Elena Catherina Bernardo-Ocampo is a Filipino doctor and professor in the United States who specializes in pediatric cardiology. A happy person all round—generous with her smiles and ever bubbly in conversations—she is perfect for a profession that deals with children who need a boost in both health and spirit.
Indeed, Dr. Ocampo’s patients—and everyone else she meets—immediately feel at ease with her sunshiny face and personality. Most even mistake the colorful bandanas she wraps around her head as a fashion statement that perfectly go with her cheerful personality.
In truth, the much-loved doctor uses the bandanas to wrap a balding head from brain surgeries and chemotherapy.
Yes, Dr. Ocampo is a patient herself—a breast cancer patient of seven years, who is battling her disease with three things she knows best: faith in God, the help of medical science, and being herself.
In June, The Sunday Times Magazine met this inspiring spitfire of courage while she was on a long overdue family vacation in the Philippines. Openly sharing her story with the publication, Dr. Rinna Ocampo hopes she will encourage other patients living with cancer like her to keep embracing life—no matter how difficult or daunting—as “a gift.”
Being a medical doctor, Ocampo easily detailed the technicalities of her condition, especially the early stages of what she calls her “long medical history.”
“It all began in December 2007, a few days before Christmas,” she began. “I felt a lump in my breast, and I kind of knew what it was even if I was hoping it wasn’t [possibly cancerous].”
Not wanting to dampen the holiday spirit, Ocampo only told her husband about the worrisome discovery, and decided to keep it from their two children and the rest of the family. “I didn’t want to ruin Christmas for everyone,” she recalled.
Nevertheless, she went ahead with initial tests, a mammogram and biopsy to confirm either her hope or fear.
She recounted, “I had to wait for the result of the biopsy so Christmas was a little tense. Because it was the holidays, nobody was at work. So on the 28th, I called the pathologist and asked for the result to be read over the phone. When he confirmed it was breast cancer, I started to cry.”
When she finally composed herself, Ocampo decided it was time to break the news to her daughter who was 12 at that time and 10-year-old son who had autism.
“We talked, and of course, there was the iyakan [crying]part. But I made them understand and believe that we will get through it. We dealt with it the same way as how my husband and I tackled it when I first learned about the lump,” she shared.
Ocampo told The Sunday Times Magazine that it is important for a cancer patient to tell those closest to them about their illness because it helps clear the mind for the more important decisions that need to follow next.
Treatment, of course, is on top of the list. As a doctor, Ocampo was determined to get the very best.
“You start by deciding on the questions, ‘What do I do now?’ ‘Where do I go? I live in Houston, and fortunately one of the top cancer centers [in the US]is just across the street from where I work—the MD Anderson Cancer Center.”
Ocampo was then and continues to work as a pediatric cardiac intesivist at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston—literally across the street from MD Anderson Cancer Center.
However, the doctor explained that to be admitted at MD Anderson—one of original three comprehensive cancer centers in the United States established by the National Cancer Act of 1971 (Wikipedia)—meant waiting a long time to be treated because of the huge number of patients. On the other hand, if she chose to be treated where she worked, she would be given priority to undergo surgery immediately.
“But then I wanted to think more about how I planned to address the cancer. You can have surgery right away, or chemo later, or the other way around. I wanted to consider all my options first,” Ocampo continued.
To help her make the right decision, she talked particularly to cancer patients who had gone about treatment in different ways. In one of these numerous conversations, Ocampo shared, “There was this person who went the quicker way but he had complications and ended up being referred to MD Anderson anyway. Sabi niya sa akin, ‘Just go straight to MD Anderson.’”
And so, Ocampo began her long wait for treatment.
Ray of hope
Battling cancer is always filled with fears and anxieties, more so if one needs to wait a long time to be treated.
“I had this mass that I wanted to get rid off, but I had to wait. Ang hirap mag-antay,” she recalled.
Finally, in February 2008 she was granted an appointment at the renowned hospital. She met an oncologist who gave her a treatment plan that was very different from what she would have had if she chose another hospital.
“It was protocol for MD Anderson to have chemotherapy first, then surgery, then chemo again,” she related. “I’m happy I did it that way because it gave the chance for the tumor to shrink. After 12 cycles, I couldn’t feel it anymore so we knew it was responsive. It was a ray of hope.”
By then, Ocampo was ready to undergo surgery, but again, she was faced with several options—whether to remove lump alone; remove the entire breast along with the lump; or remove both breasts all together.
After praying repeatedly to God for guidance, Ocampo went with the decision to have a double mastectomy, determined not to risk the cancer to recur.
On July 31, 2008 she underwent surgery, and following another four chemo cycles, was declared cancer-free by year-end.
“At MD Anderson, you ring a bell and everybody rejoices,” she said, a symbolic tradition for patients at the institution whose treatments were successful
Far from over
Ocampo and her family’s triumph over cancer was, however, short lived.
In one of her regular check-ups in 2009, Ocampo had a CT scan, which cleared her abdomen from cancer cells, but caught part of her lungs that showed the cancer had metastasized, or spread.
