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What cancer looks like for young adults in the Philippines

By Alexa Grace Fontanilla Published Nov 04, 2022 5:00 am

As we all adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, I was confronted with a different yet equally life-changing experience. Back then, I was a 23-year-old law student with a rough sketch of the future I wanted for myself. But all my plans would soon be derailed by a fist-sized tumor in my chest. 

There is a glaring gap in the cancer conversation here — one that leaves out the experiences of young adults. While I knew that cancer is a disease that can hit anyone regardless of age, I never pictured myself as being diagnosed with it. When I first thought of cancer, the first thing that came to mind was images of young children or older adults. Yet, with my lymphoma diagnosis, I found myself as the patient.

In this moment of uncertainty, the stories and companionship provided by fellow young adult cancer survivors helped me navigate this chapter of my life.

A long journey to diagnosis

My journey to diagnosis is one that is echoed by many young adult cancer patients. Cancer isn't the first thing that comes to mind with seemingly common symptoms like cough, fever and fatigue. We tend to brush off our symptoms, holding on to our luck. When we do attempt to take a closer look, doctors must first rule out other, more ordinary illnesses. 

"Other priorities need to take a backseat as we receive surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation for a shot at a cure."

Mari Justine Cruz, a 27-year-old creative professional, chalked up her unusual exhaustion to work-related stress. It took her several trips to the hospital and a couple of procedures to receive an official diagnosis — B-cell lymphoma. She shares, "I spent my early adult years building my career and financial stability while trying to live a healthier lifestyle, only to discover that I have cancer." Today, Justine is still learning to live intentionally with the extreme uncertainties that her cancer diagnosis brought into her life. 

Treatment: A ‘great interruption’

To gather all the physical strength we can muster to endure treatments, we need to bring school and our careers to a halt. Other priorities need to take a backseat as we receive surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation for a shot at a cure.

Cancer treatment is infamous for terrifying side effects — constant nausea, vomiting, infections, blood transfusions, and trips to the emergency room.

For Filipino cancer patients, funding our treatments is already half the battle. Jackielyn Tee, a 27-year-old breast cancer patient, shares that financial constraints add to her many burdens. She explains, "Applying for financial support takes a lot of steps that are seemingly endless and redundant." Indeed, the requirements for government assistance take weeks or even months to process in exchange for a meager sum that will not cover the entire treatment. The death sentence is not the cancer diagnosis. In truth, it is the lack of resources to fund treatment. 

Cancer disrupted our present, but it did not take away our future. Through our friendships, we could start the process of imagining our tomorrows.

Cancer patients are always thought to be warriors in hospital gowns; sometimes, we're even called "God's strongest soldiers." It's not difficult to see why. Cancer treatment is infamous for terrifying side effects — constant nausea, vomiting, infections, blood transfusions, and trips to the emergency room. Almost all of us are confronted with the possibility of never getting to bear biological children. When my doctor broke this news to me, I wept, despite not having considered starting a family at that point in my life.

Finding ways to cope

Different people develop different ways of coping. As Lenie Rose Veronilla, a 29-year-old nurse and lymphoma survivor, recounted, "I found joy in both profound and silly things. I rejoiced when I did not need to be in diapers or a wheelchair. I cried when new mercies dawned on me." Surviving a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis and three years of treatment, hope became her powerful ally against an enemy that stripped her bare and left her empty. 

"I made a hobby out of hoarding novels and stacking them on my bedside table, reminding me of the multitudes I still have to learn."

James Inno Guanzon, a medical technologist, endured almost a year of treatment and had to find ways to get by. He was only 21 when he was diagnosed with Stage 3 seminoma, a type of germ-cell cancer. He turned to books to cope with the grueling months of treatment involving two surgeries and chemotherapy. "I made a hobby out of hoarding novels and stacking them on my bedside table, reminding me of the multitudes I still have to learn." Those seemingly lifeless pieces of paper, he says, allowed him to look beyond his condition. 

Survivorship: A lifelong process

When treatment ends, there are no protocols or discharge instructions for returning to our society. Once our hair grows and the flush returns to our cheeks, everyone assumes we are back to "normal." 

"Survivors like me continue to look over our shoulders in a metaphoric sense, afraid that cancer will return."

Jeanne Edillon, a 29-year old lymphoma survivor, still feels the scars of the illness she had technically already overcome. She shares, "It's not as simple as picking up where you left off." Almost two years since she was declared in remission, she finds that she is still trying to figure out her life after cancer.

Cancer never leaves without making a lasting mark — it hands down a weakened immune system, cognitive distortions, and a slew of side effects. When I think I’ve made progress in readjusting back to society after being declared in remission, an ache, a cough, or an elevated blood test leads me to spiral back to my traumas. Survivors like me continue to look over our shoulders in a metaphoric sense, afraid that cancer will return to erase the strides we've already taken to move forward. Jackie's words sum it up perfectly for all cancer survivors: "Cancer has stolen my ability to plan for the future without fear."

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In my experience, forging friendships with fellow young adult cancer patients and survivors is crucial to dealing with our illness. Digital spaces have made it possible for us to connect with people facing the same situation. Our community, Kanser sa Adolescents and Young Adults (KAYA), was formed to fill in this need to sustain relationships despite the pandemic. By gathering young patients and survivors online, we can close the distance regardless of our location and physical state.

Cancer disrupted our present, but it did not take away our future. Through our friendships, we could start the process of imagining our tomorrows. We view KAYA as a way of addressing this gap in the cancer conversation. We hope that, through this platform, survivors like us can find a safe space among kindred spirits.