Liezl on her personal cancer treatment
Rosalinda L. Orosa (The Philippine Star) - August 12, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines -  Looking at the luminous beauty of Anna-Lissa “Liezl” Sumilang-Martinez, one would dare not imagine that she was twice afflicted with the dreaded big C. The unica hija of Amalia Fuentes and better half of Albert Martinez was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. In 2011, her breast cancer recurred and metastasized to her left lung.

Fast forward to 2013. Liezl, 46, is now a picture of bliss. She looks several years younger with her soft and supple skin, bouncy hair and bright eyes that glow every time she talks about how she’s enjoying life after cancer.

“I just enjoy life. I would do whatever I could do now. I became so daring, daring in the sense that I’ve done bungee-jumping, scuba-diving, next na yung skydiving,” says the mother of three, who is also a member of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB).

Liezl was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 following a breast exam ordered by Dr. Judy Fuentes, her obstetrician-gynecologist at The Medical City (TMC). Liezl says she did not have any symptoms but since her doctor said women aged 40 and above should undergo breast exams yearly, she underwent the test.

Subsequent tests revealed that Liezl had breast cancer and that it was already Stage 3. She underwent mastectomy and an intense chemotherapy regimen with her oncologist Dr. Alan Paul Olavere. After the chemo, she had 33 days of radiation therapy.

“I lost my hair, eyebrows, lashes. My skin was ashen in color,” says Liezl, admitting that she cried hard when she lost her hair. 

“When you think about it, you might say, it’s just hair. But when you wake up in the morning, when you look at yourself in the mirror, you’ll see that you’re losing hair and that serves as a big reminder that you have cancer,” she says, “no matter how hard you’ve tried to carry on, or even if you have stuffed your bra to look as normal as possible.”

She had just recovered and regained her crowning glory when in July 2011, she had a cough that wouldn’t go away. She went to Dr. Liza Garcia, her pulmonologist at TMC, who ordered some tests which showed that she had fluids in her lungs. When the fluids were drained from her lungs, the diagnosis confirmed that Liezl’s cancer recurred and had metastasized to her left lung. It was Stage 4. “I thought I was okay and then it happened. It was much more painful and harder to accept,” she confesses. What kept her going was the support of her husband and three kids, Alyanna, Alfonso and Alissa.

Liezl relates that for three years, she believed she was doing all the right things for her health. “I was drinking Guyabano juice every day. We bought an alkaline machine for our water. I ate organic foods. Things like that and then it happened again,” she says.

It was through her stepfather, Joey Stevens, that Liezl learned about Dr. Samuel Bernal and stem cell therapy (also called stem cell treatment).

Dr. Bernal is one of the most respected figures in the fields of Medical Oncology and Regenerative Medicine. He is the consultant and adviser of the Institute of Personalized Molecular Medicine (IPMM) at TMC which opened in July 2012. IPMM is a specialized unit that offers a range of clinical and laboratory services in molecular and cellular therapeutics, including molecular profiling and stem cell therapies for patients. It was established to expand TMC’s Regenerative Medicine program which started in 2004.

Dr. Bernal working with attending oncologist Dr.  Olavere, recommended stem cell therapy and chemotherapy with molecular profiling for Liezl. She says at that time Albert decided for her. The next day, she was wheeled in to the Regenerative Medicine Department to undergo leukapheresis, a laboratory procedure where stem cells are removed from the peripheral blood stream and stored for future use. This was the initial stage for Liezl’s stem cell therapy.

Liezl had molecular profiling to identify genes and other biomarkers of disease to predict a patient’s response to treatments.  According to Dr. Bernal, molecular profiling is based on the belief that since no two individuals are the same and no two cancers are alike, cancer treatment plans shouldn’t be either. Based on the information gathered from a patient’s tumor, doctors are able to identify the appropriate therapies that target the biomarkers within an individual patient’s cancer cells. Understanding the biomarkers found in a patient’s tumor can also spare patients from receiving cancer therapies that are less likely to be effective and from experiencing unnecessary side effects from treatment. This targeted approach helps spare healthy cells and causes less severe side effects than conventional chemotherapy. Just like other treatments for cancer, combination therapies give the best results in achieving remissions. 

“I told Dr. Olavere, I didn’t want to lose my hair again. I also didn’t want to do the chemo we had the last time because if it did not work the last time, why would we do it again,” Liezl shares as she recalls how depressed she was at that time.

Liezl had five cycles of chemotherapy and six sessions of stem cell or dendritic cell therapy vaccine. Dendritic cell therapy employs specialized immune cells found in the blood stream to recognize the patient’s own cancer cells, seek these out and destroy them. She describes her treatment plan as more personalized, especially with her molecular profiling.

Without it, Liezl believes she might have undergone the same standard treatment for cancer patients. 

“This time I didn’t lose my hair. I didn’t feel weak. I was still going to work and people at MTRCB only knew about my treatment when it was over.”

Liezl went into full remission after her fifth cycle of chemo and sixth stem cell injection in September 2011. “I believe it is because of molecular profiling and stem cell therapy,” she claims. However, she is quick to point out that stem cell is not a guaranteed cure for everything. “Nowadays, stem cell clinics are mushrooming here and there like shawarma stalls. Stem cell works, especially if you go to a reputable hospital and a reputable doctor like The Medical City and Dr. Bernal.”

She says it’s worth mentioning that TMC only makes use of stem cells from three sources — bone marrow, peripheral blood and umbilical cord blood and does not use animal stem cells in treatments.

“I’ve learned that the safest and most effective cellular preparations are those that use my own cells and definitely, I wouldn’t allow sheep or any animal stem cells in my body,” says Liezl.

The former child actress says she has so much energy which allows her to accomplish a lot of things. She travels every month for work and for leisure. Her friends noticed, too, that she looks a lot younger now. 

There are offers for her to appear in a teleserye. Although she is satisfied with her work at the MTRCB, Liezl says she is not closing her door to these offers. “I’m happy with MTRCB, I’m busy there and I am very passionate with what I’m doing. TV guestings would be okay,” she says.

Surviving cancer twice has given this radiant woman a new zest for life.

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