Breast Cancer Survivors Reveal Their Most Moving Experiences

Honest stories by Margarita Fores, Lori Bautista Baltazar, Libet Virata, Rita Nazareno, and Chu-Chu Madrigal.
IMAGE Roy Macam

There is much rallying around having annual mammograms and monthly breast self-examinations for women the world over, and when you see the advancements in medical science that allow breast cancer to be successfully treated when detected early, you’ll understand the clamor of survivors and supporters for awareness. For over decade now, ICanServe Foundation, a breast cancer support network in the Philippines, has been helping thousands of women understand the illness and undergo tests and treatment through various programs with its partner cities and its sponsors and members across the country. Many of ICanServe’s supporters, including four of the women in this feature—Libet Virata, Margarita Forés, Chu-Chu Madrigal, and Alya Honasan—are also breast cancer survivors who choose to make awareness their advocacy, knowing themselves that early detection saved their lives.

ICanServe has learned that for most women, some of their biggest fears include not knowing whether or not they can afford treatment, if their family will support them, and in some cases, how their husbands will react. In one case, when the team conducted free breast examinations at a barangay, they were shocked at how a woman hadn’t felt the pain from a big lump in one of her breasts. She told them she couldn’t tell the difference between that pain and when her husband beat her up. Today, ICanServe’s community screenings under its Ating Dibdibin program—conducted with the help of donors and city governments that subsidize costs for the country’s less privileged—offer free mammograms and seminars and teach health workers how to perform breast exams. Through the program, women are also helped with their treatment costs and are provided with psychological support.

Lori Bautista Baltazar

“Breast cancer changed me in the sense that I now live my life day by day, and the littlest things really make me so happy. I realized it’s really the small things that are actually the big things. This curveball that was hurled at me also gifted me with immense clarity. So even though it comes with a lot of physical pain, I really see what’s important and I feel that I’m not the same person I used to be. I’m more relaxed, I’m more chill, and I think I’m just simpler.


There were some people who left, who exited my life. I guess they couldn’t handle it, they didn’t know how to act around me, they didn’t know what to say. Perhaps they were worried I would be sad all the time like, ‘I’m dying.’ But I think I’m still Lori—exuberant and dessert-obsessed.

When I get healed, my mission will be to eradicate and slay the general belief that sugar feeds cancer. I love dessert, I’m a food writer, and my blog is all about desserts. Someone told me it could be I got cancer because I ate too much dessert. It’s a gross oversimplification. It’s so much more complicated than that.

There were some people who left, who exited my life. I guess they couldn’t handle it, they didn’t know how to act around me, they didn’t know what to say.

It’s great to have my family and friends really rallying around me. After my diagnosis, I became even crazier in love, more madly in love with my husband of 17 years. I really don’t feel that any husband should have to see his wife endure cancer, but my husband has really been beyond supportive. He has just really been my rock. I wouldn’t have been able to be as well without him because he’s just really calm. He and my daughter give me the strength to go through this. You know how they say there’s a difference between faith and trust; trust is the belief that this will all pass, that I’ll be able to get through this and get back to some sort of normalcy, but faith is the courage to be able to keep going—one step forward, one day, one chemo treatment at a time, which is the most important lesson cancer has taught me. When I’m really sick because of chemo then I live just a minute at a time and then an hour at a time, I think little by little is really the way to go. Being positive, I feel, is almost impossible sometimes because to have your mortality staring at you in the face is really something else. What I really try to be instead of positive is calm and hopeful. That’s what gets me through every single day.”


Libet Virata

“I had been getting routine mammograms since my mother passed away in 1996 from cancer. Every year it was fine, until in 2006 it suddenly wasn’t. When I found out I had breast cancer, my mind started spinning and I was thinking ‘Okay, Mom, you died 10 years ago… Isn’t this so dramatic that I’m going to die exactly 10 years after you!’ And I had to force myself to change tack and say ‘No, if you found out too late, you’re letting me find out early so I can do something about it.’