Yet again, Ocampo and her family faced another difficult battle.
Nevertheless, she was steeled by her previous experience and amazingly was able to continue working even through her regular chemotherapies and CT scans. She also took on a healthier lifestyle by eating the right food and exercising daily.
As she learned to live with cancer, she came across a bump when one time at the gym, her hands unexplainably slipped from the treadmill handles. Her medical instincts kicking in, she realized she was having seizures.
“It meant the cancer had spread to my brain as well,” she related. “From then on, I knew I would be in chemotherapy for the rest of my life.”
The brain metastasis proved to be Ocampo’s toughest challenge as “the cancer kept coming back” despite treatment. And so since 2010, she had undergone two invasive brain surgeries, and three gamma knife surgeries.
Yet despite the major medical treatments and continuous chemotherapies, Dr. Ocampo made a conscious effort to “live [her]life.” She spends a lot of time with her family, involves herself in breast cancer advocacies.
Love and support
According to Dr. Ocampo, the biggest reason she continues to stay strong throughout her ordeal is because of the love and support she constantly receives from her family, friends and colleagues.
Her husband Nilo is topmost on the list. “I am so lucky to have him by my side. He is so strong, and never falls apart,” she lovingly explained. “He is very methodical so he addressed my cancer very matter-of-factly. He said that our No. 1 priority is our children especially because there is a chance that could I die early.”
With this in mind the couple drew up a “master plan” for their children’s future and made a will. “It felt like a huge burden was lifted off of me when we did this.”
Another pillar of strength is Ocampo’s own mother, Baby. “When I told her about the cancer, she wanted to come here right away [from the Philippines]. And she did, until she saw how everyone was taking care of me and felt assured she could go back home.”
Then, there is also her friends and colleagues from the medical community who support her in endless ways, from praying for her to driving her around town.
“Everyone’s just amazing,” she beamed appreciatively. “Cancer is just a part of our lives now. I get chemo every three weeks, then I come home and we do what we normally do as a family.”
Fears and lessons
Through the last seven years in her battle with cancer, Ocampo has not only faced her biggest fears, but also more importantly discovered who she really is.
She realized that it is not death that frightens her but rather the thought of leaving her children behind.
“My daughter was 12 and my son 10 when I was diagnosed with cancer. I feared back then I wouldn’t see them grow up,” Ocampo related as her eyes started to well. “The only time I cry is when I talk about my kids.”
Grateful for her continued gift of life, she just saw her daughter graduate from high school, and is optimistic she will see her receive her college diploma.
“I learned I am stronger than who I thought I was,” Ocampo shared. “Sure, cancer patients fall apart. It’s OK to feel bad, but we need to stand up and get on with our lives.”
Her daughter Cristina could only marvel at the woman her mother had become. In a separate interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, she said, “She is the strongest person I know. If she can battle cancer for seven years, she inspires me that I can get through anything in life too.”
For all that she has been through, Dr. Ocampo continues to find the time and energy to take care of others. She is still an ever-devoted teacher to residents and fellows at Baylor College of Medicine, and has never stopped her practice in treating children with critical cardiac conditions.
“These children endure more than what I undergo so it would be shameful for me not to overcome my disease. If they can do it, the more that I should right,” she enthused.
Besides passionately pursuing her vocation, Ocampo is also very active in helping fellow breast cancer patients. In 2008, she and a group of friends formed the “Queens for Hearts” team for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. Every year, they embark on a two-day, 39-mile walk to raise funds for breast cancer research and advocacy. The team continues to grow and to date has raised over $50,000.
She added that what she liked about the fundraising and awareness event is that the proceeds directly go to the local beneficiaries and not to the Avon fund.
Another personal advocacy is to engage fellow patients to talk about their experiences.
Ocampo elaborated, “When I share my experiences with others, the first thing I tell them to do is not to read the blogs. If they do, I tell them to take it with a grain of salt, because these blogs are not screened by medical professionals unless they are from hospital websites. They could say whatever they want in these blogs like, someone may say, ‘My chemo is terrible,’ but it doesn’t have to be true for everyone.”
For Ocampo, the top two things a cancer patient should remember are the following: “Do not be afraid to seek treatment because they can do wonders; and that one person’s experience is not necessarily going to happen to you.”
Today, Ocampo’s goal is to live life to fullest. Whenever she finds time, she travels with her loved ones, and has since visited Germany, Istanbul, Mexico and France with her family.
Of these, France is her favorite as she is a devotee of the Our Lady of Lourdes. Her most recent trip there was in 2012 with her daughter, mother-in-law and mother who passed away eight months later. “I was so happy I was able to take her with me.” Ocampo said.
“Every year, we try to do a big trip in the family, and this year, I’m so happy to bring my children back home to the Philippines for a big reunion,” she shared.
“I decided that cancer is not going to rule my life but accepted it just as a part of my life.
It’s not who I am because I am still the same person who can function. I have cancer—and it’s a bad kind of cancer—but I’m still alive so I’m going to keep on living,” Dr. Ocampo ended.