My head is now covered with hair
LIVIN' & LOVIN' - Tetta Matera () - January 18, 2012 - 12:00am

After months of chemotherapy and weeks of radiation, I am happy to share that the most critical and challenging part of my treatment is over. I still have intravenous medication every three weeks until August and a five-year daily oral medication in support of the chemo and radiation but neither one pose any significant physical side effect. So after six and a half months of intensive cancer treatment, I am ready to regain my physical health beginning right now.

While I had an active participation in determining my treatment protocol, I had no way of predicting with certainty the physical effects the medicines would have on me. Sure, I took every step to prepare — I reviewed medical literature on my condition, I read books written by breast cancer survivors and listened to in-depth accounts of personal friends diagnosed with the ailment but at the end of the day, my experience, just like theirs, would be unique and personal. So from the moment the first drop of chemo medicine entered my system, I surrendered my body to the medication, expecting the worse yet hoping for the best.

Quite honestly, and without sounding arrogant, I had it relatively easy during chemotherapy; I avoided many of the “stereotypical” side effects of breast cancer treatment — nausea, mouth sores, vomiting, extreme fatigue, body aches and dark spots on the skin. I had eight cycles of chemotherapy, with the first four sessions spaced every two weeks and the last four every three weeks. I lost most of my hair including my eyelashes, my nails blackened and I lost my sense of taste for a few days but apart from these and the weakness I felt immediately after each chemotherapy session, I actually felt normal between treatments; I had some discomfort but I slept well most evenings and had no pain whatsoever.

Immediately after my first chemo and carefully understanding my body’s response to the medicines, I developed an exercise routine that gave me focus and purpose while undergoing treatment. Four days after each chemotherapy session, I would either go to The Spa-Rockwell to take the Barre 3 class or walk on the treadmill lent to me by my dear doctor friend, Ome. I also took Ashtanga yoga, a form of exercise I had not tried before. By the sixth day of each cycle, I would alternate all three but run instead of walk on the treadmill for 45 minutes, at a pace slower than my pre-cancer days but fast enough to get a good sweat and cardio workout. A friend of mine from the US who survived breast cancer and who herself was physically active told me that “You could probably keep that pace up until the fourth or fifth session but after that, fatigue just takes over you.” Gladly, I was able to keep up the pace I set for myself until after my last chemo session and boy, did it feel good!

I had a three-week break before I started radiation so I went on a 10-day trip to Tokyo to relax and just let my body rest. When I came back, I returned to exercise, upped my workout and started weight training again. By the end of my 33-day radiation therapy, I was back at the gym six days a week, building up my strength and adding spin class to my weekly routine.

My head is now covered with hair about an inch long, my nails have regained most of their normal color and my taste buds are back in full tasting form. I have lost five of the 11 pounds I gained from bloating caused by the medication and my diminished level of exercise but I am relying on muscle memory to help me lose the last six pounds. I purposely decided not to buy any new clothes during the holiday season, vowing to fit into my Seven for Mankind jeans (my weight gain gauge) again and slink comfortably into some of the fabulous dri-fit minimalist tops and dresses by designer Patrice Ramos Diaz I have yet to wear.

Some women have said to me, “Why do I even have to exercise or eat well when you, who have kept healthy and fit all this time, got breast cancer? Why bother?” I smile and ask them in return, “Can you imagine what it would be like if I didn’t do all those things? I probably would have been miserable, weak and prone to infection the whole time, unable to work or go out. Think of how all that would have affected my family, especially my kids.”

My strong physical condition enabled me to attend several shows during Philippine Fashion Week, go on writing assignments, take care of my kids and our family business, Piadina, have a social life and enjoy several parties over the Christmas season with family and friends. I dealt with my condition responsibly, fighting cancer without sacrificing my quality of life.

People continue to express awe at my “positive” attitude, for not allowing cancer to get the better of me. I always tell them, “What other option do I have? The alternative just doesn’t seem acceptable.” While it is ultimately a choice to be positive, I have much to be grateful for apart from my zeal for healthy living — family and friends showed much love and support, offered encouragement and prayers; some took me out for “dates” while others took turns accompanying me to chemotherapy, making each session as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. In addition, I have a God who I believe will ultimately heal me. I had everything I needed; what reason did I have to feel anything but happy?

I have set some physical goals for myself this year. My friend Ge, an accomplished triathlete, registered me for the 10K run of the Condura Race on Feb. 5 as a New Year’s gift. She also submitted my name for the New York City Marathon scheduled in November; if my name gets picked in the lottery, I will train for a full marathon with her able support, something I never saw myself doing. As soon as my oncologist gives me the A-OK to spend some time under the sun, I will take swimming lessons, too, because for someone who loves the water, I cannot swim for the life of me!

Now more than ever I urge women to take care of themselves, watch what and how much they eat, exercise smartly and have the necessary medical checkups required of them. I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer; had I not been in great physical shape, vigilant and quick to action, my experience would have definitely been different.

A week before I finished radiation, I saw a woman come into the Radiation Oncology Department wearing “Jackie Kennedy” sunglasses, a black three-piece ensemble with fashionable accessories worthy of the runway, a pixie haircut and, best of all, a radiant smile. I couldn’t help myself and said, “You look absolutely gorgeous,” complimenting her. She took off her sunglasses and looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, “I may have breast cancer but it doesn’t mean I cannot look beautiful! ” We high-fived after that and chatted for a while. Sonia Pinto Ner is a successful and renowned writer on Philippine art and culture; at 72 years of age, she has written, edited and collaborated on over 40 books. She has had breast cancer on and off for nine years but continues to live a full and joyful life. She said to me, “The past nine years have been the most productive years of my entire life. Life is good and beautiful, Tetta.” Bravo to this classy, accomplished lady and all the other women out there like her!

Today as I sit and write, chemotherapy seems like a distant memory, an unexpected glitch in what was a somewhat but blessed life. I am due for several checkups next week and a Pet CT Scan in March; I am hoping for a favorable diagnosis but no matter what, like Sonia, I look forward with joyful anticipation to living the most productive years of my life yet.

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