Sunday Lifestyle

Embracing baldness, dressing bohemian (and other things I have to do as a breast cancer warrior)

Mary Ann Quioc Tayag - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - A few days after my biopsy, my surgeon gently broke the news to me. I was not scared, not even sad. In fact, I was expecting it as my mammogram result was Birads 5, meaning I had a 95-percent chance of having breast cancer. I was certain I would not be in the lucky five percent. To begin with, I am in the third generation of a family with a history of breast cancer. Secretly, I was glad I was right.

I know that sounds strange, but I know many breast cancer survivors. They all live normal lives and gorge on everything, from charred red meat to butter-rich desserts, much to the envy of those with hypertension, diabetes, heart ailments, etc. (eating is a serious business to me). Thus, I often said if God willed that I have cancer, I hope it is breast cancer because it has a high success rate for recovery. So when one breast cancer “sister” emailed me, “Welcome to the club,”  my reply was a simple: “Glad to be a member.”

I prayed hard for the Lord’s guidance and then started to make my list (I love making lists), as follows:

Number 1: Tell my two loves: hubby and son. This was not easy as I am naturally worried for them. I said not to look at it as an illness. Not to call it a cancer but rather a journey. It has a start and an end. “And one thing is certain,” I said. “I will be kinder and more compassionate after this. Don’t you want a home without a cranky woman?” They both smiled and that encouraged me to add, “Otherwise, the journey God has put me on is wasted on me. We will not want that.” Number 1, check!

• Numbers 2 and 3: Money and doctors. These two were not easy, either. Use insurance and break piggy banks. Doctors often have very tight schedules. Gladly, my long-time surgeon, Dr. Ma Cecilia Pagdanganan, and anaesthesiologist, Dr. Narciso Santos, were both available.  Both are top-notch and I know they will treat my body with respect while am completely knocked out.

I have highly regarded Dr. Gloria Luna as my oncologist but, seven days before my chemo, my two boys insisted I do my chemo closer to where we live. That put me into panic mode. Thankfully, my concerned OB, Dr. Marietta Sa Paula, helped me get an appointment with known oncologist Dr. Charity Gorospe at such short notice. Highly recommended, Dr. Marti Magsanoc was my radiation oncologist. Numbers 2 and 3, check!

• Number 4: Inform close friends and loved ones after surgery. The news, of course, disturbed them; but still, it was best they heard it from me. I stressed it was a privilege to be among the chosen few, so they all must treat me! “Ibang klaseng maglambing talaga si Quioc,” one said. One friend added, “Hey, if next month it is found to be a misdiagnosis, you must return all our money.” She had me in stitches (pun intended) and we gulped more frozen margaritas. Number 4, check! 

• Number 5: Prepare my home and myself against infection. I briefed our staff, de-cluttered our home, changed all soaps to antibacterial, separated all my utensils and toiletries, put Clorox wipes and alcohol in every corner, washed my fruit and vegetables in water with vinegar and handled them with gloved hands, showered three times a day on every hospital trip, skipped the manicures and pedicures to avoid cuts, brought wipes and soap everywhere, flushed the toilet twice, etc. Hubby and son said I turned into a bacteriologist.  Number 5, check!

• Number 6: Always look good and healthy. This is very important to me.  From the beginning, I said I didn’t want people to know and feel sorry for me. I also didn’t want people asking and insisting on other treatments and doctors. I would, anyway, not consider taking alternative medicine because I’d die if you gave me goat food every day.

To keep it a secret, the best way is to wear a wig. But that is not only too hot, I don’t like anything I can’t wash, being a bacteriologist. So I dressed in bohemian fashion to match my bandanas. At my first formal social event at the Peninsula Hotel, many complimented me and thought I was merely sporting Roaring Twenties fashion. Dressing up suddenly became more fun. Number 6, check! 

• Number 7: Prepare, just in case. I put the important things and documents in order and stowed them away safely. Once done, I informed my two boys.  Number 7, check!

• Number 8: Make peace. They always say make peace before you make an offering or pray for something very special. I know of only one person who refuses to talk to me; why, I have not the slightest clue. I tried three times, as the Bible says, to make my journey light. But again, I failed. 

• Number 9: Be a good patient. Doctors have a very tough job. I don’t like patients who don’t appreciate and follow their doctors. I carefully choose my doctors and then obey them like they are as sacred and infallible as the Pope. When my oncologist said she didn’t like that I didn’t have eyebrows, she got paper and a pen to teach me how to do my eyebrows and even gifted me with an eyebrow pencil! I was then pressured to learn and look my best, especially when I see her always looking so properly groomed and made-up. I teased her that, if I couldn’t handle the pressure, I’d find another doctor. I do not know if doctors are aware they have such an effect on their patients, but I begged her not to start a cult for I might blindly sign up.

