By Marivir R. Montebon
(This is an excerpt of the 45-page essay I wrote for my MA Independent Study on Viktor Frankl at the Unification Theology Seminary for the Spring 2019 semester. This is the last chapter of that essay, about Leani Alnica Auxilio, who is digital editor of OSM! Online magazine.)
Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. – Viktor Frankl
Aside from being a writer, being a mother has provided me with tremendous joy and fulfillment. Motherhood, 26 years ago, has taught me that I am capable of immense love and sacrifice. I have not given so much love and care to someone as I have to my only child.
As they say, one will never really be able to repay his or her parents’ sacrifice until he or she has become a parent. Now, I completely understand the sacrifice and anguish my parents felt while raising me and my siblings. When I became a mother, I felt I have become fully human. I have become quite a changed person – I work to feed my child and I strive to be a better person because I am raising a child for the world. Such became my transformation.
As I write this essay, I am going through the steepest challenge of motherhood. And that is, to lead and nurture my child out of danger and towards full healing from colon cancer. Never in my life have I ever been so afraid and in pain, yet so faithful and hopeful that we will be able to conquer my daughter’s condition triumphantly.
My daughter Nikki is healing from colon cancer stage 4. I am all out with her in this journey, and I am determined to win this with her with God’s grace in this health campaign called #healthturnaround. In 2012, Nikki was diagnosed to have a non-metastasic thyroid cancer for which she had a two hour surgery. We pretty much bounced back fast on that. But I had been trying to be more careful of her condition since then.
On December 12, 2018, Nikki and I went to see an oncologist (upon the recommendation of her surgeon), this was one month after she had another surgery – a removal of her entire colon due to a genetic condition called Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) wherein the colon is blanketed by hundreds of polyps. These polyps will eventually become malignant, hence surgery is highly recommended to preempt cancer.
And so our mindset was that we were preempting the occurrence of cancer hence the full colorectal surgery which happened on November 9, 2018. That took 13 long hours and used the latest model of the surgical robot of the Presbyterian Queens Hospital. At the time of the surgery, we were told that her polyps were benign. The surgery was therefore preemptive, to avoid cancer which was expected to occur when one has an FAP condition.
That lovely autumn day, Nikki was prepared at 6AM and the surgery ended at 7:30PM. Those 13 hours were the scariest times of my life. I did my hopeful, tearful prayers intermittently. My aunt and uncle were there to keep me company, as well as three of my friends.
The lead surgeon saw me after the entire procedure, haggard looking. He warned me that he saw a suspicious looking polyp in the colon and that he would have it biopsied to check for malignancy. That struck me concerned. But after that 13-hour surgery I felt nothing but relief and gratitude that finally, my daughter was safe.
From November to December 2018, Nikki (now without a colon!) recuperated pretty fast after her surgery. She was given utmost care by her doctors and nurses. Everyday is a day of gratitude. Her new life also meant using a new system for a vital bodily function: she’s using an iliostomy bag where her bodily waste is discharged. Quite a big challenge for this young woman. But we both were quietly horrified. Gradually, she mastered the technique of changing her iliostomy bag and getting used to the small intestine making funny sounds while we were eating or immediately after. The adjustment had been tough, but I admire my daughter’s tough character to be able to adjust fast.
Then December 12, 2018 came.
We were at the oncologist office, both in a good mood. After the attending nurse did Nikki’s vitals and gathered all pertinent information, the oncologist came to see us. She brought us the bad news: a prognosis of stage 4 colon cancer that has metastasized to the peritonium and 5 of 55 lymph nodes tested. She said Nikki’s chemotherapy will be palliative for two years.
The word palliative hit me. So I asked the oncologist, you mean, she will not be cured? She was lost for words. She told us that after two years, they may look for another therapy for Nikki.
You are saying it is palliative, I said again, so she won’t be cured? And she has two years to live? Then the oncologist said sorry, but that is the most we can do, to give her palliative care for two years.
OMG. Was I hearing that from her?
I saw my daughter’s face turn red, slumped on her chair, with a melting demeanor, and about to cry. I felt that my face turn red too, and I was trembling, with mixed feelings of anger and disbelief. The doctor apologized again but offered no hope of healing. She just gave a deadline to my child’s life, a span of two years.
I was actually very angry. So angry I could insult her for her insensitivity and boxed mind and feeling like a God. She has not seen how Nikki has impressively hurdled the one month after surgery, of eating well, being able to get up and put up tediously her entirely new system of iliostomy, etcetera. And a doctor tells me that my child has two years in life. But I withheld my anger.
Immediately, the oncologist told us to schedule chemotherapy and gave us a tour inside the hospital’s state of the art pavilion. I asked if it was okay for her to undergo chemotherapy when she was just recuperating from her surgery, a major wound had happened that disrupted her entire internal organs.
The oncologist said one month is enough recuperation period. She was simply unbelievable. I saw my daughter is still recovering from surgery that took out her six-foot colon. If to her, chemotherapy was a palliative approach, why was she hurrying us up to go into the onslaught of chemotherapy? I clearly did not like this oncologist.
