Tales of survivors

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Beth Romualdez and Frances Yu talk about their triumph against breast cancer with the women who helped them every step of the way

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The invite was for an intimate high tea, a special gathering to talk about an upcoming fashion event that will feature brave Filipinas who have fought what was once labeled as a long and lonely fight.

Amid an all white space at the Raffles Hotel in Makati City, The Sunday Times Magazine found itself in a room filled with women, all radiating such positive aura. And listening intently to their stories, it is both surprising and inspiring that these genuinely happy ladies were in fact part of the rising statistics of Filipino women inflicted with breast cancer—some of them survivors, and others still battling the disease.

Breast cancer survivor Beth Romualdez (right) with her daugher Via Romualdez-Reyes

Breast cancer survivor Beth Romualdez (right) with her daugher Via Romualdez-Reyes

Two of these brave women are Beth Romualdez and Frances Yu who generously shared their stories with The Sunday Times Magazine in time for October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Not a death sentence

Breast cancer is not a death sentence, most especially when its victim has a strong support system. This belief—this truth—is what got Beth Romualdez through her ordeal, and made her a proud breast cancer suvivor.

“It’s wrong to think that it’s the end. I never thought of that. For me, breast cancer was like having any other disease—there’s something wrong with your body and then you go to a doctor to get a cure for it,” the celebrated chef and cookbook author told The Sunday Times Magazine.

The strong-willed sexagenarian recalled that she was diagnosed with the illness 17 years ago, just as she was turning 50, in the most unlikely situation.

“In the US, where I was during my diagnosis, there’s a big sale for mammograms every October. So my friend who’s a doctor, an OB/GYN in one of the hospitals there, told me to go with her since the procedure would only be $75 compared to the original price of $450. Upon her insistence, I went with her but in the end, it was I who was diagnosed [with cancer]. It was such a shock, because I was so active. Moreover, I didn’t feel anything different at that time,” Romualdez recalled.

She admitted the reality that she had breast cancer did not hit her right away. And in the same nonchalant way she went for her mammogram, she broke the news to daughter Via Romualdez-Reyes was also very casual.

“Mom was very light hearted about it so I didn’t get the chance to react. The first time she told me she said, ‘I went shopping . . . I bought a blouse. And oh, by the way, I have cancer.’ I didn’t know what to process, really. I didn’t know how to react,” Reyes shared.

But when it finally hit her that her mom was sick, the eldest daughter pulled herself together and made the necessary arrangements. She began organizing her siblings, making sure they each have their turn to accompany their mother in the States, as Reyes—a new mom at the time with two toddlers—could not leave her young family.

“My brother left immediately, and he was the one constantly giving us updates. He really took care of mom. He even shaved his head when she did during her therapy. That’s the kind of support that she really needed,” Reyes continued.

With the help of advance medicine overseas, early detection, and doctor-friends who guided her to make informed choices, Romualdez was soon declared a breast cancer survivor.

Looking back, besides her strong support system, what made her experience “easier” is the power of having a positive attitude—that of the patient’s and everyone around.

“For us, a positive attitude makes a lot of difference. You get carried away by the people around you. Without positivity in you and around you, you’ll definitely feel bad because you’ll see them looking at you as if you are dying,” Romualdez said with a chuckle.

Reyes agreed, “It’s important for the support group to maintain a positive attitude because the last thing they need is pity. You just try to help them get through everyday, one day at a time. Anything that they want, just give it to them.”

The mom looked gratefully at her daughter and added, “Yes, because during chemo, eating feels like chewing on metal. It’s really terrible. So as soon as you have cravings, as soon as you want to eat, you have to eat because you have to be strong for the next chemo. Almost always, and I’ve talked to many survivors also, we really crave for certain kinds of food. In my case, I could even imagine the sauce of my food.”

Asked about the most important realization she had in battling breast cancer, Romualdez told The Sunday Times Magazine, “Perhaps, the biggest lesson I learned is to not to take things for granted. Listen to your body. I think the experience strengthens you spiritually because your mortality is really right in front of you. In the end, it all boils down into aiming for a quality kind of life—enjoying the things and your time, your family while you still can.”

Opportunity to inspire
While a casual invite for mammogram led Romualdez to an early detection of breast cancer, divine intervention paved the way for career woman Frances Yu to find out she had the disease.