When my soft-spoken and caring doctor advised me to gain weight and eat real food like my favorite lechon, I feasted on roast pig. You name it: lechon, cochinillo, suckling pig. I also bought the specific bra and 100-percent-cotton shirt he suggested to protect my chest skin. I follow every instruction of my friendly therapist, too.

One doctor shows no concern during our visits and sends me off after less than five minutes. I just remind myself it is not a social visit. As long as her medicine works, I will continually see her, thank her, and pay for her expertise. That is the doctor’s privilege. And I am a good patient. Number 9, check!

I’m thankful to my cousin Dr. Titas Dela Cruz Marquez, Dr. Marietta Sa Paula, Dr. Joven Cuanang, Dr. Maria Cecilia Pagdanganan, Dr. Barbara Perez, Dr. Michelle Uy, Dr Narciso Santos, Dr. Gloria Luna, Dr. Charity Gorospe, Jason Roxas, Dr. Marti Magsanoc, Dr. Issa Cellona, their valuable secretaries, the wonderful hospital staff, my helpful “sisters,” Claude and Nico, my family, friends and home staff, especially Janice.

I have fervent prayers, strong support, the best doctors and appropriate medicine. Now I must add happiness. When I am happy, my white blood cell count (to fight infection) is high and so I hang around with my fun, crazy Section B friends. I also bring as much fun to my journey as I can. I didn’t call them “chemo sessions”; I called them “high teas with the royals.” Thus I always showed up properly dressed (not bohemian) with black high-heeled shoes. My tiresome 30 days of radiation were my exciting porno photo shoots and I wore colorful clothes with my brightest red lipstick. My friend even gave me my porno star name, “Titty Mary.” My last five days of photo shoots came with lambing (affection) because I had dear ones joining me in my countdown.

In the beginning, I dreaded my fatigue days. Then I learned to appreciate them and would happily go to dreamland, to the envy of my many friends who pop sleeping pills. I use my finest bedsheets and put on pretty sleepwear. If I will be hugging my bed for 20 hours, I might as well feel and look good. And this I like very much: I get to break our home rule, “No eating in bed.” 

On my appetite-challenging days, I just accept it, knowing tomorrow is another day and I can chomp on a big T-bone (sadly without wine) or savor a plump roast duck at either Jade Garden or China Blue with those siomais topped with abalone, or slurp that wonderful piping-hot seafood soup and mouthwatering cha siew pork neck at the Crystal Dragon or that irresistible halo-halo at the Peninsula hotel amid a five-star ambiance I always enjoy. Just the thought of these foods pacifies me.

It is now nine months since my biopsy and I have finished all my treatments. Bam! I can now again enjoy sushi, oysters and wine. Because my body now is like an air-conditioner with a malfunctioning thermostat, I sometimes remove my turban, making me more open about my journey. I am obviously enjoying my “now.”

I happily visited all my doctors to thank and show them I am doing great.  Some, of course, do not remember me. But that’s all right. I will forever remember them. I even introduced myself and thanked Dr.  Antonio Villalon, the doctor who put up the first oncology training program in the country, as I have indirectly benefited from his noble work. He was surprised and he hugged and wished me well when I left.

People often ask why I don’t look sick and even look better. That is because I am not sick, I stress. And that is one good benefit of chemo — it makes the skin stretched and smooth. Now that I have graduated, I will miss the effect of chemo on my skin. Maybe soon, one will have a choice of either a Belo or a chemo. My oncologist has no wrinkles despite her toxic schedule. I want to ask her if she puts a teaspoon of doxorubicin drug in her morning juice and maybe I could do the same for maintenance but she might throw me out the window.

My cousin saved my FB photo and texted, “If I get sick I want to be like you.” I surely hope she does not get sick. A stranger, a pained and distraught hubby, approached me and said he hoped my photo would inspire his depressed, bald wife who is undergoing chemo. I surely hope it does. I received cash in the mailbox with an anonymous note from someone, thanking me for the positive effect I had on his loved one going through chemo. I still don’t know what to do with the cash. 

To all my “sisters” going through this journey, certainly, having a positive outlook helps. To those scared of knowing, early detection (as in my case) is your best bet. Because of new medicines, adverse side effects are rare to nil now. I lost my hair and met a patient with full hair. She said her secret was she did not wash her hair the entire five months of chemo. Hmmm, maybe she had a different medicine. Me, I’d rather lose my hair than lose my huggable bedmate. I even got to know I have a nice round head and that bald can be beautiful.

Every day, I tell myself, “I am beautiful, I am strong, Christ is with me. Nothing can go wrong… I have every reason to smile.”

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