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Abbygale Arenas-de Leon on her winning battle against the big C

By LAI S. REYES, The Philippine STAR Published Oct 24, 2023 5:00 am

Binibining Pilipinas-Universe 1997 Abbygale “Abby” Arenas-de Leon is no stranger to fighting to win. Her big Bb. Pilipinas win came three years after her first foray into pageantry, and after much priming, practicing, and perfecting. Her journey to become the image consultant and author she is now was riddled with challenges, too.

But for Abby, the most fulfilling fight she’s won since was one for her life—against breast cancer.

An unexpected surprise

It all began with a seemingly innocuous zit on her left breast at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic

“I called my OB as soon as I noticed a pimple on my breast,” she shares, emphasizing the importance of being listo about her body. “She advised me to get a mammogram ASAP and, later on, a biopsy. When I got the results, I was in complete shock.”

Family matters: Abbygale Arenas with husband, photographer Jun De Leon, and children Erijah and Eli

Abby’s breast cancer diagnosis came despite her living a relatively healthy lifestyle and having no history of cancer in the family. 

Though diagnosed with Stage 3 HER2+ breast cancer, an aggressive type of breast cancer, Abby did not regret getting checked to discover the cancer. She was then determined to fight. She didn’t perceive cancer to be a death sentence, but a test of strength. This was a test she was bent on surviving—and survive, she did.

From day one, the beauty queen knew that the only way to get better was to trust her doctors and follow their treatment advice, just as she trusted they would guide her after her diagnosis. Still, although her condition was now known and treatment was available, she wondered what many Filipino breast cancer patients also think: “How much will all of this cost?”

Hope From Within ambassador and breast cancer survivor Abby Arenas de Leon

Knowing that funding the treatments was a necessary part of the cancer journey, Abby and her husband, veteran photographer Jun de Leon, navigated the possibility of selling their only home to cover costs. Amid the financial anxiety, Jun remained Abby’s rock. “We can buy another house, we can never buy another you,” he reassured her then.

With the support of her loving husband and two kids, Abby soldiered through her personalized treatment plan: neoadjuvant chemotherapy and targeted therapy followed by modified radical mastectomy, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy.

“Neoadjuvant chemotherapy was necessary for Abby since her cancer was discovered in a locally advanced stage,” said Dr. Diana O. Cua, breast oncology surgeon. “We needed to downsize her cancer to allow us for clear margins during surgery. This also let us see if she responded well to treatments, and served as a guide for future therapies,” added Dr. Cua.

Breast cancer is a complex disease

Dr. Cua also explained that each breast cancer is different and unique. “This is why innovative approaches to breast cancer treatment have proved to increase survival rates and better outcomes, reduce side effects or complications to enhance the patient’s quality of life during and after treatment, as well as minimize recurrence for long-term survival.” 

Breast cancer, after all, is a complex disease that affects various aspects of a patient’s health. It’s vital that a multidisciplinary team of doctors assess a patient’s case, to come up with a comprehensive and personalized treatment plan targeted to one’s cancer type. 

Through and beyond cancer

One thing Abby emphasized that many breast cancer patients may relate to is the fact that spending time with family is what cancer patients would most value if treatments allowed them to live longer. 

And after 14 months of undergoing a series of therapies, Abby de Leon was finally deemed cancer-free in January 2021. She now maintains her health with the help of hormone therapy. She also looks forward to a long, happy life with her loved ones.

Her journey through cancer was a proclamation of the love and support surrounding her. As an ambassador for Hope From Within, Abby inspires individuals, organizations, and communities to come together and raise awareness around the most common cancer types among women.

This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Abby’s message is simple yet powerful: There is hope from within, and it’s stronger than any adversity.

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Watch Abby’s breast cancer survivor story below.