“Ibinigay natin ang lahat pero walang nagawa ang pera (We gave everything but money couldn’t help).”
Holding tears of sadness, my sister’s big boss Sandy Javier thus uttered hours after she passed on.
We buried my second-eldest sister Evangeline Valderama-Ayos last Saturday, 80 days before she would have turned 60 years old. She bravely fought cancer for nearly five years, and suffered excruciating pain throughout her 14 weeks of stay at the Makati Medical Center (MMC), not to mention the difficulties after each of several chemotherapy sessions.
Last Holy Week, she had chemo and radiation therapies that sapped her energies. After 10 days of radiation treatment on her head and spine, she kept on throwing up even when her stomach was empty. That was when her hospital residency began.
Without the overwhelmingly generous support of the Javier family and the Andok’s Litson Corp., the costs of my sister’s treatment could have either pauperized the family or pained her much more while waiting for her time.
My sister was executive assistant to the president of Andok’s and its affiliate companies—about 12 of them, each represented by beautiful wreaths at her wake at Loyola Chapels, on Commonwealth, and later at her residence in Indang, Cavite.
She must have served the company well and touched the lives of her employer’s family and co-workers to deserve the accolades given her, particularly during a hastily-prepared necrological services on Friday night.
So please bear with me for using this space to share a few things about how our family coped and also to express our gratitude to those who stayed with us throughout this most challenging period in our life.
We have barely come to terms with the pain of losing a loved one less than three years ago (Oct. 2013) when our eldest sister Edith V. Alzona succumbed to gingival cancer when Ditse (Vangie to others, Jolen/Jolyn to family) was medically diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.
Before she agreed to have biopsy in Feb. 2014, Ditse was already feeling something and had undergone since 2011 alternative treatments—acupuncture and naturopathy. While she followed insistent prodding of her obstetrician-gynecology doctor to see oncology surgeons, she refused their common advice to undergo immediate mastectomy.
She went to doctors at Capitol Medical Center, St. Luke’s, and Makati Med—all of them advised surgery. But Ditse’s fear of invasive procedures prevailed upon her. She explored other options until after the death of Ate Edith who, while still struggling for dear life, told her to see a trusted oncologist, Dr. Romeo Diaz, whose specialization is breast cancer.
To lend Ditse moral support, I, too, underwent alternative treatment as a preventive measure because periodic mammogram and sonography (ultrasound) showed several cysts on both my breasts. We were going to Makati twice weekly for acupuncture and 30-minute exposure to a heating machine, purportedly to soften and ultimately eliminate the cysts. Well, after a few months with that, mammo and ultrasound scans showed fewer cysts on my part and reduced the frequency of tests to annual from every six months.
The last straw was when a naturopathic doctor’s diagnosis puzzled us. The findings: the big lump in Ditse’s breast is not cancer while I have an early stage of pancreatic cancer. Of course it was devastating. I tried her unlabeled tablets and other “natural” supplements to boost my immune system and aid nutritional deficiencies. It drained me P40,000 for a month. It would have cost me more had I agreed to undergo a twice weekly intravenous supplement for “quick healing.” Ditse’s naturopathic meds cost double that of mine.
After a month and I did not feel significant improvement, I told my sister that I could not sustain the cost and expressed my serious doubts about the efficacy of the meds. The same naturopathic doctor tested the Chinese doctor who performed acupuncture on Ditse and me. He was found to have Stage 2 pancreatic cancer. I have not heard of Doc Sam since then, which was more than two years ago so I don’t know if he continued seeing the naturopathic doctor who was his friend and in whom he believed, or if he had submitted himself to the western medicine to be sure if he indeed had cancer.
In the case of Ate Edith, she was under the care of an orthodontist for almost eight months for what appeared as a dental problem. The cancer started with a toothache that did not go away until her gums were swollen. The orthodontist first extracted her wisdom tooth. I had the same procedure at the same time. Mine was actually overdue because it was the last of my wisdom teeth that was suspected as the root cause of debilitating migraine. The swelling from my surgery was gone in a few days but Ate’s kept swollen for at least two weeks.
When the pain remained after the swelling was gone, she underwent root canal, but a few months later the pain was still there. In July 2011, the orthodontist extracted Ate’s third molar. The tooth had a yellowish thing underneath that had solidified and it was bigger than the tooth. She told Ate to have it biopsied, and after two weeks, the result was gingival squamous cell carcinoma.
Ate kept it from us for a week until all was set for her surgery. It was only later that we knew from her driver and from her how that week went. Gary said he was wondering why Ate broke in tears when she came out of Malvar Hospital one Saturday morning. He did not know then that Ate got the biopsy result and read the finding. Then Ate asked Gary to bring her to National Kidney Transplant Institute (NKTI).
Ate looked for the hospital directory and did an eeny-meeny-miny-moe among the oncologists. She went to a female onco who referred her to an EENT (ear-eye-nose-throat) surgeon who, without any further test, scheduled a surgery after a week. The surgeon told us she would be out of the hospital after two weeks, but things went awry. I had to quit my job to keep her company in the hospital for seven weeks. Her condition never improved until she lost the fight two years and at least P10 million in treatment costs later.
In all of these experiences, one thing is obvious. Cancer is in our blood. What happened to my elder sisters gave us the painful lesson of going to competent and trusted doctors when we feel something abnormal.
I would like to stress on competence because we had some misses in the doctors we went to the first time but we were lucky to have found some of the best in their fields of specialization: Dr. Romeo Diaz, oncologist; Dr. Juliet Yap, cardiologist; Dr. Ernesto Olympia, gastroenterologist; Dr. Eladio Miguel Penaranda, Jr., nephrologist; and Dr. Henry Lu, neurologist. Their compassionate treatment made us feel confident that my sisters were given the best medical care they could have.
The 14 weeks of our “residency” at Makati Med had also endeared us to Ditse’s caring nurses: Mike, Risa, Janeth, Abi, Janice, Phem. They would drop by and check on Ditse and us, her caregivers, even when they were assigned to other patients, and they, too, shed tears as they consoled us when Ditse stopped breathing.
We shared some personal stories and were particularly touched by that of Mike, whose nursing duties were non-stop because after his hospital shift he takes care of his 16-year-old sister who has Stage 4 brain cancer.
The nurses were scheduled to go to my sister’s wake but had to call it off because Mike’s sister was brought to the hospital.
Sickness and death brought us closer as a family, and friends who deeply cared found time expressing their support in many ways. I could not think of words to describe how blessed we are for having them by our side through good and bad times.
Losing a loved one raises all manner of questions and emotions—most of all a sense of injustice for a vibrant, valuable life cut so short by the debilitating effects of cancer or any lingering illness.
Ate Edith and Ditse faced cancer with a brave heart and a business-as-usual attitude and even when their physical movement and speech had failed them, they still managed to project their will and feelings.
We all know that we cannot change what had happened but it is possible, in time, to accept and embrace the fragility of this life we all live.
Life, indeed, is not what money can buy. We all live in His time, and I believe that no amount of money can match that. Money can only make life less difficult.