Bald at the ball
LIVIN' & LOVIN' - Tetta Matera () - August 24, 2011 - 12:00am

I had a coming-out of sorts last week when I debuted my new bald look in public at the Philippine Fashion Ball held at the Manila Peninsula. People who didn’t know me very well and didn’t know of my condition; they actually thought I was making a fashion statement. I guess I was, in a way, making a statement but definitely not a fashion one: it’s a life statement. You see, I have breast cancer.

Yes, I — the woman who at 46 was at her optimum fitness level; the one who took exercise seriously and worked out six times a week; the one who shuns fast food and eats as healthy as possible; the one who never smoked and never took drugs; who only drinks wine or champagne on occasion’ the person who sleeps eights hours a night and gets regular medical checkup; yes, I have been diagnosed with Stage Three A breast cancer.

The lump came out of nowhere, like a pimple that appeared overnight; after a daily self-examination, I felt it on my right breast on May 8, Mother’s Day (ironic, I would say). I had just gotten a mammogram and ultrasound in March and while my breast doctor noticed some calcification, she didn’t show any concern. “It could be a sign of pre-menopause,” she said. “The spots are too miniscule to biopsy so let’s just move up your next mammogram to September in six months so we can monitor it closely,” she added. It turns out I only had to wait two months for the tumor to manifest itself.

That’s what friends are for: Jing Monis, Jackie Aquino, Bea Recto, Gem Padilla, Izza Gonzalez-Agana, Lou Bunyi, Annette Coronel, Myrza Sison, author Tetta Ortiz-Matera, Des Verdadero Riana Matera, Sarah Jane Paez; (seated) Patty Betita, Randy Ortiz, Marina Benipayo, Tina Maristela-Ocampo, Suyenne Chi-Sia and Cheng Bernardez-Lucas all came to show their love and encouragement.

May 8 was the beginning of the Philippine Fashion Week and my daughter Riana was appearing in the Bench show scheduled for that day. It was her first official appearance in the Philippine Fashion Week so rather than rain on her parade and tell her that I discovered a lump, I waited several days to go to my doctor for a biopsy so that I could enjoy and watch Riana in all of her shows. For five days, I set aside the issue of the lump and played proud mother to my daughter.

I didn’t tell my husband immediately, either. I figured I’d wait until the result of the biopsy was released so as not to worry him unnecessarily. May 16 came and I went back to my doctor. “The news is not good,” she told me with a sad face. “It’s malignant.” Two words I wasn’t prepared to hear.

I was too numb to cry; I listened without really hearing everything my doctor was saying. So many thoughts were running through my mind and none of them were pleasant. She comforted me and said, “The tumor is small so we caught it early, it is most likely Stage One and highly curable.” I went home and told my husband on Skype; our daughter who sensed something was wrong eavesdropped and heard the news. Dead silence, worn-out faces, sadness, confusion, surprise: just a whole lot of unexplainable mixed emotions overcame us that day. I didn’t have the heart to tell our son so we waited until Giorgio came back.

I spent the next two weeks from my initial diagnosis getting ready for surgery. I had complete blood work done, a chest X-ray and an electrocardiogram (ECG). I went to a cardiologist for a medical clearance for surgery. He was impressed with all my results and told me I was in great shape and good to go for the operation.

I kept my spirits up, continued to exercise and went on with my life as normally as possible. I told very few people then because I didn’t want to make a spectacle of my situation. My husband came back and I had a lumpectomy on June 2, a Thursday. By then I had already accepted my predicament and I went to the operating room at peace with my cancer and myself.

Within a few hours after surgery, in my groggy state, Giorgio told me that my cancer had been re-categorized as Stage Two because it had spread to my lymph nodes.

“Fantastic,” I murmured in my anesthesia-induced stupor. “Don’t worry, it is still highly curable,” my husband added with a brave face, trying to encourage me. What does that even mean, I asked myself before falling back into sleep.

That weekend was nerve-wracking as we waited for the initial pathology report. On Friday night, we got a call from my breast doctor. I listened as Giorgio spewed out, several times, “I understand,” “I see” and “Yes, doctor.” Then came the bomb: “So you found five malignant lymph nodes…” At that point I bawled openly with our daughter and son in the bedroom, unable to contain my grief at the continuously worsening prognosis. In 24 hours, my breast cancer had moved up to Stage 3A.

We wept and wept and wept until there were no more tears to cry. Our 15-year-old Riana, showed maturity beyond her years and put things in perspective. She cried the least and spoke the most, telling us everything was going to be all right with me and that we should take this news for what God had intended, a deeper purpose for our lives as a family. That Sunday, we went to watch Transformers 3 to take our minds off the news. By Monday, I made a resolution to beat my cancer.

Taking center stage: Ronnie Asuncion, first president of Philippine Models Association (PMAP), is honored during the Philippine Fashion Ball with a plaque from PMAP member Jack Mendoza and Tetta Matera, founding member of PMAP.

Sound Body, Sound Mind

Breast cancer does not discriminate. It afflicts women of all ages, shapes, sizes and lifestyle. Each woman’s experience with it — from chemotherapy to its side effects — is different and I will never undermine their challenges and everything that they go through but I cannot begin to tell you how beneficial it has been for me to stay fit and healthy.