I think my family was as stunned I was. I retreated into my shell as I had to ‘absorb’ the news while my husband and children gave me encouragement and full support. Then my eldest son came to me after a few days and practically reprimanded me to snap out of it. I was ready to scold him back, but I realized that he meant well, and moreover, that I needed that kind of push to start dealing with it. But that’s also why when I talk to ‘new’ patients and they don’t feel ready yet to ‘come out,’ I understand their need to burrow into an inner shelter; that they have to give themselves permission to do so and to wait for the right time to move out of that shell.

I will never forget the advice I got from the hospital counselor, who said some people feel they have to become a totally new person whereas others just go through the treatment and then revert to ‘their old selves’ as soon as they can; and that either one is okay. So it made me feel good to not have that pressure to become a transformed ‘perfect’ person… since I knew I would fail at that! I remember when a friend asked me how I was, I replied, ‘My life has changed!’ but as I was saying it, I suddenly stopped and corrected myself, ‘You know what?... It’s not really that my life has changed, it’s really just my consciousness of my life that has changed.’ My commitment to ICanServe’s advocacy springs from wanting as many women to detect breast cancer as early as possible; as we say in our forums, our foundation is like no other—because we don’t want any new members! Our wish is to someday become redundant.”


Rita Nazareno

“My breasts were pretty lumpy so I figured it might just be my period when I felt a lump. Eventually I got a mammogram that showed no malignant infusions. But then the breast ultrasound showed something that looked like the head of Oscar the Grouch. I was with my sister when I got the ultrasound and she said something like, ‘Ate, I like your shoes.’ I told her she could have them if I died. The breast cancer was at stage 2B; it went to my lymph nodes. You get dealt with whatever cards you’re dealt with; then it’s how you choose to go through life because you can choose to have a positive life or get depressed as shit. I chose the ‘let’s just enjoy.’ Right after the surgery they rolled me into the room and I saw everyone there and their faces were like ‘whoa’ and I was like ‘Guess who’s back?’ The third day I was in such good spirits that my mom was saying, ‘I think they’re giving you too many pain killers.’

After the cancer, I made sure I did what I wanted to do in terms of work. Now I only work with people I like.

It helped that I had funny and good people around me who didn’t want to leave. Things were painful but you have people, you need people. Then finally when all was clear, that’s when it hit me. That’s when I got depressed. What the hell was I going to do to next? And then my girlfriend and I broke up. We had been together for six years and she had been there for me the whole time I was undergoing treatment. I got so depressed. Damn, the cancer I could handle, but the breakup was harder. I went to Hawaii where I had gone to high school so I had a number of friends there. To this day, Hawaii is my healing place. After the cancer, I made sure I did what I wanted to do in terms of work. So now I’m really doing the things I love. I have Zacarias, my own bag line, and I have a business partner in France, where we opened a company. Now I only work with people I like. I’m traveling. I’m designing what I want to design. I’m really trying to fulfill my dreams.”


Alya Honasan

“I went for a mammogram in 2013. I was 48, and the same lady who had been doing it over the years told me there was something she could not dismiss as benign. My instinct told me I had cancer, but I also knew I was going to kick it. I got my mammogram results on Tuesday, I was in front of a surgeon on Wednesday, I got the biopsy by Thursday.

My friends were the ones who really rallied behind me. In high school, we called our boobs rhyming names. Mine were Wanda and Panda. Wanda was the one afflicted. So I went to the operating room with all these girls in pink T-shirts that said ‘Team Wanda.’ I think you find support when you need it. I had a good support system in my friends, I had a spiritual director, and then like every journalist, I read what I could and was eventually introduced to fellow survivors who told me their experiences. I have a tattoo of my late yellow Labrador Banana on my right hand. For maybe eight of 12 chemo sessions, we would stick the IV needle in her eye or face, which somewhat served as a marker for the vein, and I would ask her to let it ‘produce,’ and she never let me down.

What people don’t get to really talk about is the depression that comes with and after cancer. I had a history of clinical depression from the ’90s and yoga solved that for me, but I got it again after radiation because first, I had a history, and second, it really happens. There is post-treatment depression because of our Catholic society. It says, ‘Oh, you’re already well, you should be grateful,’ but you actually feel like shit, pardon my French. I think we should talk about depression in general as well as post treatment. Even St. Luke’s has a psychiatric oncology department to help patients cope. Now I’m okay, I’m on medication, and I have an excellent shrink who was a cancer survivor too, so we worked it out.


