Five Things Cancer Taught Me

by Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala

After being a broadcast journalist and a documentarian for the last 14 years, I admit I am not exempt from the cynicism that accompanies the job. Covering the same problems we never seem to learn from, over and over again, can do that you.

Ironically, it was another bad news, called cancer , that snapped me out of my cynicsm.

Cancer taught me many things I've always known but was too proud to acknowledge it needed re-learning.

I will share the five most important things cancer taught me.

I closed my eyes and decided to count my blessings.

1. First, information is power. I am a journalist trained to find out all I can. Yet when I had cancer I didn't know the first thing. I crammed as much as I could. The best way to defeat the enemy was to know it inside out.

There are many things I know now, that I didn't know before. I would've done many things differently if I knew sooner.

And that is why I set up a foundation called I Can Serve. To empower women with breast cancer, and breast care health information. To let others learn from my bumpy journey, so that theirs would be smoother.

We have an I Can Serve hotline and e-mail for survivors and their families. Contrary to what most people think, and what I thought, callers and letters we receive are from women who are hungry for information, not pity. In its five years of existence, we've only received about 10 calls where women were sobbing, or feeling helpless and depressed.

In our network, we share basic information, and tips that we never hear from our doctors, or read about in books.

But the most important piece of information we learn is that God never forsakes us . It's the common thread of all story telling.

And that's one of the things that keeps me going in my advocacy. The learnig and healing never stops once you're done with your treatments. As I reach out to a newly diagnosed cancer survivor , I too am renewed. I am reminded that I have to keep the end in mind all the time. I am reminded of the time I was sick but my prayer life was at its healthiest, and that it should always stay that way.

2. This brings me to my second point. The cancer survivor is one of the best kinds of people I know.

When you are on the verge of extinction, your life takes only two meanings: love and service. And you pursue it with a tunnel vision. Life is too short to dwell on the bad.

Every cancer survivor I meet is in a hurry to give back. She is thankful for being alive and for finally realizing the point of her life. All wounds turn into wisdom. As she goes through treatment, its harsh side effects, she always finds a way to serve. Just look at the sharing that goes on among the patients in the waiting line outside the oncologist's office or at the radiation clinics. You can't even tell they're sick.

When my good friend Trisha Borromeo, fashion model and teacher, found out her cancer returned, she didn't postpone the appointment we had set for the following day. We had a shoot on how to use bandanas and wigs for cancer patients . This pictorial was for my book I Can Serve. It's a publication we produce every two years and distribute for free.

She chose to volunteer her services and postponed catching her breath to process the news of her deteriorating condition.

All the cancer survivors know are filled with hope even when vital signs run low and their prognosis is the worst kind. In fact, the more advance the cancer, the more the survivor glows with optimism . Just think of the late Rio Diaz you'll know what I mean.

Cancer survivors do things that people normally do only when someone in the family dies. They say exactly how they feel, seek forgiveness, and give thanks knowing their time can run out anytime.

I remember Tita Bessie Legarda. Loren's mother. Just before she died, she phoned me for no special occasion. She kept telling me she loved me and was thanking me. I've known her to be affectionate but she was different that time, there was some urgency in her tone.

At the time she called, I didn't know how sick she really was. And I suspect neither did she. After her first bout with cancer, she lived as if there were no more tomorrows. And when her cancer returned, she quadrupled her efforts.

Can you imagine what life would be if all of us behaved as though we were to die tomorrow?

3. The third thing I learned is this. Prayer is the first option and not the last resort. In fact I learned that His answer to my prayers are always better than what I had hope for.

When I found out I had breast cancer 7 years ago, it was no big deal. I never questioned. Then Dr. Stockdale in Stanford Hospital told me I wouldn't have children after chemotherapy. That's when I stopped breathing! During that time , I was single and engaged. My Tita Nats told me, what do they know, they're only doctors? Just pray.

And so I did. While on chemotherapy I also prayed to Marie Eugenie, founder of the Assumption order . I pleaded with her to help me pray that I become a mother one day.

Three years later , I was assigned by ARD German TV to cover the Abu Sayyaf Sipadan hostage story . I had to live in Zamboanga and Jolo for nearly four months.

It was a stressful time. Besides being on top of the story, I had to make sure no one in my German team including myself would be held hostage by Commander Robot.

I would return home to Manila once in awhile for a few days. At the time, I had been married for two years and wondered how I would find the time to be pregnant especially since the Abu Sayyaf never ran out of hostages!And Commander Robot didn't have to work hard as he had so many walk in hostages-mostly journalists who wanted an interview.

Then, one day, I found out I was pregnant. It was a delicate pregnancy and I was re-assigned to Manila. And guess what? I found out I was pregnant on the Feast of the Assumption.

(L-R) Sen. Loren Legarda, Ms. Dawn Zulueta and ICanServe Foundation founding president Ms. Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala at the ribbon cuting ceremony for the Free Breast Cancer Clinic during the Silver Linings event held in Davao City.

I named my miracle, Mariana Eugenie to honor the lady who helped me pray for a miracle.

When you reach a point in your life when you feel solutions to your problems are no longer humanly possible, that's when letting go and leaving it all up to the Lord is the only recourse.

So when my Tita Nats told me to pray hard, I had to because I had no choice. I couldn't at will let my body keep its reproductive functions intact as it succumbed to chemotherapy, a treatment notorious for being worst than the disease.

Yet for a TV producer like me who is obsessive compulsive, giving up control and allowing the Lord to take over, came easy. When you reach the worst point in your life, and realize everything in your life becomes better because of it, you realize there's no reason to resist cancer or any crisis for that matter.

Life is only difficult if you stand in the way of His plan for you.

The only way to breathe is to pray. It's the first option, not the last resort.

4. Fourth thing I learned is that our faith is constantly evolving. People probably think that just because we had a life threatening experience , our faith is more mature than most.

And just because it seemed like we've had our quota of trials enough for more than a lifetime, we are exempt from further pain.

I wish that were true. But it's not. Each time I have my faith down pat, a new challenge rams my way.

When the doctor took my baby out of my tummy, she didn't cry. In fact she didn't move. She had an apgar score of ZERO. Everyone was still in the delivery room when I asked, what happened?

I could only pray and say Lord, please let my baby live! Again, I was reminded of who was the real producer, director and scriptwriter of my life.

After a few minutes that seemed like forever, my daughter Ariana started to breathe. Right there I learned what every mother fears she has to learn. You're baby is not really yours. Just as our lives are not entirely ours. We are mere stewards of His gifts.

There will be many more tests of faith. It's just like going to school. The higher the grade or year, the higher the level of difficulty.

Life is not about climbing the corporate ladder of success. It's about climbing the many rungs of the ladder leading to Him. Each trial is a step that takes us higher till we reach Him all the way to the top and embrace Him , even if it means being pierced by His crown of thorns.

5. Lastly, I learned that the fight against breast cancer comes down to this. It's advocates are more than crusaders. We are endorsers of a kind of life we hope everyone will buy into. Our message? Don't get sick to know you have to manage your health. Don't wait for a crisis to love and serve ferociously as if each opportunity you get were your last.

** Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala is a breast cancer survivor, founder and President of I Can Serve. She's a broadcast journalist and documentarian. She is founding partner of Storytellers International Inc, and producer for ARD German Television and member of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.


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