I did not have to wait to have my surgery for reasons like hypertension or high blood sugar and the doctors and I were able to plan and schedule my treatment as early as possible after the operation. The day after my surgery I was able to go to our office, have lunch with Giorgio and pick up our children from school. While there was discomfort, I had no pain; this is the same way I felt right after each of my chemotherapies.

The physical stress I endured from my long-distance runs, the discipline and determination I needed to finish the races, the stamina I built up over years of serious workouts, eating well, sleeping enough, not smoking and drinking has enabled me to recover from surgery very quickly and has allowed me to experience (not suffer) the least side effects possible from chemotherapy.

I was mentally prepared for the worst but thank goodness, in all honesty, I can say it was not as bad as I thought it would be. Apart from my severely diminished taste for all kinds of food for about three days after chemotherapy, all other side effects have been very tolerable. In fact, I was able to work out five days after chemo and I continued to exercise until the day before my next treatment. Of course, I’ve had to tone down my exercise routine but I manage to sweat, lift light dumbbells and control my weight, which is key to my treatment protocol.

After the sixth day of chemotherapy, I was able to enjoy dining out with family and friends and the occasional movie when the theaters are not full. I wear a mask for protection when necessary and I listen to my body at all times to make sure I am not tiring myself and exposing myself to infections.

Sound Spirit

Believe me when I say that I am happy, I sleep well every night and I do not have any anger towards anything or anybody despite having cancer. I never once asked God, “Why me?” I am at a time in my life when I believe second-guessing, holding grudges, worrying or being resentful will only make my situation worse; besides looking at all other aspects of my life, I would like to say that I am blessed. “Mind over matter” is something we’re told when we face tough times. The doctors assured me that the treatment I am taking has proven very effective and can cure me; the rest is up to me.

Cancer is a serious illness and I do not take it lightly but I will not dwell on it; I will deal with it. It is no longer an automatic death sentence so I will take advantage of the cure conventional medicine offers. But more importantly, I will wake up every day with a faith and a will to live.

Going to the gym and meeting people on occasion has given me much strength and encouragement. The smiles, the support and words of love I receive are like an elixir, a boost to my treatment. It definitely beats staying at home moping or distancing myself from the outside world and people who genuinely care and love me. I am able to work from the house with today’s technology. I visit our office and eat at our Piadina stores from time to time. My positive attitude and genuine joy has provided much comfort to my husband and our kids; while they understand the gravity of my condition, with my overall outlook, they find reason to believe that I will be healed and live for many years to come.

Feeling and Looking Good With Cancer

I had my long hair cut short a few days after my surgery, prior to a trip to Tokyo. I didn’t want to see my long hair falling during chemotherapy so I prepared myself in advance, slowly. The short style was refreshing and most people liked it and told me to keep it. Just before my treatment began, my closest friends from the fashion industry got together and hosted a dinner for me at fashion designer Randy Ortiz’s house, to show their love and throw their support behind me. It was a beautiful and touching gesture I will never forget.

Living it up at the ball: Hairstylist Jing Monis, couple Giorgio and Tetta Matera in a Jojie Lloren gown and fashion jewelry by Joyce Makitapo; and their daughter Riana in a Rhett Eala creation.

The week after my first chemotherapy, I had my hair buzzed even shorter, pixie-style. After the second chemotherapy, my hair started falling faster than I had expected so I had my hair shaved. Being bald was liberating; it felt good to just let go.

I love my bald look. If it wasn’t for the draft I feel on my naked head in the confines of air-conditioned spaces, I’d go bald everywhere. But since getting the cold or any kind of infection is not an option, I have to cover it most of the time I’m out. I have been able to finally use my “baul-confined” silk scarves to fashionably cover my head. Inside the gym I wear Bench cotton bandanas and outdoors to eat out and meet with friends, I wrap my head in beautiful scarves. I put some pink blush on my cheeks, light shadow on my eyes and bright lipstick on my lips everyday to put a sparkle on my face to match my festive, colored scarves.

Around the time of my diagnosis, a coffee table book on models was in the works and I was asked to be part of it. I initially balked at the idea but over Chinese lunch with Tina Maristela-Ocampo and Cheng Bernardez-Lucas, we all decided to do it together, bald and all. I thought of wearing a scarf for the shoot afraid that people might be put off by my bald head but Tina, Cheng and Izza Gonzalez-Agana who joined us on the day of the shoot along with famed photographer Wig Tysman all told me to lose the scarf and show my bald head proudly. We had so much fun doing the shoot and as my son Sebi said, “Bald is the new sexy, Mama. Rock it!” And that’s what I did!

Over the weeks since my treatment began, more people found out about my condition so I decided to come out at the Philippine Fashion Ball. I didn’t want to shock anyone or be the center of attention, I just wanted to assure everybody that I was feeling fine and battling on with as much grace and elegance, courage and positivity as possible.

I have already had four chemotherapies. I have four more to go. After that I have 33 daily sessions of radiation and a yearlong intravenous medication to be administered every three weeks. It seems a lot to digest but I am ready and more importantly I look forward to being cancer-free. When all this is over, Riana and I are planning to go to the US to visit my girlfriends, one of which just got cured of breast cancer. We will celebrate and be grateful for our new lease on life.

I do not pretend to know everything about breast cancer nor know all the answers to everyone’s questions about the condition; I certainly do not want to impose my personal experience on other women with breast cancer either. What I want is to share hope and encouragement that living a full, happy and productive life does not have to end with having cancer.

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