When the Big C sneaks back
Twink Macaraig (The Philippine Star) - June 28, 2016 - 12:00am

It was like a stalker momentarily staved off by a VAWC-authorized Protection Order only to sneak back 10 years later with designs more sinister than making soup out of my child’s pet. 

It didn’t have the decency to pick up where it left off. It abandoned my chest completely and lodged in my spine, giving me intermittent lower back pains that seemed to be alleviated by hilot. Or a steam bath. Or taking rayuma medication. Or abstinence from yoga, badminton or good sex.

But when cessation ceased to work, I brought the mystery ailment to Dr. Erwin (whom I was due to see anyway for my regular mammogram and ultrasound). Even then, my one intention was to maximize the consultation — the way I use a visit to the dentist to also ask about strange freckles or badger a bridal shower palm reader into giving me lotto numbers. Not for a nanosecond did it occur to me that my back ache could have anything to do with the breast cancer that the annual tests were supposed to be monitoring. 

After all, I had vanquished CA ages ago. I’d sailed through a partial mastectomy and 30 sessions of radiation complaining only that the waiting room TV was always tuned in to an insipid telenovela. After the surgery, I’d carried around that little pouch of pink serum attached to my armpit with such aplomb that strangers assumed it was a new kind of power drink.

At cancer forums where I’d be invited to speak, I always felt secretly sheepish. See, the Big C to me was no big deal, really. Amid others’ moving testimonies about the indomitable human spirit or the power of faith, all I could attribute my defeat of the disease to was a naturally ornery disposition.

Over time, the invitations to talk about cancer dwindled. Over  time, the need to even mention cancer was reduced to that day, once-a-year when I had to repeat it at least a dozen times to the myriad hospital personnel tasked with taking each patient’s medical history.

When did you get your first period?... When was your last period?... Do you smoke?... Drink?... Any members of the family with cancer? ….

 Don’t you want to ask me about my first sexual experience?

 May I extoll the virtues of even a cheap Shiraz as far as enhancing Pinoy fare like adobo or kare-kare?

Can I tell you that my mother had cancer but had other notable attributes, besides?  She was hearty, garrulous, stingy in the extreme. She loved classical music and the lowbrow likes of David Hasselhoff in equal measure. She was a good Catholic, and therefore, somewhat of a bigot.  In UP, she had rejected a suitor because he was an illegitimate child who dared write her love letters on his father’s stationery. (That act or parochialism would be vindicated when the entire country would later come to know him as a bastard in every sense of the word.)

 My mother had breast cancer, as did her sister, Tan, and her daughter, Tintin. My first cousin, Nene, daughter of my mom’s other sister, who’s married to Clarence who’s a Park Ranger ( just like in the Amy Poehler sitcom) does, too. (Incidentally, apart from cancer, we also shared the unfortunate tendency to be mistaken for males on the phone.)   But I think you should know that Mama also had Alzheimer’s disease, which took my feisty, beautiful mother away long before cancer could and death did.

 I could have said this and more. Injected something genuinely personal in my personal records. Intimated that while I had no heart disease, a wound festered there just the same.  I could have elaborated, if only to break the perfunctory-ness of it all. But I didn’t. Because I wanted things to proceed as they always had — eight consecutive hours max from my year to do the whole bit from the HMO to the doctor’s consult to the tests. Ply an all-clear from a Radiology resident. Get home in time for dinner with a celebratory mimosa or three. Wake up at 6 for a run-walk-chika with my neighbor Moi.  Catch my boy Juancho for an air kiss before he went off to school, then go to work, as usual.

The test results were to be relayed via text in two-three days, but there was no doubt they would be positive. Otherwise, there would have been a change, however minute, in the routine, right?  For nearly 10 years, my life hinged on such certainties.

Then, last month, Dr. Erwin said stay.

Tests and still more tests. (Time enough for hubby to show off the underwear trick he devised as an impoverished Filipiniana dancer travelling Europe.)