“Last year, a friend of mine said that while she was praying, she was led to tell me to get a medical check up—she said she had a very strong leading from God,” Yu shared with The Sunday Times Magazine.

“This was in August of 2015. I went for the check up but never picked up my results because I went abroad for a vacation. When I got back to Manila, I happened to be talking to Beth Romualdez who told me that she was entertaining one of her doctor friends, Diana Cua, the foremost breast surgeon in the country,” Yu continued.
The conversation with Romualdez reminded her to pick up the mammogram result she had two months before, along with the rest of her check-up findings.

Things unfolded rather quickly thereafter. As soon as she saw a lump from her mammogram, Yu underwent a biopsy and within a week learned that it was malignant. A scheduled surgery immediately followed and she started her chemotherapy in January.

“If you think about it, there were two people who really guided me toward getting checked and getting treatment, and you cannot deny that there was divine intervention overall. I really had no plans to pick up my results because I never visit the doctor, and I always thought I was healthy. Consequently, I was busy—I was going to go abroad, preparing so many things and I didn’t even think of going back for my findings until I talk to Beth,” Yu realized.

Ever the independent girl in the family, a middle child among five siblings, Yu initially faced her ordeal alone and wanted to continue doing so until her siblings intervened.

“I called my sister Crickette [Tantoco] and I said, ‘Oh you know, I saw the doctor and I have cancer and then I hung up,” Yu recalled in jest.

“I called her back and asked, ‘What did you say again?’ Then she told me the longer version of her diagnosis,” Tantoco said, joining in the conversation. “She wanted to do it alone. She’s very independent, always in control but I said I don’t think this is something you want to do on your own. We needed a family intervention so I called the siblings and I told them to talk some sense into her, and we all said we would be there to support her. Thankfully, she agreed.”

The caring sister continued, “Surgery was scheduled soon after so there was really no time to have lengthy discussions—we just did what had to be done.”

While Yu’s diagnosis came just weeks before Christmas her family chose not to wallow in sadness and celebrate the season while anchoring all their plans on Yu’s medical treatments.

“When we brought her to the hospital, my brother wanted to stay by her side but since we weren’t allowed to, he went to Yellow Cab and bought their cap along with boxes of pizzas. He pretended he was a pizza guy and delivered pizza for all the nurses in the hospital. Then he sneaked to her room and told her he would sleep there. Of course, she didn’t let him but it just goes to show how we were all there for her,” Tantoco shared.

Four months after her chemotherapy, Yu was ready to face the world anew with more optimism than ever.

Frances Yu (left) with sister Crickette Tantoco

Frances Yu (left) with sister Crickette Tantoco

“Perhaps what I learned from the experience is that your suffering could be a way for you to inspire other people. You know there’s a saying in business, you should never waste a good crisis. In the same way, you should never waste suffering. Rather than whining and asking, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ you should use it instead to make yourself a better person and help other people who are going through the same thing,” Yu imparted.

Just like Romualdez, a strong and positive support system helped Yu get through her ordeal.

“It’s crucial that you have people around you. Love heals so you need to surround yourself with people who are loving, who are positive. As much as possible, it’s not good to have people who are fearful because that tends to be very contagious,” Yu related.

Asked how best she can guide other breast cancer patients, she replied, “First take it one day at a time. Don’t try to anticipate the future because it’s just going to give rise to fears that may not materialize. Second, be prayerful; be close to God because He is your rock and refuge. Finally, have a very strong support system. Don’t encourage fearful behavior like a lot of crying or a lot of despair.”

On the side of a relative, Tantoco advised, “I think families and friends should be just as informed as the patient about dealing with breast cancer. Besides the etiquette of what you should say or not say, besides being conscious about the practical side of things—making sure you clean up when visiting to avoid bringing the patient infection and all sorts of other things—you have to keep her healthy emotionally too. You have to keep her positive. I think you’re physical as well emotional and spiritual health contributes a lot in helping you survive the disease.”

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Beth Romualdez and Frances Yu will walk the runway along with other breast cancer survivors at “Fashion Can Serve 2016,” a fund raising event by I Can Serve Foundation, which is dedicated advocate of breast cancer awareness. It will be held on October 13 at Raffles Hotel in Makati City.

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