"Let’s take better care of our own health, not only for ourselves but for our family."
I am a colon cancer survivor.
For more than a year I’d been experiencing untoward symptoms related to my gastro-intestinal tract but chalked it up to hemorrhoids. I was living in the United States then and didn’t have the means to seek medical care. When I returned to Manila earlier this year, the symptoms intensified and I went to gastroenterologist Dr. Ernesto Olympia at Makati Medical Center for a colonoscopy.
He told me I had colon cancer. We then discussed next steps, particularly surgery to remove the tumor he had seen in my sigmoid. That was on March 22. He referred me to colorectal surgeon Dr. Ramon Estrada, who, taking pity on my distress and terror, scheduled me for surgery on the 29th. That was Maundy Thursday.
Coincidentally, March is Colon and Rectal Cancer Awareness Month in the Philippines.
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According to the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development, as of 2017 colorectal cancer (CRC) is the number one gastrointestinal cancer in the country, overtaking liver cancer. The agency said that Philippine Society of Gastroenterology data at the time showed there are over 3,000 new cases of CRC among Filipinos annually. Some 2,000 of them die of it.
Risk factors for the disease include age, family history, smoking and alcohol practices, diet high in processed meat and/or high fat but low in fiber, and inherited genetic mutation. Symptoms include changing stool patterns, blood in stool, sudden weight loss, anemia and appetite loss.
An alarming trend is that CRC incidence is rising in younger adults (below 55). I was way below that age when diagnosed. Reasons for the trend? “Excess body weight, high intake of processed meat, low intake of dietary fiber, and low levels of physical activity,” according to a 2018 column by Dr. Charles C. Chante.
CRC starts with a polyp (kuntil) or precursor lesion. If left unaddressed, they can turn malignant. The disease can be prevented if polyps are detected early. To aid in prevention, the PCHRD recommends that you always examine your stool, get screened, and choose a healthier diet and lifestyle.
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I was fortunate that I had a dream team of doctors to care for me—my primary physician, Dr. Olympia; Dr. Estrada; oncologist Dr. Maria Belen Tamayo; cardiologist Dr. Edwin Wenceslao; anesthesiologist Dr. Karen Alcantara; and vascular surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Chua.
The colon resection surgery performed by Dr. Estrada was flawless. My anesthesiologist and a junior doctor present expressed their admiration for Dr. Estrada’s skill in excising the tumor, which had contorted itself into an odd position that was tricky to remove. His skill also meant I did not require a colostomy bag, though it is usually indicated in many similar circumstances.
After the surgery I recovered quickly, and was walking laps around the ward the next day, and the day after that around the entire floor. I felt great, better than I had the past year.
But since some lymph nodes taken tested positive, chemotherapy was indicated. Dr. Olympia referred me to Dr. Chua for implantation in the chest of a porta-catheter, a device that accommodates IV and obviates the need to punch holes in one’s hands. He performed the surgery well, and nurses at the Cancer Center always commented favorably upon knowing Dr. Chua installed the porta-cath.
Dr. Tamayo directed my chemotherapy treatment every step of the way. As with my other doctors, she took time to explain everything she was doing and the possible effects of the medication on me. She listened to my problems with side effects and tweaked my medicine dosage to give me comfort while still delivering maximum benefits.
A month after my last chemo session, I had CT scans done and Drs. Tamayo and Estrada told me I was okay. They drew up a regime of follow-up and monitoring tests, and it’s up to me to stick to it and to maintain a healthy lifestyle, because recurrence is always a possibility with any type of cancer.
What helped me recover well was thinking positive all the time (advice reiterated many times by Dr. Estrada), excellent medical care, and the support of family and friends. It’s during crises like this that you realize who your true friends are.
It also helped that all my doctors have a great sense of humor! Laughter is the best medicine.
I was aided financially by my former employers in the horseracing industry, particularly directors of the Metropolitan Association of Race Horse Owners and Klub Don Juan de Manila. Without their kindness and generosity, I could not have afforded the treatment. Gentlemen, I can’t thank you enough.
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Takeaways from my experience: Health is wealth. Quit smoking and drinking, and eat more plants. Exercise regularly. In your 20s or 30s and onwards, go for all the screenings - mammogram, pap smear, ultrasound, colonoscopy, prostate check, the works. Life is precious. Let’s take better care of our own health, not only for ourselves but for our family.
Dr. Ortuoste, a writer and researcher, has a PhD in Communication. FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO.