Coping with cancer


One of the many words of wisdom Pope Francis gave us to reflect on during his visit in January was about suffering and weeping.

It is only when we learn to cry with those who are suffering that we can begin to understand them and to love them, he said in response to a tearful question of 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar, a former homeless girl and now a ward at Tulay ng Kabataan home care.

“If you don’t learn how to cry, you can’t be good Christians,” the Pope added.

Christians across the globe just observed the Holy Week. We associate Holy Week to sufferings and sacrifices. We offer sacrifices to atone for our sins, in the hope that it would somehow lighten the burdens on our shoulders.

Sacrificing does not only mean refraining from eating meat on Fridays during the Lenten season, and during the Holy Week. It can be as trivial as forgoing little things to the extreme of offering your life to save another.

“There are many children neglected by their own parents. There are also many who became victims and many terrible things happened to them like drugs or prostitution,” frail-looking Glyzelle told the Pope in her testimony during ceremonies at the UST campus in Manila.

“Why is God allowing such things to happen, even if it is not the fault of the children? And why are there only very few people helping us?” she asked.

The question reverberates in my mind when I see children suffering from various types of cancer and chronic diseases.

A cancer diagnosis is probably one of the toughest things that anyone has to deal with. The feeling must be more intense if the person diagnosed with cancer is a child. Some say that it is like a death sentence, particularly when the cancer is at the advanced stage.

But most doctors would normally say that the belief that cancer diagnosis is a death sentence has become a myth with the various technological and medical advancements made over the years.

No matter how hard the doctors try to assuage the feeling of depression over a cancer diagnosis, its impact on all aspects of one’s life, physically and emotionally, becomes immeasurable.

In time, we learn to accept it either as the patient, relative, friend, work colleague or just as an acquaintance. We offer sacrifices to ease the suffering of the cancer patient who is dear to us. We learn to cope with it.

While accompanying my sister for her treatment a couple of years ago, I came across a middle-aged patient who said that she had taken to consider her cancer diagnosis as a blessing because it made her realize the value of life and the need to get down on her knees to pray.

In a government hospital where my sister was having chemotherapy, a nine-year-old boy who was having dialysis was in the next bed. He was playful and still hopeful that he would grow up to become an engineer. The boy’s mother was in another hospital having chemotherapy for cancer.

Upon learning about the boy’s story, my sister and I somehow felt that we were in a better situation. That was part of our coping mechanism as a cancer patient on the part of my sister, and me as a caregiver. We tried to look at the bright side of every aspect of her suffering from cancer, even if some doctors gave us the impression that we were nearing the end, that there was nothing more they could do. I did not want to hate them but they surely made me cry buckets of tears of disappointment and frustration, as I do right now as I write this.

But looking at the bright side, at least we knew who to avoid when my second sister was diagnosed with an advancing stage of breast cancer less than six months after our eldest lost a long and difficult battle with a rare type of gingival cancer.

Things indeed happen for a reason, and we always try to look for the good reason why things are happening. We offer every suffering as a sacrifice for something good or better. Of course, we always aim for the best but when you are at the brink of collapsing, anything good is well appreciated as being the best under the circumstances.

In the Philippines, studies have identified cancer as the third leading cause of morbidity and mortality.

Leading types of cancer are lung, breast, cervix, liver, colon and rectum, prostate, stomach, oral cavity, ovary and leukemia. Cancer prevention consciousness among Filipinos remains low and most patients seek consultation only at advanced stages. That is why survival rates are relatively low.

In February 2010, the World Health Organization predicted that the number of cancer deaths worldwide will increase from 7.6 million to 17 million deaths in 2030.

According to, 75 percent of all cancers among Filipinos occur after age 50 years, and only about 3 percent occur at age 14 years and below. If the current low cancer prevention consciousness persists, it is estimated that for every 1800 Filipinos, one will develop cancer annually.

“At present, most Filipino cancer patients seek medical advice only when symptomatic or at advanced stages: for every two new cancer cases diagnosed annually, one will die within the year,” the cancer site said.

A study on the causes of cancer cited that the World Health Organization recognizes depression as one of the most burdensome diseases in the world. It noted that among cancer patients, depression is significantly associated with shorter survival, independent of the influence of biomedical prognostic factors.

Given this premise, I guess we’re on the right track in dealing with sufferings like dealing with a cancer diagnosis in the family. Always try to look at the brighter side of things and keep depression away. Offer every suffering as a sacrifice, hoping for good things to come.


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