A week ago I just had my annual physical exam required by our company. CONVERGYS Philippines has very strict policies when it comes to their employees' physical exam and inability to comply or complete will result to insubordination and a memo coming from HR. When it was my turn to have my pap smear the obstetrician gynecologist asked the usual questions that I have grown accustomed answering.
"Is there a history in your family that we should know of like cancer , diabetes, hypertension and the like? "
I told her that there is history of diabetes on my mom's side of the family and hypertension on both sides.
"What about cancer ?"
And without battling an eyelash I told her that I come from a cancer stricken family on both sides.
I needed no further prodding as I knew she would ask who among my relatives died of cancer so I enumerated. I told her about the grand aunt who succumbed to breast cancer even after both breasts had been removed. I told her about my dad whose lung cancer left an invisible scar in my life until now, my aunt who lost her life to colon cancer, about my cousins almost yearly deaths without the knowledge of having signs detected and lately my uncle's wife who was like a fairy godmother, one I never saw since my baptism and who crossed over last August because of liver cancer. I tried to make the conversation as light as possible, even telling her that perhaps I might be one of the most boring persons on earth as I do not smoke nor drink, am not a fan of junk food, fast food chains and carbonated drinks. I also added that my medical history was not something to be proud of.
If I could only be given a choice not to tell about my family's health history I would. There was a time that talking things over with a friend, classmate or a relative was hard especially those first few months after my father died. Writing about it for the first time was like looking back at that very painful part of my life that always brought tears to my eyes.
My dad had been orphaned at a very young age and grew up without a father. Coming from a very poor family he did all sorts of odd jobs just to survive and finish his studies. Perhaps as a daughter I could understand why he learned to smoke early. I recall he would ask me buy him cigarettes and how we got freebies like towels and bags given by his favorite brand. As a musician and an artist he did not have a regular income so there were days spent taking care of us. When the gigs became fewer in between he stayed home more often until he decided to become a full time house husband.
When I entered high school I noticed something odd about my dad. I had gotten used seeing him light a cigarette but there were days that I saw him with an unlit match stick instead which made us both laugh. It was then that he told me he was teaching himself how to quit which he successfully did. However it was when he stopped smoking that we had noticed something different and strange. He started to sleep less in the evenings due to his constant coughing and had difficulty breathing. As days went on he started to have emphysema making it hard for him to enjoy a simple meal and could barely talk while catching his breath .
When I went to the city to pursue college my dad's health changed drastically and because I only visited my family once a month due to money reasons I had learned that my dad started to loose his voice. He also cannot be left alone unlike before where he took care of every chore in the house while my mom taught. When I asked him if there was a slight chance that his voice would come back he said he was not sure. This was in the early 80's, when the Philippines was not yet aware of the early signs of cancer. It was only after many visits and tests that it was found out. It was hard but as a family we learned how to cope. We were unprepared financially and emotionally but still we were thankful that dad had siblings in the US who were both kind enough to support us all the way. That was when my dad started living in the best hospitals in the city and when I get to visit him after school. He did not agree to chemotherapy because his thin body could not bear the effects after each session so he chose cobalt therapy instead. I still recall when he showed me that article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer where his doctor was featured while showing the apparatus used for patients undergoing cobalt therapy. He felt so proud and safe that he was being handled by the best people in the country.
It was summer of 1987 when all of my dad's siblings got together after many years. My aunt Afric and uncle Pinong from CA visited my dad upon my aunt Naty's request stating they might not be lucky to see him the next summer after that. My dad who often stayed in bed would ask us to accompany him to see his siblings next door so he could be with them. It seemed that being with them again and seeing his family was complete made him forget his illness even for a short time. Sadly by the end of summer his siblings had to say goodbye, including me and my sister who will be entering college, spending most of her adult life in the city just like me.
It was the fourth of October 1987, just two days after my nineteenth birthday that dad finally succumbed to cancer. He was at the hospital not recognizing any one of us when we arrived from Manila to see him fight for the last time. There was a tube in his nose where he got his food intake and an IV on his leg . WE were all crying silently, still not accepting the fact that the man who made us all laugh, sing and taught us to be independent was the same person lying helpless yet hearing nothing because the illness took everything including his voice. The pain was so much to bear that we have to let him go. I saw how he took his last breath and how I stubbornly held his hand still even after he stopped breathing. It was only when the medical staff covered his whole body with a sheet that I told myself that it was over. It was a memory that had been imbedded not just in my mind but in my heart as long as I live.
Since that dreadful day I told myself that I will grow old without knowing the taste of cigarette smoke and alcohol. I vowed that if I learned one of my kids smoked or drank either moderately, worst heavily especially behind my back either due to peer pressure or as a sign of rebellion and independence, I will tell them to stop school and to move out of my house. I also made it a point to seldom go to parties or bars and if I do I make sure there will be a no smoking area. I also do not stay long at an event when the smell of smoke is no longer bearable for me to take. I really did not care if my rules were very strict especially to my own kids but I would rather have a smoke and alcohol free home than let them experience the same hell that I went through when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. If there was one thing that this dreaded disease had taught me, it is the choice to live a healthy life.It maybe difficult at times but we try our best to be mindful of the consequences once we can feel the signs of an impending illness. We try to prevent it, know its cause, deal and learn with it.
Many years after my dad died this illness still had not stopped taking members of my family. Sometimes I wonder if it was a curse handed down by the Heavens. I have to admit that it sometimes crossed my mind of my chances of getting the same fate. But then a lot of things have changed. People have become more aware and proactive how to detect early signs of it. Foundations all over the world were built on research to discover the cure, not accepting the idea that there was none. The media continue to educate everybody, spreading the information, making it viral so that all of us will know.
This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the American Cancer Society. I may not be an American , have not been educated nor worked in the US but an illness like cancer had created a worldwide stigma making everyone fully aware that once you get hit with it the world will not let you suffer alone. Guilt, remorse even anger will likely to come only to learn that acceptance is the only way to deal with it. Once that happens it will not just be your fight as the whole world will be behind your back. You become a powerful voice, not just a statistic, empowering millions that whether cancer is here to stay or not we will continue to fight and will never stop until we find the cure.
We have got a lot of work to do .
(Video credits to lung cancer alliance)
For more information visit www.cancer.org.