What people don’t get to really talk about is the depression that comes with and after cancer.

With cancer, I was forced to slow down, and then I realized the things that I thought were important are not. I changed perspective, and realized that everything was really a gift. Strictly speaking, it’s not my birthright to be blessed, it’s given as a grace. I learned those things and now everything’s so much easier. Like, this is one page or one article I’m not going to kill myself over. Or, am I going to edit an article on a Sunday or am I going to play with my dog? Of course the dog trumps work. I’ve learned to prioritize. I never got mad at God or asked him ‘Why me?’ I realized it had to happen to me because I had to learn something, and also because I have no kids or a husband who will have a nervous breakdown if anything happens to me. I am stronger than most people, so it was just a very dramatic knock on the head.”

Chu-Chu Madrigal

“Every year I go for a mammogram, but one fateful time, the process took longer. They found a mass. After a biopsy, I was told I had stage 1 breast cancer—very early at .7cm. I opted for a mastectomy with reconstruction and no radiation, so it was fast. I also took oral medicines. The day I was operated on to the day I traveled back home was exactly 30 days. I didn’t lose my hair because I had neither radiation nor chemo.

People ask me if I got depressed, but I think I never got to that point because I just kept on praying. I figured it was there already, so I just had to treat the situation like a glass half full rather than half empty. I thought I was very fortunate that I found out in the early stage. Then I realized that while I have done quite a lot to help other people, I hadn’t really helped people with cancer. My sister had cancer, my aunt had cancer, so maybe it was a way of telling me that I should start helping people with cancer. I then promised myself that when I got well, I would have cancer scholars. It’s similar to when you send a scholar to school and you pay for their tuition, books, and incidentals, with the agreement that they finish college. This led me to reach out to ICanServe. What we do is choose someone in stage 1 or stage 2, someone who can still be treated. Then I take care of all the expenses concerning the cancertr eatment until this person is well. What I’m hoping for is for more people to adopt scholars. My philosophy is that if I can save one life a year, I’ll happy already.”


Margarita Forés

“I found out about my breast cancer accidentally—the same way my thyroid cancer was an accidental finding many years ago. I felt a lump on the side of my left breast, and when I had it looked at, I didn’t tell anybody. My first round of cancer with my thyroid had felt like a circus with my family here in Manila. Everyone had wanted to do so much for me, and I was so identified with the hospital where my father was president and medical director. So the second time, I felt like taking things into my own hands and making decisions on my own. I wanted a more objective way of addressing the situation. And so I went to Singapore for a second opinion. Over there, I was just a number. The only people I told were my son and my older sister, and I asked them to keep the news to themselves. We left for Singapore and they only told my mom when I was already being wheeled into the operating room.

They say sometimes apart from the physical condition, stress can play a role in illness. For my thyroid, it could have been related to my having difficulty voicing my opinion when I was growing up. I think with my breast, it was an emotional experience that stressed me out. In a way it was a real blessing, because after developing my thyroid cancer, my relationship with my mom got better and it repaired a lot of things growing up. All the more with the breast cancer. Everyone rallied behind me. When this happened and I was in her embrace, it felt like I was a child again and that really helped a lot in the healing. Maybe that’s the blessing. I felt bad that my son had to go through it twice because he is so protective of me and although he knows there’s family, in the end he knows it’s just the two of us. During the surgery, doctors did a lymph node test to see if other areas of my breast were affected. If everything was negative, great, I would wake up with my breast still there. Otherwise, I had a plastic surgeon on standby and I was ready to lose my breast. My son’s face was the first one I saw when I woke up. He told me I didn’t lose my breast. He was crying. We were all so happy.”


About The Author
Nicole Limos
Managing Editor
Nicole’s career in publishing began in 2006. Before becoming Town & Country online’s managing editor, she moved from features editor to beauty editor of the title’s print edition. “The lessons in publishing are countless,” she says. “The most crucial ones for me? That to write best about life, you need to live your life. And another I still struggle to live by: ‘Brevity is a virtue; verbosity is a vice.’”
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