What To Do When Cancer Comes

 Celia spends quality time with her son, Thomas Tomlinson, a professional artist. (Photo courtesy of Celia Ruiz Tomlinson)

Celia spends quality time with her son, Thomas Tomlinson, a professional artist. (Photo courtesy of Celia Ruiz Tomlinson)

If cancer has not turned your life upside down and you are reading this, I must hand it to you. Other readers of your ilk would probably ignore the title and move on to articles on mouth-watering recipes. That's what I used to do when I was young, hot and invincible. In 2012, something happened that adjusted my attitude and whacked my swagger. A cough that did not seem to quit led to my lung cancer diagnosis. A gloomy prognosis of eight months to live, maybe a year at most, hung over my head.

It's 2015 and here I am more than three years later, leading a normal life, feeling fortunate that I've defied the odds, just like I did as a pioneer female engineer when males dominated the profession. All these three years I have been totally asymptomatic, meaning no pain, no loss of appetite, no coughing, no fatigue, weight loss of only unwanted pounds, and have not been bedridden. I have not had chemotherapy or radiation. Instead I took a one-a-day pill called Tarceva, to which, according to statistics, Asian women who never smoked react most favorably.

During the first one hundred days, Tarceva devoured the golf-ball-sized cancerous tumor at the bottom of my left lung. All that's left is scar tissue. After 20 months on Tarceva, I entered a clinical trial, which currently provides me with a study drug that keeps cancer at bay.

Once with cancer, always with cancer – that’s a fact. Once it is controlled, it is treated as a chronic disease like diabetes. A diabetic is always a diabetic. Chronic disease patients are monitored all their lives.

Unlike many years ago, cancer diagnosis is no longer considered a death sentence. The medical profession now has an arsenal of drugs that keep cancer at bay, giving those afflicted a chance to live life to the fullest.

Perhaps the toughest thing in cancer diagnosis is the fear that grips the person. Pursuit of knowledge of cancer proved to be my catharsis in dealing with that fear. Familiarity with the enemy gave me, truly or falsely, some sense of being in control.

So far I have learned lessons worth sharing in case cancer comes knocking at anybody’s door. What are the chances of a cancer visit? It’s a crapshoot. The human body consists of cells and when one cell gets out of control, cancer is formed. Smokers do not have a monopoly on lung cancer. Anybody who has a lung can have lung cancer. Anybody who has a stomach can have pancreatic cancer. Absolutely no one is immune.

Lesson Number 1. After the biopsy, go directly to an oncologist.

Cancer is discovered in many ways. A woman went for a tummy tuck. The doctor discovered something leading to a biopsy that revealed ovarian cancer. A man consulted his doctor about a pain in his shoulder. An x-ray led to a biopsy that led to the bone cancer diagnosis. How cancer is discovered is not important. What one does after hearing the dreaded words “You’ve got cancer” or “It’s malignant” is critical. After hearing those words, go immediately to an oncologist.

I wish somebody had given me that advice early on in my diagnosis. I got my cancer notice from a pulmonologist to whom my primary physician had referred me after a suspicious x-ray image showed the tumor at the bottom of my left lung and tiny spots too many to count in both lungs. The pulmonologist took it upon himself to team up with a thoracic surgeon to carve out part of my left lung containing the big tumor. During the procedure, the surgeon felt something that precluded slicing my lung. He sewed me up – an open-and-shut case – and referred me to an oncologist.

The discontinued operation was a good thing! It turned out the oncologist, a doctor whose specialty is cancer, knew about new targeted-therapy drugs. Pulmonologists, general practitioners and surgeons are clueless about them.

Lesson Number 2. Believe that cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence.

Believe that you’ll overcome the disease. When we lose hope or faith, our immune system shuts down and illness can take over. Believe that everybody dies sooner or later of something or another. Cancer is just one of the diseases from A to Z in WebMD.com that cause death, plus accidents. Don’t forget the bangungot (sleeping death)!

Lesson Number 3. Google, Bing, Yahoo! Keep busy surfing the Internet for support groups and financial assistance. I found Patient Access Network Foundation, which covered 100 percent of the Tarceva costs that would have been $6,000 a month! Do the math: 20 months on Tarceva.

 Celia writes two hours each day.  (Photo courtesy of Celia Ruiz Tomlinson)

Celia writes two hours each day.  (Photo courtesy of Celia Ruiz Tomlinson)

Lesson Number 4. Focus on treatment. Once a treatment plan is designed for your type of cancer, be diligent about its execution. Keep abreast of the research and development of new drugs.

Lesson Number 5. Live on! Appreciate every tiny magic moment alone or with loved ones. Savor life through slow-motion lens. Live it up. When I was growing up in the Philippines I heard this song. Its lyrics have stuck with me because the song is so me! It goes like this, “I’m gonna live, live, live, until I die. I’m gonna dance, dance until I tire….Before my number’s up, I’m gonna fill my cup, I’m gonna live, live, live until I die.”

There you have it from the cancer “swami.”

 Yoga keeps Celia centered. She's been at it for 31 years. (Photo courtesy of Celia Ruiz Tomlinson)

Yoga keeps Celia centered. She's been at it for 31 years. (Photo courtesy of Celia Ruiz Tomlinson)


 Celia Ruiz Tomlinson

Celia Ruiz Tomlinson

Celia Ruiz Tomlinson is the author of "Don't Ever Tell Me You Can't".


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