Cancer won’t stop Cathy Nazareno from celebrating Christmas.
It did not stop her last year, when she was first diagnosed in September 2017, with stage 4 colon cancer. It won’t stop her again this year, not even if the cancer recurred, this time as stage 4 liver.
Nazareno, 48, was declared cancer-free April this year—seven months after her stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis, which metastasized in two lymph nodes above the pancreas, in her bones, and in 60 percent of her liver.
Her family was devastated, but not Nazareno. Never her.
Always headstrong and a fighter, she remained optimistic and surrounded herself with everything positive. She calmly accepted her fate—“What can I do?”—and surrendered everything to God.
“I said, ‘Lord, bahala ka na sa akin,’” she admitted.
Since her cancer’s location was hard to pinpoint—it was underneath a non-cancerous cyst—Nazareno had to undergo three colonoscopies and two biopsies last year.
As treatment for her late-stage colon cancer, she endured 54 hours of chemotherapy every two weeks for a total of 12 chemotherapy sessions, requiring her to stay in the hospital for three days each time.
(She also sees a complementary medicine doctor in Binondo every week, and takes herbal teas prescribed by the Chinese doctor.)
“Whatever happens to me is God’s will. If He wants me to die, that’s fine. I don’t want to be depressed. I want to enjoy whatever time I have left,” Nazareno said.
“Stage 4 for me was just a number. I’ve had a lot of things happen in my life, that I realized ‘problem’ is not even a part of my vocabulary.”
Nazareno is a busy woman. She is with the Asian Football Confederation, Fifa. She represents athletes and organizes tournaments. And she manages a production company with Ogie Alcasid.
She was in remission for six months when, last October, she started losing weight again. Her gut feel told her the cancer might be back. She took some tests, and she was right. This time the cancer was in her liver, stage 4, with some tumors also found in her bones and lungs.
Doctors told her they couldn’t remove the mass. Her liver cancer was geographically inoperable. There were simply too many veins in the area. The only way to go was a new round of a stronger cocktail of chemotherapy sessions, 54 hours each time.
“I’ve accepted my fate. Okay, what are we gonna do? If I dwell on the problem, will it make me better? No. If I focus on what needs to be done, then I think I’m gonna get better,” she said.
Her mom, businesswoman Vicky Amalingan-Sales, wanted to postpone Christmas last year, following Nazareno’s diagnosis. Christmas in their household has always been a big deal.
“But Cathy said, ‘Mom, do it for me. The more the whole family must have the festivities,’” Sales said.
“I told my family, ‘You cannot be depressed,” said Nazareno. “If you get depressed, I will be depressed. Negative na lahat ’yan. Mom, you have to have a tree, the more we need to enjoy Christmas. You have to live like it’s your last day.”
So Sales got busy setting up the family’s 16-foot Christmas tree and home decor: “It was a mixture of traditional and contemporary theme.”
This year, a contemporary tree standing 18 feet tall, made of round stainless steel, greets visitors to the household.
Sales also selected pieces from her vast driftwood collection and started turning them into intricate holiday decor. She got so busy this year, she also made the Christmas trees of two hotels, New World and Grand Hyatt Hotel.
“In anything, I always pray for strength,” said Sales. “Lord, what else can I do? My greatest fear now is, my God, what if I lose my kids? They are part of me, my most treasured.”
Another daughter, Rita, also had stage 2 breast cancer.
“It’s difficult for any mother to see her children sick,” Sales said. “I’ve been praying hard. I’ve asked friends, priests, brothers, nuns, the whole congregation to pray.”
Sales made a deal with the ever-so-busy Nazareno: “I told her, ‘If you tell me you are going to stop working and rest, I will take over all your medications, Ako na bahala.’ In the meantime, I made sure she was resting and had everything. She said, ‘Mommy, paano na pag walang-wala na kayo?’ Then I will sell whatever I can sell gumaling lang kayo, mabuhay lang kayo.
“I lifted everything to the Lord,” Sales said. She keeps herself busy, sitting on the board of six universities, and devoting her time to varied foundations. “It’s a very good way of giving back. The Lord has given so much to us.”
Nazareno has yet to shed a tear since she was first diagnosed. “It’s an opportunity for me to grow and do something better, that’s my outlook,” she said. “I know this second diagnosis is a part of the healing process, and it’s still part of a miracle.”
She describes getting cancer as a blessing. Without it, she said, she probably wouldn’t be as close to her family.
“I never used to see them as often,” said Nazareno. “We gelled as a family. Even my ex-husband (Dicky Rivilla) is part of the equation again. My ex-husband and my live-in partner (Chuck Severino), we decided to become a family. Everyone came together. There’s forgiveness.”
Nazareno has been very prayerful, describing herself as more spiritual now: “I have that relationship with the Lord. You have to live your faith when you pray. You pray and you thank Him.
“Don’t dwell on the cancer, focus on the healing. You have to have faith and a thankful heart; those two are the most important things in life.”
Her daughter Kitkat, 22, volunteered to help her out in the business, allowing her more time for rest. She has two other daughters, Franky, 26, and Reese, 18.
She has also hired help so that when she wakes up, food is ready. Before cancer, she normally ate once a day, and only when she remembered.
“This second diagnosis has been difficult for me,” said Sales. “But if God was able to give me a miracle, if it’s no longer her time, then it’s His call. It’s always the Lord’s call. What else can we do? What I can do is to continuously have a close-knit family.”