this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on April 17, 1999.

A few days from now I will celebrate my birthday. It seems such a long time since the last one, and I can’t help but wonder how am I going to celebrate it.

While lying on a hospital bed six months ago, I was thinking I would make it funnier than my first birthday, sweeter than my 18th and more memorable than my 24th, when I met a graduating PMA cadet who became my boyfriend a year later. And why not, when I would be celebrating my 26th summer with two stitches? Yes, two cute line stitches, cute as a capital C-stitch, one above the other.

It all started six years ago, in 1993, during Holy Week to be exact. I felt a lump on my left breast after a trek on Mt. Banahaw with my older sister Cosette. I chose not to tell my mom at first, not only because I was concerned that she would worry about it but also because I was afraid she would blame me even more for insisting on making that trek to that mysterious mountain over her objections. I thought it was just some muscle cramps that a pain reliever would ease, but then there was no pain so why should I take any medicine?

Nonetheless, mother knows best. I had no choice but to confide my situation. And soon the whole family learned about it. In 24 hours, I was inside the clinic of our family doctor whose expertise pertains to the treatment of cancer. The doctor explained that it was common among teenage girls like me to develop a mass because our body system usually produces secretions faster than it can sweat out and so the fluid stays inside and becomes a mass. Although he declared that what I had was nothing more than a mass, he decided to remove it, just to be sure. He knew our family’s health history and assured my mom that everything would turn out okay. He even gave some medical explanation to it but none that I could remember now. All I can recall was that it was a Monday and he scheduled the operation the following day.

The moment I entered the hospital room, I felt like my ordeal would never end. My blood, urine and stool were tested. I was X-rayed at different angles. Nurses were monitoring my blood pressure all the time. I was interviewed about my allergies (I have asthma since I was a kid) and asked to fast starting at midnight. My mom was with me in my room. I felt nothing except fear of not graduating on time. I was 19 at the time and graduating from the University of the Philippines seemed like the crowning achievement of my young life.

Then the time came. I was transferred to the Operating Room 15 minutes earlier than scheduled. I could see my mom, aunt and sister Cecile hurriedly walking beside my bed while I was being wheeled away. Seconds later, their images started to fade until I could barely recognize them. Then there was nothing but darkness. I was in deep slumber.

Like the doctors promised, everything went fine. I wore a bandage around my chest for two weeks while doing my practicum (a prerequisite to graduation). There was no scar of stitches on my breast, only a line showing an inverted C. The doctor told me a recurrence of the mass was inevitable, but it would not be in the same area. The biopsy showed the mass was benign.

Twelve months later, I finished college. But the story did not end there. In September 1998, I again felt a lump exactly in the place where I had been operated earlier. My mom immediately called our doctor and asked for an appointment. Everyone was worried, including my boyfriend who still managed to say words of comfort even as tears rolled down my cheeks. He told me, ”This too, shall pass.” Very PMA, I thought.

I acted cool but that was not how I felt. Inside me there a loud voice was screaming in pain and anger. A lot of questions crowded my already tired mind: Why is this happening to me again, when I took all the necessary precautions. Do I really deserve this? I’m a good girl. I don’t smoke. I never beat curfew. I don’t drink. Is it my time? Is this the way God wants me to learn how to love Him? But I do love Him and I have prayed to Him every single night of my life. Is this to remind me that I have a lot more to achieve than having a caring family, a loving boyfriend, a master’s degree, a good job and a car (in that order)?

I was crying deeply and silently in my sleep. I was trying to tell myself that things would turn out all right like the first time. As during the first time, I was scheduled for an operation the day after my doctor examined me. I was told that most of the girls who went through the same operation five years ago had gotten married already and given birth and breast-fed their babies and so the possibility of their developing a mass again had been diminished. Did that mean that I had to get married and have babies right away?

Anyway, there was nothing that I could do but submit myself to the scalpel. This time, my mom, my godmother and my boyfriend were with me. While waiting for the operation, I tried to make light of the experience. I even asked my boyfriend why he brought me flowers so soon. I brought along the Tweety bird stuffed toy he gave me and played with it while the nurses and resident physicians were coming and going.

An hour after I was brought out of the recovery room, my doctor went to my room and explained to me what happened even though I was still groggy from the anesthesia. I was trying to open my eyes but to no avail. I could only hear voices. And among all the things I heard, only one statement was seared into my memory. Together with the mass, one-fourth of my left breast had been removed, the lower left quadrant to be exact. From that very moment, I felt I had lost a great volume of my confidence and trust. Several questions popped up: Do I have cancer? Why did my doctor decided to scrape out a part of my breast if there was nothing wrong? How am I going to wear my bra now? How am I going to wear body-fitted blouses or a swimsuit? Is this is the last time that it would happen? If not, will a portion of it be scraped out again after five years until nothing is left of it anymore?

The moment my doctor removed the bandage, I bravely looked at my breast in front of the mirror. I did several quarter turns to check from various angles. My doctor was right: I could barely notice the difference between the two. Again, there was no scar but only a thin white line showing an inverted C. But still, at the back of my mind I know one was heavier (and firmer?) than the other.

Six months after the operation and fast recovering my slightly lost confidence, I was back in my doctor’s clinic. He examined my breasts again. No sign of mass yet, but he felt a solid flesh the size of a pea. This time it’s slightly on the lower right quadrant of the same breast. He said it could be the scar inside or a muscle tissue around the hollow area of the side that was scraped off. I asked him if there’s still a possibility of recurrence. He said he could not say either way. Then, I asked in jest, ”Should I get married now?” He smiled. I thought that would be another story. In the meantime, I will celebrate my 26th birthday with extra fun, extra sweetness and super-extra memories. 

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