My grade? 4. As in Stage 4. There is no 5.

Information on metastatic cancer that I could google with the hospital’s patchy Internet had me cycling through all the Stages of Grief at 24-hour intervals.  No sooner would I get to what I thought was Acceptance, when something like a wallet photo of my son as a bugoy four-year-old would send me careening back to Anger again. “Ang daya-daya mo!” I berated the water stain on the ceiling.

I found neither insight nor solace in the online support group that my friend, ICanServe founder Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, had enlisted me in. For the day or two I lurked there, all I read were birthday greetings to various members. There were also many messages from strangers welcoming me as a sister and fellow warrior — sweet but not particularly helpful.  I wasn’t looking for prayers; I wanted answers.        

As I emerged from Bargaining and hit Depression again, I sent out this snark-tinged missive to my sweet, faceless sister-warriors: 

How do you fight a disease that doesn’t play fair? Why do you fight when fighting is futile; when fighting won’t cure you; when losing is inevitable and the only reason to fight is just to “not go down without a fight”?

For a few hours, no one in the e-group addressed me.  Tellingly, I thought, not even another “welcome to the sisterhood” posting.

Then I received a message from Marcia C, a snippet of which follows:

I’m not an active participant here, but for some reason, I was led to read today so I guess I was meant to see your questions.

Whether we are cancer survivors, patients or totally healthy individuals, we actually die a little every day. Each day lived is also another day never to be repeated.

Now, all I ask is to spend my remaining days with significance. May my deeds and words touch someone’s life with impact and even for a little bit, make their lives better.

Responses from others followed, earnest and brave. But it was Marcia’s that registered most.

We all have death sentences over our heads from the day we were born — albeit open-ended ones. My first cancer diagnosis should have served as a reminder of that immutable, inescapable fact. Instead, Job Title, Professional Recognition and Paycheck continued to be my definers of Significance; day after day slipped by in my daily routine of perfunctory-ness.

But having one’s life expectancy expressed in months has a clarifying effect.  As soon as I finally accepted Acceptance, I found that it actually meant the opposite: Release.  Acting with the urgency of a homeowner dealing with a flea-infestation, I took away the petty, the nasty, and the irredeemably lame from my consciousness.  Deciding what — or who — to let go of was an easy matter because there was no grappling to understand Why? The choices were entirely visceral. (Funny, how much makes perfect sense when you consult your gut and not your brain.)

In a way, knowing I was going to die allowed this middle-aged tita to be Born Again — as a millennial. (An older, less narcissistic, less tech-savvy, more financially-secure millennial.) YOLO — that grammatically-infirm battlecry — is now my guiding principle.   I’m free to do, go, be whatever and wherever — limited only by my pocket and my conscience — and all I owe anyone by way of explanation is, “wala lang.” (In so many words, this is also the rationale behind fellow cancer-warrior Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s last run for the presidency.)

Of course, this declaration of freedom is a policy statement, rather than an IRR. In truth, metastatic cancer can eventually numb the palate to a perfectly-ripened marang or my sister-in-law’s fabulous Frookies.  It can make a single step more challenging than scaling any mountain on the typical millennial’s bucket list. Travel, because it inherently involves movement, becomes all but impossible.  Metastatic cancer is the ultimate basag-er ng trip.

Then again, that all depends on what your trip is.  Mine involves making the world around me my Walden Pond. Living deliberately, deeply, and sucking out all the marrow that lytic lesions haven’t devoured first. Like Thoreau, I want to know the sublime by experience and give a true account of it (but will settle for a wry observation that elicits a chuckle).

Like Marcia C, I ask to spend my remaining days with significance; plus, a special request: that the ability to tap on a keyboard be the last of my faculties to go. So that while I’m alive,  I don’t miss a chance to touch someone — perhaps an angry stranger — with words that may make things better, even for a little bit.

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