Last Sept. 23 to Sept. 25 brought some proud moments for the local breast cancer community of survivors, advocates, and experts, as the Philippines, specifically the ICanServe Foundation, hosted the Southeast Asian Breast Cancer Symposium (SEABCS) for the first time. Although it was primarily a virtual conference that drew attendees from several countries, and for which people could register for free, some speakers and delegates still showed up in person at the Seda Hotel in Taguig for discussions on relevant topics, from the latest medical developments and the food we eat, to improving patient happiness and managing advanced stage cancer. The theme: “Designing a better future for the global breast cancer community.”
As a nine-year breast cancer survivor and ICanServe member, I was privileged to be part of a closing panel on “Stories of Hope” with four other women, as well as our gregarious moderator, Bibeth Orteza. I spoke about mental health and breast cancer, but it would be a shame not to share my fellow survivors’ inspiring journeys. I hold them all in the highest esteem.
Sheilla Gagui: ‘We can come back stronger’
Our “youngest” member is Rachel Sheila Gagui, 41, a housewife, mother of two and a dazzling triathlete—by that, I mean she’s drop-dead gorgeous, is also a gymnast, and knocks down Ironman races like nobody’s business.
It was May 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. “It was like my world fell apart when I found out, because I was at my fittest when I was diagnosed; I had just finished my Full Ironman at Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, in 2019, and was training for a back-to-back Full Ironman and the Berlin Marathon for 2020. Plus, I never got sick.”
Of course she asked, “Why me?” But even then, this fighter knew, “I could beat this, and I was going to do so with a good attitude. I stayed strong for myself so I could stay strong for my kids and husband. I knew that there would be a good outcome for all this.”
Sheila actually breast-fed her kids until the age of 2, and even donated breastmilk to hospitals and friends. “I remember bringing my breast pump everywhere, even if I was doing a 200-kilometer bike ride! If I wanted to continue my triathlon, I had to continue being a mom to my kids.” Her husband’s dad had passed away of pancreatic cancer in 2017, so her family was actually terrified—but she told them, “It’s not as if we can’t beat it.”
Sheila had surgery, a mastectomy and chemotherapy. “One of the most difficult parts for me was the drawing of blood every three weeks before and after chemo, because they couldn’t find my veins anymore. Plus, the fatigue sets in; I couldn’t go biking or running with my family because I felt tired easily. It was frustrating.” Dealing with this during lockdown was an even bigger challenge. “You had to take care of your body, plus your mental health, too.”
To motivate herself, Sheila vowed to do a triathlon again after it was over. “Yes, we got sick, but we can come back stronger. We are stronger than we think.” How does she deal with the survivor’s omnipresent reality of a recurrence? “I pray. I work out. My mindset is, if it’s meant to be, it will be. So I’m just doing whatever makes me happy. Happiness is very important. It is the key to a longer life. No negative thoughts.”
Her work now, Sheila says, is to inspire people to get a life after cancer. “You can still get back up and pick up where you left off.”
Which is exactly what she did: After finishing her chemo in Nov. 2020, she ran her first 70.3-km race in March 2022, and has since raced—and placed—in August, September and October. Talk about a strong finish!
Dr. Anna Ong-Lim: ‘My divine appointments’
I first met Dr. Anna Ong-Lim when she gave a Zoom webinar on breast cancer and COVID-19 for ICanServe, at a time when survivors were skipping their checkups and tests, which was leading to higher mortality. The soft-spoken pediatrician and infectious disease specialist based at the Philippine General Hospital is a formidable member of the Department of Health’s COVID Technical Advisory Group and the Inter-Agency Task Force Task Force on COVID-19 Variants.
This 55-year-old wife and mother of four was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2012, after she found a mass in her left breast. “It occupied most of my breast, so I couldn’t distinguish it from normal—an occupational hazard of an AA cup size,” she says with a laugh.
“I keep referring to all of the events leading up to this—dropping by my doctor friend’s clinic, getting the mammogram done—as divine appointments,” Anna says. “I didn’t really plan on scheduling a visit, I just happened to pass by his clinic while making rounds, peeked in, and saw he was free. And the mammogram schedule was fast-tracked by the radiology staff who happened to be the mom of a patient I hadn’t seen in years!”
Being a doctor, she was familiar with cancer—“but this was something that happened to patients, and no one in my family had it. When I came out of my surgeon’s clinic, I remember spending the next few hours in my car in the parking lot; I couldn’t stop crying. My family was starting to wonder where I was because I missed a movie date with them.” So yes, even kick-ass doctors can get shaken.
Chemotherapy was not easy but tolerable, Anna recalls, with “the same issues that most people have to face—loss of appetite, tiredness, occasional mouth sores, hair loss.” For radiation, the drive to the hospital was longer than the actual sessions, she notes. She was also able to access a new drug that wasn’t yet available locally, and acquired a compassionate use permit to obtain the medication.
Anna had to think about my question on coping with the fear of recurrence, she says, “because it’s not something that I even think about now. But the thought that God is in control is the real source of comfort.”
Also, like many survivors, she agrees that the illness has led to “so many gifts! Clarity about my faith, knowing that God is real by experiencing His presence and provision, renewed appreciation for family and friends, figuring out what’s really important to me in my various professional roles—I think I’m more of a teacher disguised as a doctor.”
