Salve: My experience with cancer taught me to invest in my health

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On May 2016, I discovered something that that would change my life in ways I could’ve never imagined. While I was doing my routine breast self-exam, I felt something that every woman fears when doing this exam. I had my concerns but was hoping with all my heart that it was not a cancerous lump–I went to Hamad Hospital just to make sure. When the doctor told me that I had stage 2B breast cancer, everything went blank and my heart sunk down to my stomach. The doctor’s voice began to fade in the background until I couldn’t hear anything; I was overwhelmingly shocked and could not stop crying. I never thought it would actually reach that point. After calming down, I was informed that I would need to undergo surgery and some post-surgery procedures to help improve my chance of survival to 80-90%. At that moment all I felt was an immense sense of guilt and regret as I kept thinking about all the things I might have done or eaten that may have caused me to have this cancer. However, a coordinator at Hamad comforted me right after I received the news and kept telling me to remain positive because a negative mindset will have a negative effect on my body. 

If I had to describe the worst experience from my cancer, it would have to be the chemotherapy. I never thought about how the surgery was only the start, and chemo was absolutely horrible. I was very nervous and scared about undergoing chemo because my knowledge was limited to what I had seen in movies. Looking back, I feel like the chemo would not have been as bad if I had known more about what the side effects were and how to deal with them. I underwent 12 sessions for about 6 to 7 months, and in the first session I actually had an allergic reaction to the medicine which only added to my fear of the procedure. Compared to radiation, chemo was a lot more scary because you can feel the medicine travel throughout your body. It felt like a tingling burning sensation throughout my entire body and made me feel very nauseous. Thankfully, I was given anti-emetics for the nausea but it was still very difficult to eat and I remember only being able to eat rice with bananas because I’m tasting the food same like metallic. I cannot enjoy eating the foods that used to be my favourites because of the metallic taste. Which makes it difficult for me to drink water. My taste is as horrible as what I undergone. After a few sessions of chemo, my hands and feet would feel numb, my skin became very pale and colourless, and my nails were black. 

The hardest part was when I started losing my hair 1 week after I started chemo, especially because I loved my hair so much. Even though I knew it was bound to happen, I was never prepared for it. I was very afraid and had no idea what to do, but my hospital friends kept reminding me to be patient and to always keep the bigger picture in mind. They even gave me advice on how to deal with the side effects of chemo, such as massaging my body when it felt numb and recommended shaving my head as it would probably be more difficult for me to watch all my hair fall out by itself. My friends reassured me that my hair would grow back and to use head covers in the meantime. One of my office colleagues even gave me a wig as a present; I was so grateful and wore it a few times for special occasions. 

It was very tough to look at myself and stay optimistic throughout the months of chemo. The first 3 months were tolerable but it went downhill very fast as soon as they started giving me injections to boost my immune system. These injections were so painful that I could feel my bones hurting and I wasn’t able to walk properly because of the pain. The first time I received the injection, I couldn’t sleep for 2 days and kept crying because of the excruciating pain. I was given morphine to help alleviate the pain. I was terrified and honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to survive. I would cry every night thinking why did this happen to me and maybe it’s because I didn’t take care of myself or because I wronged someone unintentionally. There were times when I struggled to keep my will to keep going and push through all the chemo sessions. Thankfully my work let me take a leave for 3 months when I was in a lot of pain. Praying throughout my sessions and thinking about my family was what truly helped me from the start till now. 

I think what was especially burdensome throughout my cancer experience was keeping the entire thing a secret from my family till the end of all my procedures. My family lives in the Philippines, and when I found out about my diagnosis, I didn’t want them to worry and stress about me while they’re so far away. However, after I finished all the sessions of chemo and radiation, on September 2017, I finally built up the courage to tell my mother about my cancer. When I called her to tell her she said, “I know already, I could feel that something was wrong with you” while crying a lot. I think she was suspicious because I wouldn’t video call anymore while I was undergoing chemo. I remember once the video camera accidently turned on and my mother saw me with a head cover on; she was very scared and thought I had an accident or something. I felt very guilty about not telling my mother the truth but every time I thought about telling her the fear of scaring her or making her depressed always stopped me from doing so. 

I truly believe in a “mother’s instinct” because my mother would always message me during my chemo sessions to ask me how I was doing and if everything was okay, almost like she already knew. After telling my mother, I told my brother too and it broke my heart to see how much he was crying but he kept telling me that I was lucky that I was in Qatar because cancer therapy is way too expensive in the Philippines. It’s amazing that cancer treatment is now free in Qatar–this is incredible for cancer patients because it removes the costly burden of cancer treatment when the illness itself is physically and emotionally burdensome enough. Although it was very hard to tell my family, it was a great relief to get rid of the guilt of hiding my diagnosis from them and to be able to talk to them openly about it and receive their support. Just sending a message to my family would uplift my spirit. Looking back though, I don’t regret not telling my family earlier because I feel like I would constantly be worried about how they would be feeling about my diagnosis especially because they live so far away from me. 

Although this entire journey was very difficult, I cannot deny the friends and new support system I made along this journey. I met some cancer patients and survivors in the hospital who gave me a lot of advice beyond what the doctors said. They were the ones that uplifted my spirits throughout the entire process and constantly told me “you’ll survive it” and “you can beat this”. I am also very thankful to the nutritionist from the hospital who educated me on what I should and should not eat. Getting cancer really changed my perspective on what I put in my body. I used to only eat food with preservatives and junk food because it was more affordable than eating healthy, but my nutritionist told me “you need to invest in your health”. I learnt how important it is to eat fruits and vegetables and drink fresh juices; this diet is what helped me become healthier from the inside out during my therapy till now. 

Qatar Cancer Society was also a major source of support throughout my journey. I first saw QCS in HMC’s National Centre for Cancer Care and Research. They were having an event for Cancer Awareness Month and I was asked to be interviewed. They reached out to me and I am so glad they did. They have very educational and fun workshops; in one of my favourite workshops they shared healthy and yummy recipes that I still use. I met new people and I also invited my hospital friends to come to these workshops with me. It was very helpful to discuss and exchange stories and learn from each other’s experiences. I feel very blessed that I was able to meet some cancer survivors who continuously give me moral support and are always there for me. At a QCS Eid party, I received the “Story of Hope” book. I was amazed while reading the inspirational stories of other cancer survivors and getting a glimpse into their experiences and hardships. Those  people were able to survive cancers worse than mine and this really helped boost my confidence. If they survived, I will survive this too. 

When I was diagnosed with my cancer, I would have many negative thoughts and it took a lot of energy for me to remain optimistic. However, after the entire journey, I believe that there is always a reason why people go through certain things and even if we don’t always know the reasons, I believe that we should trust in God and what he has planned for us. Despite the pain, I am thankful to God for the great friends I met at the hospital and the life skills I gained from this experience. I learnt how important it is to take care of yourself, eat healthy food, and surround yourself with good people. During my therapy I was very pale and looked lifeless, but now the colour of my skin has come back and my hair is back to normal. I truly believe what you eat and drink can really affect your well-being but your mental health is also just as important. I think that stress can definitely have a negative impact on your health, so I always try to calm myself down when I’m stressed. In many ways my cancer made me become a better person, I am more grateful for the life I have and more conscious about my actions and health. I am very thankful to God Almighty, my family, friends, the Hamad Hospital staff, QCS, Vresso colleagues and my boss, Hamad and Abdullah who stayed beside me all through my journey. I hope that my story can provide some hope and comfort to someone. Just know that life is way too short to live in sadness and you never know where your journey will take you so make sure to enjoy and appreciate every little thing.