After the pavilion tour, Nikki and I headed out. While waiting for our Uber service, I had quickly asked her not to believe the oncologist, that we would get a second opinion. She knew I was angry because the doctor was so sure Nikki only had palliative care and will live for two years. Excuse me, she did not even have the humility to tell us to get a second opinion.
I was text messaging my family and select friends of Nikki’s prognosis. Immediately, my phone was bombarded with shocked and sorry responses. On our way home, Nikki and I discussed to look for another oncologist. I did all that I can to not believe in what the oncologist had just told her.
I told her that she will heal. The body heals itself, given the right food and medicine, and with God’s grace, of course. I had assured Nikki of that, and to believe in her healing. My thoughts raced on our way home. How come the gastroenterologist (or the machine) did not see a 4.5cm malignant tumor when she was examined in the summer of 2018? Her polyps were biopsied and were found benign. Can a tumor grow so fast, from March to November 2018? Can it metastasize that fast too? I just could not believe that prognosis.
I never wanted Nikki to undergo chemotherapy for it is a massacre of all good and bad cells in the body. I had a handful of friends who were healed of cancer without going through chemotherapy. I wanted to use naturopathic treatment. Our fierce clashes had begun. She wanted to do chemotherapy. I explained to her the value of holistic healing and the testimonials of those I know and written about who were using mega-vitamins and other healing modalities.
She won’t have any of it. At 26, Nikki is legally bound to make decisions for herself. Her friends encouraged her to go into chemotherapy. And they also saw it fit for her to go through natural modalities. Hence, we struck a compromise. We will do integrative healing, that is, chemotherapy and all other holistic treatments. From December 2018 to February 2019, she went into some holistic interventions from chiropractic, reiki, mega-doses of natural vitamin supplements, and intravenous vitamin infusions. These were all meant to strengthen her immune system for the onslaught of chemotherapy.
In February 2019, we found another oncologist who was recommended by Nikki’s friend. She immediately liked this oncologist who carefully explained that she was in a very crucial situation, and that time is of the essence because of the metastasis of the cancer. He said he sees a 50-50 chance of survival. Nikki agreed to the chemotherapy. She is taking her chance. Although I am not a believer of chemotherapy, I am all out supporting her. I am actually in a very difficult situation that I felt I could have a heart attack anytime.
The winter of 2018 and 2019 was so dark for me. I dreaded the day when Nikki shall finally go into chemotherapy. I had dreams of confusing events, chaos, unbelievably thin cats, and I woke up having headaches in those days. Feeling horrified always, I felt chest pains and had difficulty breathing. I carried on in tears and prayers for my daughter, without her seeing it.
Her chemotherapy began in February and will finish in August 2019 after six cycles. A PET scan will be performed again at the end of the sixth cycle which the oncologist had scheduled. It is my fervent prayer that a remission will take place by then.
My family is all supportive of me and Nikki during these trying times. They regularly check on us and send financial and material support. Nikki’s close friends too are amazing. They took the initiative of running a go fund me campaign in order to help defray the cost of Nikki’s healing journey. As of this writing, the millennials are still at it – sending in money as a way to cheer Nikki in her #healthturnaround campaign. My circle of friends and acquaintances are just as supportive. I’d receive cash or checks from them, which always makes me cry in gratitude. Love, indeed, has touched us in this very difficult time.
The love and support of our community (including UTS), to me, is a miracle in itself. From that love, I draw strength. I could not believe the enormous outpouring of support. I thought I must have done something good to deserve all their help, financial and psychological. My friends and family, to me, are God’s messengers of love and hope that kept me and Nikki afloat. My financial resources are absolutely low, but the pouring in of support, almost like an avalanche, is proof that God is taking care of us. I often told Nikki, the journey towards your healing is a miracle in itself.
The integrative approach to cancer management has so far been good to Nikki. While chemotherapy truly devastates her system after about three days of the entire cycle, she bounces back fastidiously too. But not without my horror. Seeing my child, becoming so thin and losing her hair, unable to eat and drink because of mouth sores, and crying in discomfort and fear, makes me wish I had the power to share half or all of her pain.
At one time while I was massaging her back, she asked me While crying in pain after chemotherapy, why did she have this illness. How I pitied my child. Why indeed? Her FAP was a mutation, according to geneticists. And that was puzzling and troubling.
I looked at her intently, and while massaging her hands, I said life is a cruel teacher. It is brutal. But we have to embrace its lessons. Maybe, life is teaching you to be responsible, to take care of yourself some more, to eat good food, and not dwell in negativity most of the time. Cancers grow when we don’t eat the right foods and when we carry negative thoughts that turn into toxins. I don’t know if I have convinced my daughter with that answer. But I have merely described to her how she may have unwittingly created her own disease.