Marivic Bugasto: ‘Living proof’
Marivic “Ambic” Bugasto is a legend of sorts among ICanServe sisters, mainly because she has been living with Stage 4 breast cancer since 2007. You would never have guessed, except for her slower movements when her back occasionally hurts due to compromised bones.
At 64, she remains active, positive, bubbly, wise, and an inspiration to the members of the Baguio-based support group Minda’s Buddies, of which she is president “until death,” she says with her contagious cackle. A widow with two children (although she lost her son in 2014) and four grandchildren, Ambic was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in June 2005, and in her own words, “upgraded” to Stage 4 with bone metastasis in 2007.
“I was so sad,” she recalls of the initial news. “I had all these grim thoughts of dying. I was worried about my dad and younger sister, as I was caregiver to both.” Her father died in 2011 of lung cancer, and she is still caregiver to her sister Issa, who has special needs.
The bilateral mastectomy was “depressing,” Ambic recalls, and the subsequent total hysterectomy “made me feel really physically mutilated, leaving me with a false sense of shame over losing my femininity.” She found her motivations to go on, however.
“First was family responsibility. I had my own children and grandchildren, and felt they still needed me. Second, the seeds of advocacy were planted in me when I attended the first Patient Empowerment Seminar hosted by ICanServe and Avon in September 2006.”
Since then, she has been a favorite speaker at such events, with her unstoppable humor and a big smile. When I first met Ambic at Silver Linings, an ICanServe gathering, in 2018, we were giggling like schoolgirls despite being onstage for a serious discussion. I’ve called her my “lodi” (idol) ever since.
To feel less anxious about recurrence, Ambic immerses herself in her faith community, Sacred Heart Community-Baguio, and in work for breast cancer awareness. “Most important, I try my best to be compliant with all the advice of my medical team—well, ‘try’ is the word,” she says, with another cackle.
“To me, cancer is and will always be part of who I am,” she said in a speech at the SEABCS event. “Today, it still reminds me of my own mortality. On the other hand, it remains a gift that allows me fresh eyes to determine what is trivial and what really matters.”
Her advice to women: “To take their breast health care to heart. To be aware of how their breasts feel and look, so that even the slightest change should cause them to see the doctor. To take care of their breasts the way they do their face and hair. Early detection is the best protection.”
For the newly diagnosed: “Cancer is beatable. A lot of women are beating cancer and living longer. They should not ignore how they feel—cry, scream, curse and laugh when they need to. They are not alone in the journey, but should learn to pray harder.”
“I thought I was a goner, and if you would have seen me then, you too would thought that my chances of survival were slim to nil,” Ambic said in her speech. “Yet I am here before you today, living proof that miracles can and do happen every day.”
Nikoy de Guzman: ‘Cancer never had me’
That’s the mantra of the 48-year-old president of ICanServe: “I had cancer, but cancer never had me.” After all, the disease tried twice: first when she was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer at age 28 and had a modified radical mastectomy of the left breast in October 2002, and next when she found another lump on her remaining breast in 2015.
“Not knowing whether it was benign or malignant, I took a leap of faith and decided to have another radical mastectomy. It was a good decision, because that lump turned out to be malignant. So, from a single daughter who became a single-breasted single mom with a single child, I’m now a fabulously flat, fierce fighting mommy with a fantastic son!” Aside from being mom to Yahu, she still handles her family’s franchises of several food outlets in Manila.
“Since I’m already the third generation in my family to be diagnosed with breast cancer, it wasn’t that big a shock,” Nikoy recalls, “and it wasn’t so hard to accept. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even cry the whole time I was at Makati Med. The second time around, I simply said, so it’s back. Time to fight, because I’m winning this battle again. Sorry, cancer, you picked the wrong girl to mess with, because she ain’t giving up.”
The only time she did cry after the first diagnosis was when she saw the then 10-month-old Yahu at home. “He was actually the one who accidentally kicked me in the breast, and it was so painful I almost dropped him, which in turn prompted me to see my doctor.”
If there’s one thing breast cancer taught her, Nikoy says, it’s this: “Life is short, and in my case I think it’s even shorter, so make the most of it while you’re still alive!”
In July 2008, Nikoy tried out Bikram yoga; with her ballet and gymnastics background, she decided to enroll in a nine-week extensive teacher training course in Los Angeles, California. Now a certified Bikram yoga teacher and studio director of Bikram Yoga Quezon City, she also teaches Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors, Kids Yoga, and Chair Yoga, is a Zumba instructor, a Pound Pro, a Nirvana Fitness Instructor and a Restorative Yoga Teacher. Oh, and she got certified in makeup artistry, both conventional and air-brush makeup. Whew.
“There certainly is life after cancer,” Nikoy stresses. “Why be sad or losyang just because you have cancer? It’s actually a chance to begin again, reestablish yourself, something like a rebirth. I just live each day to the fullest, and continue to be the best mom, managing director, dancer/choreographer, makeup artist, yoga teacher, fitness instructor and breast cancer advocate that I can be. I strive to embody Proverbs 31:25—‘She is clothed in strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.’”
After each class she teaches, Nikoy, who now sports a funky buzz cut with changing patterns, leaves her students with another favorite quote: “Dance as though no one is watching you, love like you’ve never been hurt before,
sing as though no one can hear you and live as though heaven is on earth.”
“You Can Do This,” ICanServe Foundation’s new breast cancer patient manual, can be downloaded for free at tinyurl.com/mtj6exm9.