More than 1.7 million women around the world develop breast cancer every year, according to the World Cancer Research Fund. In a 2012 report by the Philippine Society of Medical Oncology, three out of 100 Filipino women will contract the disease before age 75, with the Philippines having the highest breast cancer rate in Asia. Despite these alarming statistics, marketing consultant Frances Yu never thought that it could happen to her. “I don’t really get sick,” she reasons. Even after being warned by a close friend, which compelled her to undergo a battery of medical tests, Frances didn’t feel worried or anxious. “After the tests, I traveled, I went to Europe. I had my exam in August last year and I didn’t pick up the results until November, would you believe?” she says.
Things changed as she started interpreting the results. Her radiology exam showed that Frances fell under BI-RADS Category 4, which showed an increased possibility of getting breast cancer. “That’s when I became alarmed. I went to a specialist, had a biopsy, and it was positive.” Despite thinking that the odds were in her favor, Frances became part of those dreaded statistics and joined the growing ranks of men and women battling the disease.
Breast cancer survivor Frances Yu
BACK ON TRACK
When we meet Frances, it has been eight months after her mastectomy, and barely four months after her final round of chemotherapy. Her once long and naturally wavy hair has started to grow back, and she’s in high spirits, smiling, and full of energy. “I’ve never had short hair before,” she says, animatedly holding her hands near her face, demonstrating the former length of her hair. “Now, I kind of like it, I’ll probably keep it short from now on.”
After taking a break for four months, she’s eased back into her normal work routine. True to her workaholic reputation, cancer hasn’t slowed her down much. “Even when I wasn’t supposed to be working, I was working. I just didn’t go to the office on a regular basis, but I’d work at home. So I slowed down a little,” she admits. Shortly after that last chemo session, she went back to giving lectures and seminars for Mansmith and Fielders, a leading training and consultancy company, and doing her regular marketing and retailing-related consulting work for the Rustan’s Group of Companies, in particular, the department store and Sta. Elena Properties. Reflecting on her recovery, she goes through it without a hint of drama and merely says, “It was pretty fast. I didn’t feel weak throughout the chemo, only on certain days, and I kept exercising throughout. There wasn’t a big adjustment. It wasn’t like I stopped working completely and stayed in bed.”
For those who may not know Frances, it might be a shock to see a cancer survivor having such a sunny and positive disposition, without rancor or a chip on her shoulder. But even those closest to Frances were awed by how she faced the battle against the big C. Frances’ sister Crickette Tantoco says, “I was amazed at Frances’ strength and courage throughout the whole ordeal, most especially her acceptance of what fate dealt her and her response to it. She had no regrets, no bitterness; just the determination to get well and move on.”
It was Crickette that Frances first broke the news to. The story goes, Frances sounded so calm and collected on the phone that Crickette had to call her back right away just to check if she had heard correctly. “I think when I told her, I was still a little bit in shock,” confesses Frances. “I think my way of coping was kind of being very detached from it. That was right after I spoke to my doctor. The idea had not yet sunk in. I detached myself a bit. I told her, ‘Now can you tell everyone?’ She told my family, and then we all planned out when to have the surgery, what was going to happen, who was going to be with me during the surgery. From then on, everything went smoothly.”
When bad things happen to good people, it often leads to a crisis of faith. In Frances' case, it was the opposite, as it strengthened her beliefs and led to a greater sense of purpose.
How did Frances face this ordeal so bravely? Crickette provides one possible explanation: “I believe it was Frances’ deep faith and close relationship with God that allowed her to deal with this difficult moment in her life. She was blessed with a fighting spirit, discernment, and equanimity to help her cope with this hardship.”
Without discounting the tremendous work put in by the surgeons and doctors who cared for her, Frances believes that her journey was guided by a greater power. It’s pointless to question when told of the circumstances leading to her cancer diagnosis. “I serve in the St. James Renewal Movement in Alabang. I was working on a music CD, writing lyrics and my friend Cherry Quiroz was composing the music. She told me, ‘You know, I had a very clear message from God. I was praying and he told me to tell you to get a checkup.”
Frances was incredulous at first, but eventually heeded the advice of her friend. “Come to think of it, I hadn’t had a checkup in a long time. So I had one. I had a whole battery of tests at St. Luke’s. And that’s how it was discovered.”
It’s not the only time there seemed to be divine intervention either. About a year before her diagnosis, Frances was approached by another friend who offered an insurance plan. “I told her I don’t believe in it, so she convinced to get a savings plan instead with an insurance component. So I was covered for a substantial amount, and I was able to use it, 100 percent. It was enough to cover the cost of the treatment, as well as the months I wasn’t working. I am very blessed. If I think about all the things that happened, it was as if God had already made provisions for me. I was provided for.”
KEEP THE FAITH
When bad things happen to people, it often leads to a crisis of faith. In Frances’ case, it was the opposite, as it strengthened her beliefs and led to a greater sense of purpose. As she tells it, it was a far cry from the time she was in her 20s and 30s, when spirituality wasn’t among her life’s priorities. “I wouldn’t even go to Mass. It was a very different lifestyle then,” she confesses. “A lot of us are on a journey, and we get to the same place at different points in our lives. As I went through life and its many challenges, the one thing that became clear was that you ultimately have to find purpose in your life. You can’t find it in worldly things. You’re not going to find meaning in money, in power, because everything is fleeting. You cannot cling on to these things. Not your looks, not your money, your power, your position, your title. All of that can disappear overnight. You have to stand on a rock, cling to something that is eternal.”
KNOW YOUR ENEMY
It was the prominent surgeon Diana Cua-Balcells whom Frances approached after receiving her test results. As the mammography scans were inconclusive, Dr. Cua-Balcells ordered an ultrasound, and that’s when the cancer was detected and later confirmed through a biopsy. It’s this period when you first get the news, Frances says, that is the most difficult. “The possibility of death starts presenting itself. Then you start to think and anticipate; I think the beginning is probably the hardest but once you get past that, it becomes just one of those things that you have to go through.” She says that having her friends and family by her side throughout helped tremendously, as their company kept her distracted, in good spirits, and created a much needed sense of normalcy. “Fear is really the enemy. I think a lot of people become paralyzed even before they begin treatment, as if they’ve already lost the battle. Fear, anxiety—how am I going to pay for this, what if I feel nauseous, what am I going to do?—I think fear will really debilitate a person’s ability to fight the cancer, to face it with equanimity. When you take that out of the equation, things have a way of falling into place.”
Frances recently had a checkup and everything looks clear, although it will take around five years before her doctors can say that her cancer is in remission. Like other survivors, Frances says that perhaps she’s alive because she still has so much to do. What exactly that is hasn’t been written in stone, but whatever comes, Frances is ready to answer the call. “As my mindset and disposition are open, whatever comes my way, whatever I am asked to do, or however I am asked to serve, in whatever way I can help, I will go wherever I am led.”