I call you this, because that’s what we are, united in experiencing—and standing up to—this challenge.
In ICanServe, the foundation that helps Filipino breast cancer survivors and which I have been a part of since my diagnosis in 2013, new members are welcomed into “a sisterhood like no other.”
It’s not a group for which members are actively recruited; we do not want our numbers to increase, not by a long shot. But they do.
More Filipino women are getting breast cancer. But more are also strengthened by the encounter, and emerge as survivors.
With the Philippines having one of the highest incidences of breast cancer in Asia, and one in 13 Filipino women statistically determined to be diagnosed, I’m addressing a whole bunch of you.
After my own experience as a breast cancer survivor, losing friends to this struggle, and meeting so many others who have come through, all I can tell you is this: you cannot give up.
Not when you first learn of it and feel terrified for yourself and for those you love; not when the chemotherapy makes your head spin and your skin burn; not when radiation pushes you to a level of exhaustion you never thought possible; not when you lose sleep from the anxiety that you cannot afford treatment. You cannot give up.
To my fellow survivors, who kicked cancer’s ass 20, 15, 10, or as in my case, five years ago—thank you for the guidance. Thank you for showing me how much more meaningful life can become. Thank you for being one with me in the diminished but still omnipresent worry that the disease may return, but knowing that if we beat it once, we will beat the crap out of it again.
To those for whom the cancer already recurred, who flicked it away like a pest or crawled their way through the second round, or are still doing so—that’s a double salute.
I guess there’s nothing like understanding the “scanxiety” when check-up time comes around—because we know, and we don’t want our new sisters to feel like nobody gets it.
To those we have lost—I think of my cousin Mildred, my friend Abby, our sisters Lanie, Patty, Michi, Chinky and others: Your passing has been a sobering reminder that this disease is a sly, malevolent traitor. But you are also now our angels of courage. You went out on wings of faith and ultimate acceptance, and left us in awe.
You may have lost your personal battles, but we’re still fighting the good fight, and you’re right there on the front lines with all of us.
To my newly diagnosed sisters: Breathe. Stay in the moment. Temper your panic for those around you, and think of yourselves, because this is about you.
Establish a clear, strong connection to God, the Universe, whatever you believe in, and make that space your command central, your base of operations. Don’t question His ways; you will find out soon enough that this has happened for a reason.
Find a doctor you are comfortable with, and ask questions; no concern of yours is too small or too silly to address. I have complete faith in Filipino doctors and nurses, as they are among the world’s best.
Don’t be ashamed to ask for the help that you are entitled to, from family, friends and even private and government institutions; with the latter, it may be a tedious process, but they can help, and your life is worth the effort.
Most important, you are not weird or ungrateful if you feel lost, unsettled, and sad even after treatment and remission. Post-treatment depression is real, it happened to me, and it can be addressed, if only more of us acknowledge that it is indeed happening. You cannot give up.
And to you who have been thankfully spared this disease but live in constant fear of it: To be informed and prepared is to be well-armed. Get your regular check-ups, because prevention is key, and early detection can save lives.
Don’t ignore it and hope it goes away. Don’t set it aside because you are afraid of what you will find. Being a warrior begins with looking a worst-case scenario in the face. Don’t pray that God keeps you safe without you going for regular examinations, then blame Him for dumping breast cancer in your lap. We already know He doesn’t work that way.
Since my diagnosis, I have lived by the mantra that everything is a gift. Cancer has taught me so many valuable lessons in life I never would have learned if I did not face the possibility of death, at age 49. I do not recommend that you get cancer to learn them, but being sick sure drove home the point in a swift and spectacular way.
If you’re not quite a “sister,” I hope you never get diagnosed with breast or any other cancer.
Please know, however, that a cancer diagnosis is not automatically a death sentence. You cannot give up.
So to my survivor sisters, thanks for the love, and let’s keep holding hands. It’s been quite a ride so far, and I’m sure it will continue to be!