Last Saturday, I flew to Davao to attend the Silver Linings 2011 gathering of breast cancer survivors. Weeks before, Kara Alikpala, its founder and dynamo, had asked me to come and address the crowd.
I must admit I was hesitant for a couple of reasons.
One, although my wife is a breast cancer survivor, I feel unworthy to talk about it before people who have suffered so much more than we have. I do not feel comfortable speaking about cancer with any authority.
Two, it is painful to talk about it even years later, and I did not want to find myself in a situation where my emotions can get the better of me in public.
But at the same time, there was a voice within me that said I should go and speak, just from my experience and not from the stance of some learned authority, and trust that my message would get through to some people who may need to hear about what we went through. At the very least, I would not do any harm and I could even do some good.
And so, I found myself at the Royal Hotel in Davao City on Sept. 17 before a large gathering of cancer survivors.
I was to speak in one module and moderate another. I was to share the topic “How husbands cope” with Bobbit Suntay. I had given a talk about this before and so I knew it would be a breeze. But Bobbit Suntay’s experience is infinitely deeper than mine and, truth to tell, I don’t know if I could have risen to the occasion as courageously, as wisely and gracefully as he did, had I faced his situation.
I cannot forget my memory of him years ago, outside the office of my wife Lydia’s oncologist Dr. Lopez, which he and his wife Jackie also visited. We were leaving the doctor’s office with smiles on our faces because she had just declared Lydia cancer-free after chemo and radiation. Bobbit and Jackie were about to enter the office but they were to hear the unexpected opposite news: that Jackie’s cancer had spread aggressively and had reached the tipping point.
I spoke first. I had no notes, mental or physical, preferring to be totally spontaneous. I told the story of how Lydia first noticed a concave indentation on her left breast while we were in New Zealand on a holiday. True to her procrastinating nature, it took her months to get herself tested and when she finally did, she was devastated to learn she had a malignant tumor.
The morning she told me, I had to leave for Baguio for a show that evening. Having to leave her and drive, perform, and then drive back was one of the hardest things I ever did. We also had to tell our kids, family and friends soon after. Then there was the surgery, the shaving of her locks in anticipation of the effects of five cycles of chemo and radiation which she would have to undergo.
Midway during my talk, I mustered a few funny moments to share to lighten the mood, like the feeling that ran through me as I watched Lydia throw up an anti-vomiting tablet that cost P700. I wanted to pick it up and give it back to her. But soon enough, the pain of it all came flooding back and I had to pause awhile a few times as I held back my tears.
Soon after, the questions came. To summarize my responses to the many queries, I said that the way we coped was that Lydia and I shared the experience like we both had cancer. Lydia did not have cancer alone. We had cancer. It was a struggle that we faced together, trying to give each other unconditional support.
Bobbit pointed out the need to not play the hero. He said that husbands of cancer patients must not hesitate to ask for help because even the strongest pillars of strength need support. He also advised husbands to learn all there is about the disease, and to take care of themselves because two sick people cannot possibly improve the situation.
I felt inadequate and even powerless trying to answer a question of a woman who was obviously of little means about how she could cope better financially. Cancer is an expensive illness. I felt financially challenged by it, and I wonder how the poor manage, if at all.
The module I moderated was about the topic, “How to tell loved ones about cancer” given by Dr. Karen de la Cruz, a psychologist and a second kidney survivor. I found the session quite interesting since there were some in the audience who shared their stories. When telling children they have cancer, she said it is better that the parent who is closer breaks the news. Also, it is important to be at the same height physically when you break the news, meaning the parent and child must be seated. Also, you do not have to paint the entire picture. Just give them enough facts that they can understand as of now.
There were 1,600 women at the gathering from all over the country. Many came from Manila, such as the members of Icanserve, a cancer support group who came to help. The symposium was a constant stream of meeting people, hearing their stories of shock and pain and the faith they discovered to believe in healing and the courage to deal with their disease.
Many women speakers spoke of “hot flashes” caused by the medicines they were taking. It may have sounded like a joke but I pointed out that these were probably more like “power surges” since they were fighting for their lives. This gathering of cancer warriors was no different from a group of war veterans sharing their battle stories. I detected the glint in many a teary eye as they recounted their ordeal and shared their pride in having fought and won their battle against breast cancer.
But in a way, the battle is never won decisively. After the cancer surgery, chemo, radiation and years of taking medicines, cancer can still come back and, at times, it does. One may be clear for years until one day, a new lump is discovered in the breast area or somewhere else. Vigilance is really the key.
We will all die someday. This is a truism that everyone understands and accepts intellectually until we are confronted with the possible death of a precious one. As I shared in my talk, prior to Lydia’s diagnosis, I believed cancer was something that happened only to other people until it happened to us.
I was happy to have met husbands of new breast cancer patients who sought me out to ask questions on how they could be of better help in their new situation. I know it takes courage to open up since most men are not easily eloquent, talking about their personal suffering, or anything intimate for that matter. We also heard a male breast cancer patient who must have mustered a lot of courage to openly share his experience. I salute them all for being there.
On the way home, I thought about my initial hesitation about attending the Silver Linings event. I asked myself again the reasons why I hesitated against my actual experience of being here. Was I uncomfortable as I thought I would be? Yes. Did my worst fears materialize, that I would cry while sharing my experience? Yes. But was I happy I did it? A resounding YES. Why? Because there I met truly brave people who were unconditional about their desire to be alive. They did what it took to stay alive.
On my end, I was happy to have shared my relatively small experience that will hopefully help a few more men, women and their families find their silver lining to cope better with cancer, and live longer.
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1) Join me in a Songwriting Workshop on Saturday, Oct. 8. Learn what comprise good songs and songwriting from melodic, structure, lyrics, arrangements, etc. It uses a very hands-on approach. Students will actually write songs during class. It is from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 0916-855-4303 or write to email@example.com for questions and reservations. Classes are P5,000.
2) The Art of the Nude — A photography workshop on Oct. 15 from 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org for questions and reservations. Limited class.
3) Walking Photography Class — Explore a place and learn to capture light, tell a story, frame a photo, and more under different lighting conditions and settings. Class is on Oct. 22. Venue to be announced.