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How I fought my war against cancer during the pandemic

By FIL BENITEZ Published Sep 01, 2020 9:21 am Updated Oct 02, 2020 8:32 am

War is the place where life and death meet; it is the road to destruction or survival. The Art of War, Sun Tzu

My war with hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer) began on Feb. 10 of this year, when I received the results of my MRI which had these findings: “The exophytic mass measures 6.3 x 5.3 x 5.8 cm.” I would have to cancel my long-planned trip to visit my children in LA and meet my new granddaughter Sofia. Why was this happening to me? My heart was sad and spirit darkened with fear that day. Just when things were going good. This story is about what happened to me between February and May of this year, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, when all hell broke loose across the planet.

"The Grim Reaper didn't get me:" The author after his operation.

I was scheduled for surgery on Feb. 28. The Liver Center of The Medical City had scheduled all the tests one has to undergo prior to major surgery. They were going to cut one-third of my liver at that time to remove six centimeters of malignant tumor. In the meantime, I decided to get a second opinion from a doctor friend at St. Luke’s BGC. This is how I found out about laparoscopic resection, a procedure that is less invasive and decided that this was the better alternative. My surgery was scheduled for March 9 at St. Luke’s. On that fateful morning, though, one hour prior to surgery, it was aborted. The previous night’s X-ray showed a nodule on my lower left lung that was suspected of being pneumonia. Surgery was then rescheduled for March 17 and I was discharged from the hospital. It wasn’t until May 27 that I had the surgery.

Whilst you are unsure of victory, defend; when you are sure of victory, attack. — Sun Tzu

I could not understand the policy of medical institutions that categorized a patient for admission as either “elective” or “life-threatening,” but mine was elective. In a post last May 17 on Facebook and Instagram, my caption read, “Tita (referring to Conchita Razon), this is not a complaint but a cry for help.” The hashtags were #letgoandletgod #godhelpsthosewhohelpthemselves #wearevictimstoo. In the post I wrote: “But it’s been over two months now and still, no elective surgeries allowed. Wonder what is happening to many who need surgery but not categorized as life threatening? Pretty grey area, don’t you think? Does this mean ‘when the cancer has spread’?” And her reply: “I imagine that keeping you out of the contagion is also a serious consideration. Hospitals are the last place you want to be in while this pandemic is still raging. I can imagine how you feel though. My heart goes out to you.” I was angry — not with Tita Conchita, but with whom, I had no idea. That’s how frustrated I had become.

Two months earlier was the period of total lockdown and no residents were allowed out of their units. Period. I began walking again after a long hiatus to stay in shape. Every day for an hour, I would walk in the foyer, living room and dining room in a seemingly endless circle that I knew was necessary to preserve my sanity. It relieved a lot of the frustration, anxiety and anger in me due to my situation. But as the days turned to weeks, my emotions were being stretched to the max, although I was slowly beginning to understand the policies of hospitals and my doctors. I think this was when humility was beginning to set in.

By this time, I had to constantly grapple with my inner self or risk losing it. There were increasingly numerous fronts in my battles emerging. Cabin fever. Cohabitants. Boredom. And the perennial fear of this monster squatting inside my body that had one objective: to kill me. I had to become more creative and think out of the box to do new things rather than commiserating with the negativity and its ally, depression. I began to cook, something I had always wanted to do but never did. My mother would always nag me before: Could I possibly run the restaurants? But I was beginning to enjoy cooking. The ritual of digging up recipes, creativity in the implementation, and of course the fun you have in the kitchen. As the weeks turned to months, the decision of my surgeon and myself to go to war was about to be made. I thought to myself that there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel. And if there wasn’t any, I would turn on the switch.

In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins. — Ulysses S. Grant

But the battles began to take on a different face. This time, due to the months of the COVID-19 lockdown, blood bank supplies had dwindled especially for my blood type, B-positive. I had been tasked to look for my own blood and turned to social media to begin looking for donors. I knew it was going to be difficult because how many would-be donors were actually willing to risk going to the hospital to donate and risk getting infected with the virus? Three days prior to the surgery, a friend messaged that she would connect me with the office of Senator Gordon of the Red Cross. But not enough blood was received and one day prior to my surgery, at an AA Zoom meeting I was attending, a participant from Cebu messaged me that she could help source blood. Just in the nick of time, the final bags of blood were delivered to the hospital’s blood bank. This was a living testament that God truly works in mysterious ways. And what if I hadn’t joined that meeting? In my journey in life, I always questioned the “what ifs” as either being coincidence or luck. Not anymore. This is what I believe faith is all about.

It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy. The Book of Joy by His Holiness Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu

If I had not felt the gratitude and humility one senses when hundreds of friends and family flood you with messages of prayer and support, I would have succumbed. If it weren’t for my nightly and morning prayers to thank God for His blessings that day or for simply waking up to a new day, I would have perished. A friend had this to say in a comment on Facebook that captured what these stories are all about: “Your story, Fil, is incredible. It is a profile in courage, a testament to the adage, ‘Nasa Dios ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa.’ You had to personally fight to have your procedure as the prolonged delay caused by the lockdown had worsened your condition. You had to personally source your blood supply for the operation… You are an inspiration, and I am proud to call you my kapatid. Never thought I’d write so glowingly about you. Haha.”

In my last post on FB and IG prior to writing these stories, I stated, “I want to emphasize that it happened at the height of a deadly pandemic… There lay my dilemma: those three scary and dreadful months of uncertainty. It’s easy when you know whom to blame, including God. I had no one to get angry with. But I do have much to share with the many victims suffering from the Big C or any ‘life-threatening’ sickness for that matter… This is where gratitude and humility kick in. The reason why I want to spend the rest of my life making a difference for someone, friend or stranger alike, that is suffering like I did is that I firmly believe this is what God had in mind when He let me live.”

A friend commented, “You are blessed, Fil, and more so because you recognize it.” I replied, “Thank you, Chiqui; I didn’t realize that.” And she said, “You’d be surprised how many people take their blessings for granted.” Hopefully these stories about my “art of war” as a cancer warrior can make many realize their shortcomings. And show how, with dogged determination, I beat cancer. Today, I am much more grounded in the here and now — or the present, as they call it. I know it’s a gift.

Author Fil Benitez is back at Mario’s after his experience of a lifetime.