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SurvivorshipLymphoma

You Only Live T-W-I-C-E: A Cancer Warrior’s Motto

Receiving a diagnosis of stage IIIB diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma at age 26 at the start of COVID-19 meant that Steffi Ilagan had to sideline a lot of her plans. Her story illuminates the meaning of “T-W-I-C-E” when facing cancer.
December 2022 Vol 8 No 6
Steffi Dawn Ilagan
Pagadian City, Philippines

In January 2020, I was diagnosed with cancer at age 26. Persistent coughing, night sweats, fatigue, and unexplained weight loss were symptoms I continued to ignore, until one day, an abrupt facial and neck edema prompted me to search and read about serious illnesses that could explain these symptoms. Cancer, of course, was my last consideration.

Cancer During COVID-19

The results of a series of lab tests and diagnostic procedures showed that I had superior vena cava syndrome, so I had to have a core-needle biopsy.

The biopsy results confirmed that I had stage IIIB diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. Taking 3 steps was the most arduous task I could do, and I was hardly able to catch my breath.

My oncologist said that there was a strong possibility I would not make it. As an adult in my mid-20s, I had plans for my life. But having no choice, I had to face cancer treatments while away from my family, friends, and loved ones, all during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Living with cancer is excruciating by itself, and I could not afford another heartbreak from getting the coronavirus infection. But, unlucky as I am, I did get it, despite taking extra precautions.

Why does it have to be me? Why do I have cancer during a pandemic? I asked myself these questions, and asked my Creator for answers.

Chemo’s Long-Term Side Effects

One of the long-term side effects of cancer treatment is the impact on the patient’s cognitive ability. Confusion and forgetfulness are on top of the list.

When I decided to re-enroll in a law school here in the Philippines after my chemotherapy treatment was completed, I knew that I was expected to have good cognitive and retention skills.

I hoped that everything would be the same as before my diagnosis. But I was wrong. My only option was to give it my best, and see how far my lawyerly dreams could go.

Moreover, I remember the days when I first joined a beauty pageant during my undergraduate days. I used to be thin and well-composed, but cancer has taken away the little confidence I had, because of the physical changes and hair loss caused by the cancer treatment.

The hair I’ve grown for years was shaved at a barber shop, which was very painful for me. I wished for my hair to regrow overnight, and prayed that like fever, cancer would disappear in a few hours or days.

Disability or Determination?

Cancer treatment is costly. As a patient, I wanted to exhaust any financial assistance available. Getting a person with disability (PWD) ID card made me eligible for the 20% discount it offers on my medicines and hospital bills, which was a relief.

Although I hate to be tagged as a PWD, I am thankful that a privilege like this exists. It also served as a constant reminder that I am more than my disability, that I am indeed a PWD: “person with determination.”

Friendships

It is said that some people just come and go into your life to teach you lessons, but they are not meant to stay. I never imagined that I would have to experience it when I most needed people to be with me. Yes, I lost friends along the way, but I came to realize that while some friendships are over, new ones are possible.

I joined a community of patients with cancer and care­givers here in the Philippines, the Kanser sa Adolescents and Young Adults, or KAYA. This is a support group for people living with cancer, like me. This group has made my cancer journey lighter.

Maintenance Medications

Living with maintenance medicines is the price we pay when our body slowly deteriorates. I have had to take frequent doses of tablets and capsules of different sizes, some of which I could barely swallow.

But now, almost 3 years since my cancer diagnosis, I am down from 6 medicines to only 2, and I consider this a small win.

The hair I’ve grown for years was shaved.

Many Emotional Challenges

As an immunocompromised individual, I decided I had to wear face masks for general protection roughly a month before the pandemic started. I remember going to church wearing double-layered face masks and clothing my bare, bald head with a scarf. I could tell that people were wondering why I had to keep myself covered.

I prayed to God to remove my illness, so I would no longer have to deal with being different. But as my cancer journey went on, I realized that each of us is different. We are all unique in our own ways.

I am the type of person who does not want to be the center of attention. As we know, cancer treatment is not free. My family’s financial attention, time, care, and concern were focused on me. There came a time when my family had to choose between saving my life and completing the renovation of our house.

Love Language

Having cancer was hard for me, but I knew that it was even harder for my loved ones. So, eventually, my guilt was replaced with determination to fight and beat the “big C”!

I used to be an active person, and I don’t want to depend on others for the things that I do. After my diagnosis, my family treated me with utmost care. I was not allowed to do even the simple things at home, such as getting a glass of water to drink.

My family has served me like a princess. My fiancé visited me often at home and would watch me sleep. He would sit beside me and make sure he was there to cater to all my needs, even simply getting up from bed. I felt useless and paralyzed. But I knew it was their love language.

Ray of Hope

Cancer has led me to beautiful destinations. Besides seeing every ray of hope, I appreciated life’s U-turns and stops through my cancer journey.

Today, at age 29, my cancer is in remission. I give myself a tap on the back, always reminding myself that all things come to an end, even the hardest of times.

I have asked God to make me an instrument of inspiration to others, and cancer was the way.

I don’t know what lies ahead for me, or what cancer has in store for me. But I am certain that I am called to live T‑W‑I‑C‑E: To Win In Challenging Experiences.

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