At 36, I Was Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

At our age, when we're busy balancing the demands of career, family, and social life, it's easy to think we're invincible.
PHOTO: (LEFT) Courtesy of Giselle Arroyo, (RIGHT) Courtesy of Pie Valencia

I started 2017 thinking it would be just another year. Little did I know that I would one day wake up in a hospital recovery room, checking to see if I still had both of my breasts.

Less than a month earlier, I had gotten an ultrasound for a lump I felt by accident while I was in the shower. Upon consulting a surgical oncologist, I learned that what I thought was probably just a harmless cyst could actually be a malignant tumor. I was devastated. Even though our family has a history of breast cancer, and in the back of my mind I knew I was at risk, I never imagined that it would come so early.

I was only 36, in reasonably good shape, and had never had any major health issues.

I cried. A lot. But I knew that tough decisions had to be made quickly and that I didn’t have time to wallow in self-pity or ruminate on how and why this was happening to me. Two of my mom’s sisters are thriving many years after their battles against breast cancer, so I knew mine would also be hard but ultimately winnable. 

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After talking things over with my family and closest friends, I decided to undergo a frozen section biopsy, and if the mass was found to be malignant, it would be followed immediately by a modified radical mastectomy, a surgical procedure to remove the entire breast and most axillary (underarm) lymph nodes. I started chemotherapy a few weeks after, and am undergoing targeted therapy until next year.

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My treatment plan is aggressive because I am determined to beat cancer once and for all. Having it again is simply not an option. 

Now that the hardest parts are over, it all seems like a blur: recovering from a major operation that temporarily impaired the use of my left arm, the side effects of chemotherapy (diarrhea is torture when you love eating as much as I do, and I cried the day my hair started falling out), and just the overall stress that comes with battling a life-threatening illness.

As challenging as my situation is, I am acutely aware that I have it relatively easy compared to the battles of some of my fellow cancer warriors. I am lucky to have caught it at an early stage, and even luckier to have the means to fight it.

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I realize how fortunate I am to be under the care of an expert surgical oncologist whom I completely trust, Dr. Mark Richard Kho of Manila Doctors Hospital and UP-PGH.

I have also been blessed with the most incredible support system that anyone with cancer could hope to have. My company reduced my workload and gave me all the time I needed to get better. Friends came to visit at the hospital or at home, and those who couldn’t come sent flowers, food, cards, various gifts, and prayers. Most of all, my whole family went completely above and beyond the call of duty to care for me.

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The best thing to come out of this whole experience is that I have never felt so loved in my entire life, and for that I am grateful beyond words.

Another silver lining is my newfound appreciation for how precious life is and realizing just how much I am willing to fight for it. Thinking of the long future I still want for myself gave me the motivation to power through the most difficult of days. And on a lighter note, thanks to all those days of house arrest, I have discovered the wonderful world of K-dramas!

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When I got diagnosed, I debated whether I should keep this matter private or share my journey with others. In the end, I decided that helping raise awareness for breast cancer is more important than my privacy, especially among my peers who tend to take their health for granted.

At our age, when we’re busy balancing the demands of career, family, and social life, it’s easy to think we’re invincible. And so we postpone checkups that should be done regularly, mistakenly thinking that cancer only happens to older generations. Well, I am here to remind you that it could happen to you, too.  

I understand the mentality of preferring not to know if there’s something wrong, because that’s exactly how my cancer went undetected for two years.

Sometimes I find myself wishing I had done things differently so I could’ve caught the cancer earlier, but I know that it’s useless to feel regret at this point.

All I can do now is to be an advocate for early detection among my friends, peers, and anyone who’ll listen. So, please, after reading this, make a note in your planner to check yourself! What’s scarier than getting diagnosed with cancer is finding out when it’s too late. As we say at ICanServe Foundation, “Early detection is your best protection.”

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And don’t ever doubt that you’ll be strong enough to handle such a difficult situation. If you are one day faced with it, believe that, with the support of your loved ones, you will be able to summon the courage and strength that you need. 

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