By Marivir Montebon
Editor’s Note: This article is a reprint from the Migrant Heritage Chronicle, a Washington, DC-based institution for immigrants in the US. The author reprints this in OSM! in time for the celebration of Pink October, the breast cancer awareness month. This is to the memory of Beth and Marlene, who became larger than life after their battle with breast cancer.
We are spiritual beings having a human experience.
-Pierre Tielhard de Chardin
New York — Sometimes, it takes a debilitating disease to appreciate the real meaning of life. Women who have been afflicted with terminal breast cancer (the second most common cause of death among Filipino women) share that never before have they come to terms with themselves than the time when they were struggling to survive their own pain.
“Life is too short to wallow in anger or stress. It is best to always spend time with your loved ones,” says Beth Wong in a long distance call from Florida. She is waiting for her time at the hospice bed.
I could not help but be tearful as I talked to her one Sunday afternoon. I had been postponing my interview with her, despite the prodding of her good friend Zurita, fearful that I may cause her stress.
Finally we talked, and it was amazing to hear a woman on the other line who sounded strong and inspiring.
Elizabeth Wong, 49, is a physical therapist and has lived in the US since the early 1990s. In 2002 she noticed a lump in her breast and did not pay attention to it. A year later she was diagnosed with advanced stage of breast cancer.
She said she was in a state of denial, and later realized it was wrong.
“We should have never be in a state of denial for too long,” she said, “because the early stage of cancer could have well been cured.”
In December of 2011, Beth’s breast cancer had spread fastidiously into her spine and bones, crippling her chest down to her legs. The doctors said they could not do much to help her.
She has resigned herself to the truth that death is at hand. I asked if it was frightening to know that you are dying.
No, it is not, she said. “I don’t fear death. It is something I look forward to in order to meet my Creator. I am not praying to be healed. Life is beautiful after cancer, for you will be with God.”
Beth, a native of Cebu, said there was nothing to regret in her life, except that she wished she could have more time helping others in their spiritual pursuit.
“People should not feel hopeless. Hope is in God. I wish I could share the profound joy to others when you have known God, you trust him, and you become worry-free and not focus so much on accumulating wealth or other earthly things.
This is not our house, we are journeying towards God, and if we understand that, we will not fear anything.”
Beth is to be survived by her and her partner of 15 years and her parents, who will soon embark on a long trip from Cebu to Florida in early February. Uncannily, Beth does the comforting for everyone from her hospice bed.
All her funeral arrangements have already been prepared, with the slightest of drama, that her parents will bring back her ashes to Cebu.
“It will be okay. We will see each other soon anyway,” she would say.
When not sedated with heavy doses of pain reliever, Beth entertains a steady stream of friends at the hospice who come to her and party.
When she lived way past her supposed deadline of two weeks, her friends from Florida and her college classmates, who are working in various states flew in to celebrate life with her. Some of her lifelong friends include Vivian from Poconos in Pennsylvania, Jingjing from New Jersey, Wennie from Michigan, and Zurita from West Virginia.
Recalling New Year’s Eve Zurita commented, “we celebrated New Year’s together and had a toast with sprite. We are very happy that she is still around and believe it or not she is the one comforting us when we were crying. How silly is that?”
“Never before has this hospice been in a jovial mood,” quips one attending nurse.
Change in Perspectives
The information drive on breast cancer which has now reached global proportions has significantly changed the perspectives of women, becoming proactive in the face of impending death.
Especially with the yearly celebration of Pink October, the Breast Cancer Awareness month, survivors, advocates, friends and family have congregated to continually battle cancer with strength and hope.
While doing my TV show Babaye in Cebu, I had a an opportunity to meet with women who were breast cancer survivors. I joined a handful of them in a make-over session at Rustan’s in 2006. And the women were raving at their new sophistication.
“I never thought I could be this ravishing”, beamed Elena, now a cancer survivor.
Being positive minded is the most common effect among women that I came in touch with.
The provincial director of the Trade Department in Cebu Nelia Navarro, another cancer survivor, said she has learned to become more relaxed and appreciative of the little details in life after she survived her own.
Evidently, she now chooses brighter colors in her suits and clothes while attending government and corporate functions. “A good day has a lot to do with a sunny disposition, including the choice of color of clothes,” she said.
An Inspiring Book
She was one woman I missed meeting, passing on in February 2011, at an age where life is supposedly at its fullest as a businesswoman, nurse, and community leader in Connecticut.
Marlene victoriously fought breast cancer in 2001, after going through a bilateral mastectomy. After one full year of recovery, she bounced back to life, with the support of Jeff, her family, and friends.
Her book Looking into the Mirror is the voice of a woman whose faith surpassed all of her life’s challenges, including the most gripping, health. Her mantra has always been an adamant, “I can do this” as she stares at herself in the mirror.
And she did it! Setting up her own real estate business, devotedly giving time to her two children, and leading a Filipino-American organization that made her literally larger than life.
The Breast Cancer Survival Center of Connecticut and the Life Success coaching of her husband proved to be helpful to Marlene, she was back on the road to make life happier for herself and others.
“I have learned that having breast cancer really changes how you look at life and how you treasure life. I now have more goals, more purpose, more I want to accomplish. I have learned to live one day at a time, and I truly enjoy every moment with my family and friends”, she wrote.
But cancers are treacherous and science has yet to deal successfully with their abrupt return, like thieves in the night that eat up the human body.
Marlene was diagnosed to have pancreatic cancer in 2010, which was already in its advance stage. Up and about with the indomitable spirit of hope and hard work, Marlene was already life’s champion.
Right at the last grip of life, she was serene and took things in stride. A few weeks before she slipped away, she was still on top of her responsibility as community leader for the Filipino-American community. She organized and hosted the National Federation of Filipino American Associations Annual Grand Poinsettia Ball in Stamford, Connecticut in December 2010.
Marlene will be remembered for her legacy of leadership with the institutionalization of the Marlene Capinpin Stern Community Service and Leadership Award which will be awarded yearly to an organization that goes above and beyond to help Filipinos here and abroad.
Cancer has not defeated her spirit. She lives on because of her faith and brand of leadership.