Most people's journey with cancer is that they don't just stop with their lives. That's always been my thing, I didn't want to get into a hole. If you do, it's very difficult to get out of.
When I used to work with Toni Gregory and Annie Ringor (of Bridges PR), every year we'd get an annual checkup. I just tagged along with them because I didn't want to be left alone in the office, but the habit stuck with me even after I left and formed my own company. At my checkup two years ago, they found something in my right breast. I got a biopsy right away because the next day I was flying out to New York. I was cursing the whole time—it was really, really painful. Then I went to work like nothing happened, and just told the doctor to email me the results in plain language.
A few days later at a conference in New Yorl, I got the email, and it was very straightforward: You have breast cancer. How the heck? So I saw an oncologist in NYC who told me what would happen next. I just wanted to manage my expectations so I would be prepared. When I got back to Manila, I went straight to my doctor, scheduled the surgery, figured out my insurance, fixed things at my office because I knew I was going to be away for a week. I wanted to sort things out without panicking and affecting work and clients. You just do stuff.
I had a lumpectomy, 33 sessions of radiation, and I'm still taking medications for the next eight years.
Radiation was awful. Doctors will say that it's easy for some people, tough for others. Your skin will progressively get burned—they essentially fry it from the inside out. You know what it feels like to finish a tough marathon? It felt like I was running a marathon everyday. During the final week, I lost a lot of weight. After each session, I'd just collapse in my car. I'd have my team come over to my house for meetings.
If there was any anger at the beginning, it was because I didn't know why I got it. I had just turned 40, exercised regularly, had a healthy lifestyle, and there's no history of breast cancer in my family—all the things you'd think would be stacked against me. Yes, I have a stressful job, but who doesn't? So why me? But you can't answer that, so you don't go there. What's important is when you find out. Anyone can get cancer, but if you find out early enough, then you can deal with it. Right after I had my biopsy and I was crying in the car, I called my sisters and told them, "Get yourselves checked!"
The thing about cancer, you never know if it will recur. I have to get checked every three months and that's what screws with my head. I haven't slept in two years, because of the meds and anxiety. There are good days and there are bad days. For the most part, however, I forget about it, because it's over—it's like a bad relationship that you walk away from.
The way I dealt and continue to cope with it, even after the treatments, is very straightforward—strict diet (no meat, not supposed to have dairy or tofu, less sugar) and just positive reinforcement. I needed to frame the illness as just that, an ailment that needed some attention, something that thankfully was diagnosed early, and addressed with the best medical team.
Working was just something I do, with or without fever, headache, migraine or breast cancer—not to belittle the effort, stress, and anxiety that comes along with cancer and getting over it. In my mind, I needed to work so as not to be defined entirely by surviving cancer. I am more than that. Every breast cancer survivor is more than that. We are sisters, daughters, bosses, friends, babysitters to our nephews and nieces, volunteers. We are more than just cancer and surviving it.
If it ever comes back, what would I do? I think about it this way: If I go through another breakup, what would it take to deal with it better? I'd do the whole process again, but I wouldn't go back to work after radiation sessions. I still work as hard as my team does—or even harder. However, when my body says, "Stop," I actually do. A few years ago, that would have been just sissy. Now, being a sissy is good. I know better than to push it. Now, when I'm tired, I go home!
This story originally appeared in Preview's October 2015 issue.