for a day and had to ice it over the succeeding ones, but that was mostly it. I was just getting used to getting it back to normal when, on December 7, I got a message from Dra. Tisay asking if she could call.

December 7th was a Saturday. I knew she didn’t have clinic hours in ABC on Saturdays, so I knew what it meant: my biopsy results had come in.

“I got the report from pathology already,” she said. “It’s a confirmed malignancy.”

And just like that, my mass was now a tumor and I kissed the 5% chance of being cleared goodbye.

I was 38 years old, happily married to my wonderful husband, with a 10-year career with my current company under my belt… and with cancer. And that… that was the last day of my life as I knew it.

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Happy birthday, Butterfly.

Momma loves you.

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A Rose By No Other Name

To the woman who took me in for four long years… to the woman to whom I never said goodbye when things fell apart…

Thank you.

You took me in without question, just because your son brought me home one day. You washed my clothes, you cooked my meals, you gave me a place to come home to when I had none.

I never took the time to explain how I appeared on your doorstep. Your son, at that time, was kind enough to offer that we share the unit he was staying in. It took many, many weeks before I realized that you were eventually coming to Manila to live there. I wonder if he ever told why there was this random girl staying with him. You never asked. So I never told you. And perhaps I should have.

I had been living in Wack-Wack for most of my uni life. Ran away when I was 19, ended up living in Pasig, shuttling back and forth between Pineda and Kapitolyo. Went back to living in Wack-Wack when that whole chapter of my life ended. That, just like so many, is another story and will be told at another time.

Then I left to live in Binondo. Got myself involved with China Boy and, oh, did he love me. Of all the people that I’ve shared my life with, I don’t think anyone has ever loved me like he did. And he loved me more than I loved him. But I digress. When that chapter ended, I went back to Wack-Wack.

Some time in 2008, I was told that the house I’d been living in since I was 17 was going to be condemned… that it was no longer suitable for living. So my cousin, bless his heart, put me and my aunt in a unit in Ecology village. But my aunt was sick and relished in drama and we didn’t have enough resources to keep her happy in Manila. In the end she opted to go home to the province. It was what she wanted, and so it was what happened. But no one ever asked me what I wanted. No one ever considered what would happen to me. And during those days, I spent majority of my time trying to figure out where to move when the month was up.

It was then that your son showed up. He offered me a place to stay. I met you and your wonderful, wonderful family. And a part of me thought I would stay forever. If not for him, then for everyone else who showed so much kindness to a girl who was no more than a stranger to them.

A space in my heart will always be kept for you – one of the strongest women I have ever met. You were the one who kept your entire family together, even as I watched you, year after year, live a life of quiet desperation. You were gentle and kind and took the time to talk to me. And sometimes you saw through the hurt – and looked right into the eyes of a girl who has almost no memories of her own mother.

When my time with your son ended, I left. It was too difficult being there. There was too much hurt, despite there being very little regret. I moved out without saying a word – made it a point to get all my things when I knew none of you would be home. I made my best friend pick up the remainder of my things because I said I would never go back to the place that had filled me with secrets and lies, with uncertainty and doubt. I became a different person when that chapter closed – I became uncaring. Cold. Angry. Spiteful. Ungrateful. I became the bitch I always said I was. And for that, I am very, very sorry.

I didn’t mean to make you pay for what your son did, but it was too painful to say goodbye. I knew if I saw you again, I would probably end up crying. And, after what happened with your son, I promised myself I would never let anyone see me cry ever again.

But today you’re undergoing an operation and I can’t seem to wrap my head around it. Of all the people who could have diagnosed with cancer, why did it have to be you? You who never did anything but care for other people. You who never asked for anything except for a little bit of time and a little bit of understanding. I have long accepted that life was never going to be fair, but the amount of it sometimes still takes me by surprise.

I realize that you will never get to read this… And it’s alright. Perhaps this is my way of praying that everything will turn out fine. So for all the little talks that we had, for listening to my frustrations, for giving me a sense of freedom, for always being proud of what I have been able to do, for never keeping me in the shadows, and for treating me like a daughter when you had absolutely no reason to… I will always be thankful for the four years that you let me be part of your life. And no matter what happens, you will always be a part of mine.

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