this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on March12, 2002.

THE POSSIBILITY that I had breast cancer was the biggest scare of my life, to date. I was going through my annual physical examination when our company physician discovered that I had lumps in my left breast and recommended that I have them removed surgically.

I stared at her in horror and disbelief. I had never been hospitalized in my life. The thought of a surgeon’s sharp scalpel cutting my flesh chilled me down to my bones. It was worse than my near-death, drowning experience 14 years ago and my headlong fall down the staircase in an almost forgotten childhood mishap.

The doctor explained that although the lumps appeared to be fibroadenoma, a case of breast mass that develops due to hormonal imbalance, they were still tumors that had to be removed. Once removed, a biopsy had to be done to determine whether the tumors were benign or malignant. If found to be malignant, then I would have to undergo chemotherapy like all cancer patients.

Some of the doctors’ explanations just went through my ears without being understood. My palms began to sweat and I had to sit down on the nearest bench because my legs were starting to feel very weak.

Tumors? I racked my brain for reasons why on earth I had them. I was eating well; I even counted my calorie intake sometimes and I looked at the nutritional values printed on the pre-packed products I bought at the supermarket. I didn’t smoke. I exercised. I limited my alcohol intake to two cocktails on social occasions, although I would very much have liked to have a shot of vodka straight up. I slept at least eight hours a day and, if I had the luxury, I would sleep even half of the day. My mother said that I had completed all my vaccinations and I took all of my vitamins.

Bad gene pool? My mother and my grandmothers on both sides were all size 36C and they didn’t have lumps in their breasts.

Frustrated, I could not think of anything that would help allay my fears.

At first I never told anyone that I had tumors in my breast. I went on with my life as if the incident never happened. I did not undergo an operation right away. I was hoping deep down that one day the lumps would simply disappear and everything would just end like a bad dream. But it never happened.

I started to feel instead the needle-like pricking in the innermost recesses of my flesh at night after the support of the brassiere was gone. I ignored the pain and tried not to think about it by focusing on wonderful things so I could have a good night’s sleep. But when mornings came, the fear would come back.

When the pebbles of fear and apprehension started to turn into heavy stone in my heart, I decided to do something. I went to two doctors to get their opinion.

They found the same lumps. But this time, I asked them to explain to me the nature of fibroadenoma. How do you get it? I asked them. How can you avoid it? And so on and so forth.

The doctors told me that if the lumps grew smaller after my ovulation period, the chances were greater that the tumors were benign. They asked me if that was the case, and I told them yes.

That was a lie. The truth was that I was too uncomfortable to perform breast self-examination much less try to determine whether the lumps were getting smaller.

To my relief, they did not recommend surgery saying that anyway I was still young, the lumps got smaller after my ovulation period and the masses were defined. They also taught me how to perform a breast self-examination properly and advised me to do it monthly so that I could monitor the lumps.

I followed their instructions religiously, scaring myself every month, as the lumps appeared bigger and more pronounced. The pains at night started to haunt me in my sleep. I was scared because I did not know why I had them, how I could get rid of them and what would become of me. I had to bear the weight of my fears alone because I told no one about them. I was in one big denial.

In the morning after I put on my brassiere, I acted as if everything was normal. I partied with my friends. I worked. I traveled. But topics relating to breast cancer were the things I didn’t like to hear about during social chitchat. Whenever I saw Maritoni Fernandez on TV talking about how she survived breast cancer, I switched the channel. I couldn’t bring myself to read articles about breast cancer in women’s magazines. These things were so close to the truth that I was denying.

One year passed. The lumps in my left breast were bigger, much more pronounced, and I had two other small lumps in my right breast. The pain was getting worse, especially during winter. I was overseas then, attending a university. I was away, alone in a foreign country, and I was angry, confused and terrified.

I prayed for courage and listened to myself. I was ashamed that I had lied to myself. Out of my shame, I stumbled into self-realization and acceptance. I faced the fact that I might die young. That could be my fate, I told myself, but it would be completely cowardly of me to die without telling my mother how much I loved her and how much she meant to me. I realized that I should not die unprepared and terrified. I would never really know if I did not stop running and start confronting it. And I grew up.

I called my mother and I told her. I also informed her about my decision to go home and undergo bilateral surgery. She cried on the phone, but I had gathered enough courage to assure her that everything would be fine and I would be fine, no matter what.

I underwent almost four hours of bilateral surgery last Jan. 7, 2002. All of my tumors proved to be benign.

I have been scarred by the surgery but I am no longer scared.

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