The problems started last year November when I noticed blood mixed with my mucus and continued into December with a headache that lasted a month, which would prevent me from getting any sleep whatsoever. I checked in with an ENT for my nose problem and a neurologist for my headaches; both had me do tests. The results coincidentally came out on the same day (a mere two days after Christmas) AND had the same results. It had been discovered that there was a tumor growing in my face, and not only that, it was malignant and a rare cancer in what was generally accepted to be its third stage. I was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma– a type of cancer normally found in muscles. My tumor grew from the top of my right nostril, behind my eye and touched part of my brain.
This struck me hard; no one ever expects to be diagnosed with something like cancer at all! At the age of 22, when most of my peers were out there enjoying their youth and celebrating their graduation; I had to restrict myself and come to terms with my own mortality for peace of mind. In essence I had accepted the fact that I may very well die in the months ahead.
Now most might believe that getting the diagnosis was bad, but I beg to differ. Ask anyone who has experienced the waking nightmare that is chemotherapy, how you go in knowing only the common side effects such as balding and nausea but never fearing the creeping numbness in your fingers and toes, the loss of sense of taste or the insomnia. They don’t tell you how the constant insertion of the IV needle would whittle away your veins to the point that they would agonizingly turn you into a human pin cushion in the attempt to properly give you the medicines. Medicines that not only kill the cancer cells but everything other fast growing cells in your body, leaving you weaker and weaker with every passing cycle. Then if you’re as lucky as I was, you would be subjected to the living hell that was radiation therapy wherein depending on your location you would receive different kinds of side effects (mine was done on my head and neck so naturally I lost my sense of taste, my ability to produce saliva and for a good three weeks the ability to even swallow). The best part was when you learn that these treatments leave you with a small percentage (1% or less) of getting a secondary cancer later on. The percentage may not be high but the fact that getting Rhabdomyosarcoma is around the same odds leave me a bit concerned. At least I didn’t need surgery.
You end up losing more and more of yourself as the days go by. Slowly your perspective changes, you resent things more, you question pre-conceived notions of your life and you end up bitter and cynical – after all, who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t question God for giving them or allowing them to have cancer? Who wouldn’t question the existence of a god when after years of prayer, worship and obedience to his rules you are “gifted” with something that will kill you? I know I did. In the end you are left alone with nothing more to comfort you than the knowledge that you have a higher chance of dying compared to a normal person, an insurmountable feeling of loneliness and questions asked to a silent, uncaring and seemingly non-existent god.
All of these things would combine into things that are a lot more unbearable; fear, a feeling of isolation, anger. However, this is just the struggle with one’s self. As I carried on, I have met a myriad of people who have reacted in many ways. There are some who truly care for me and are with me every step of the way, holding my hand and keeping me company, yet never truly being able to fathom my suffering. There were others who would claim that they care but in the same breath would betray me through their actions which they have deemed justified. There were those who completely cut off all relations with me chiefly because they didn’t know how to react to it or they didn’t want to deal with such a depressing scenario. And there were the ones I have forgotten, the other victims.
The entire time I was hitting rock bottom, I had completely forgotten the other cancer victims. Yes, I still stand by my statement that no one can fathom how I suffered. This is true. Everyone reacts uniquely to any given stimuli – it is known. I had been flung alone into my own personal hell, but all the others have been in hell as well. Some may have come back; some may have stayed but fought like crazy in an attempt to escape, yet they all had been to hell nonetheless. In my experience, I had met two survivors who had given me sage advice which had kept me moving on, despite the hardships. And it is the same advice I would share with you in the hopes that you may bring this to people you know who have this illness and may have seemingly lost all hope in an attempt to make sure that they survive.
Both had told me to focus less on the grand scheme of things and to focus more on the day to day. I would have to force myself to eat no matter what, they said. If I were to vomit, I was to try again until it stays. After all, what would the body use to recreate the cells lost during chemotherapy if the basic fuel needed to stay alive is lacking? Both had told me to focus less on the illness and more on life. Cancer today isn’t as ominous as before. The advances in science and technology have been able to prove that it can be beat. Think of it more as a slight bump on the road or a cold that will eventually pass. Both had told me to give a reason to stay alive a lot longer, for it is the urge to see that reason pull through that will keep my will to fight strong. Both had told me to remember to laugh, after all it is not cancer that kills, it is the depression and loss of all will to live that does. Both had told me to pray. Both had told me to adjust for life long changes. Changes like how I would live my life after the fight is over, what to eat, what to avoid and the like. Both had never said ‘if’, it was always a ‘when’.
That was when the change began. At first it had taken some time before their advice would sink in and a longer time for it to sound applicable to my situation. Their positivity rubbed off on me and soon I was making even the simplest of messages my mantra. “When this is over, I will do that” I would say to myself, with a strong emphasis on when, if there was something I wanted to do. As the days breezed by, I would sometimes stop and realize that the end is almost in sight, that I have been able to live so far, that there was still a chance. Then I looked at the two who had talked to me and realized that they had it a lot worse but despite all odds, they survived too. That was when I knew that I WILL survive this and no man, institution or god can stop me. It is nothing short of an honor for me to be able to call these people, all cancer victims in fact, as my brothers and sisters.
It is then with this article that I would like to close my long, strange and arduous trip for merely a week before this publication’s release I had my last session of chemotherapy. I may have spent many nights crying myself to sleep or wishing nothing but the sweet embrace of death, but there were much more days where I decided to carry on with nothing but the promise of a day yet to come where things would go back to normal. I beg of you dear reader, to pass on the essence of hope to those who you know are suffering, be it from cancer or any terminal illness for it is this hope that keeps them alive.
I would like to end this article by dedicating this article first to the two survivors: Carlos Pedrosa (Lymphoma, Stage IV), Jose Santiago (Nasopharyngeal Cancer, Stage IV), and to the rest of my brothers and sisters; those who are still with us: Grace Pacis (Cervical Cancer), Kattie Nomorosa (), Vianna Gabrielle Avanzado (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia), Aurea Francia (Colon Cancer), Shiela Torralba (Osteosarcoma), Miguel de Lira-Lopez (Sinonasal Adenocarcinoma), Laura de Lira-Lopez (Thyroid Cancer), Hedy Sarrosa (Folicular Thyroid Cancer), and those who are not: Ada Martinez (Acute Myeloid Leukemia).