Lack of self care and not listening to one’s body when the body is screaming for help, to stop eating unwell foods or to check out unusual bodily symptoms instead of ignoring it. In retrospect, I am to blame too for Nikki’s condition. I perhaps had been giving too much attention to work and other people instead of her, hence she does all the unhealthy food intake. Whatever.
When in a situation like ours, which is so low and in the brink of losing precious life, it becomes the time for introspection and deep realizations. Why did my daughter get this kind of health problem? In 2012, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, had surgery, and survived it. This time, she has colon cancer stage 4. Why is this? There is no one like this in my lineage. I have no answers.
In one of those times of reflections, I realized that my subconscious fear must have gotten us into this. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had an unexplained fear for sick children. I would not listen to news of sick children and I had asked the newsroom at that time to not assign me to cover stories about children who were sick, for I did not want to see small children suffer.
I was a sickly child myself. Being asthmatic, I know how much effort it took to breath, when breathing is actually a natural process. Perhaps that childhood experience made me fearful to see children being sick as well. In my pregnancy, that fear had weirdly returned to me.
Now, I come across the quotation by Frankl: “Fear may come true that which one is afraid of.” Such is the paradox in life. Am I experiencing that paradox now? Is there a way for me to counter that? How? Deep inside me, I am in a mad scramble for answer. I am in desperate prayer.
Nikki’s chiropractor has been very enlightening and a truly amazing support. He said cancer may be good, because it allows us to reexamine ourselves and learn from it. He tells me to stop my fear of chemotherapy and let Nikki go through the entire course – “because if she believes in her treatment, she will be healed” the chiropractor said.
And so right now, I give a little allowance to chemotherapy to help my child. I have developed the specific technique of mind encouraging the body (and the cells) to move and be active towards healing. I have reminded my daughter with this technique especially when she is in pain after chemotherapy.
Coupled with all the large doses of vitamins and herbal drinks everyday, I believe she will heal sooner than later. Nikki is feisty too, a fighter, who despite her being willfully stubborn, is courageous. With all these, and with God’s grace, she will win this struggle.
My daughter’s condition right now is so far, the steepest journey in my life. Nikki is still in the woods. Although I am hounded by fear, I carry on with faith in my heart, that by a few more steps, we will walk past this and finally see the sun shining through.
As of June 20, 2019, her MRI result was negative for metastasis in the spine, which is so encouraging and proof that her treatment is working well. Her vitals after three weeks of post-chemotherapy were all above normal. I am simply grateful with all of these. How resilient her body is, despite the onslaught of chemotherapy.
(As of July 2019, the disease has progressed into the Fallopian tubes and slightly in the pancreas, as the CT scan showed. Her fourth chemotherapy had created a urine retention problem, which as of this writing, continues to bother her and stalled the 5th chemotherapy cycle.)
Right now, I am living the meaning of motherhood which is love and sacrifice, and giving your child the best care you could ever give in order to nurture her back to active life. A mother will hurt seeing her child get hurt, her pain is doubled. Because with that empathetic pain comes extreme fear and anxiety. I am in that state right now.
Everyday for me is a prayer for strength to be able to endure, an act of love in preparing meals or giving vitamins and medicine, a moment of hope that tomorrow will be better. It is also my test of character and patience, as she gets cranky or demanding. I need my sleep and rest too.
Nikki’s health situation is my test of faith. It feels like I am back in the days when I encouraged Nikki to make her first steps at walking. Or when I painstakingly made effort every night at bedtime to read to her, until finally she can read at age three. Our bedtime was such tha she read to me her favorite book and I, would clap so gleefully, each time she figured out how to read new words.
As Nikki is fighting against cancer and is a willfill warrior for her health, I give her all my support and guidance. She will win this, for she is tougher than cancer. A mother’s gut feel knows. My heart knows that God heals and would graciously give my child time for an extended life. She has a meaningful mission to fulfill in making the world a better than it ever could be.
I recalled a few days before Nikki’s thyroid surgery that I saw a pink rosary on the street while I was walking home. I was amazed to find that religious article for the devotion of Blessed Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. I picked it up and held tightly in my hand, bewildered that it was a message from up above that I needed to go back to the devotion of the mother of Jesus Christ. I have kept the pink rosary in my purse since then, and I went back to praying for Mary’s intercession as Catholics do.
Six years later, I found that the rosary’s crucifix was broken, because of its constant transfer from one purse to another. I painstakingly fixed it with a cement glue and placed in a small gift box. Its location is on the sideboard of our living room, a reminder that God and Mother Mary have always been with us in this journey.
I believe that the darkest, lowest time of our lives is the spring board of light and the peak of humanity that we can become. We shall overcome dark days and see the light. Like Frankl, Prisoner 119104, who lived to tell his story in the concentration camps and wrote it together with his wife Ellie, I am bent to give my time for Nikki to heal from her health condition and see the light.
In the words of Jesus Christ himself who said, “Your faith has healed you,” so be it, my heart believes and my faith is my meaning now. It is our faith that heals.