December 14, 2009

Cancer Kids Survivors' Day and Christmas Party

This past week, I consider myself privileged to be part of two events in succession. Both involved pediatric cancer patients.

The first was the Survivors' Day at the Davao Medical Center on December 8, an annual gathering of pediatric cancer survivors since its inception 3 years ago. The event is attended by cancer survivors as well as kids being treated with cancer at the Davao Medical Center. It is done to commemorate a milestone for those who "graduated" from their prescribed chemo-treatment and are either on maintenance or are completely off-medicines. It is also an occasion to show that cancer can be beaten and to provide a venue to celebrate life together in spite of cancer.

More than 30 kids were present, together with their parents and relatives. Some sponsors and supporters were there to celebrate with the kids who were given gifts, treated to a hearty meal and goodies, and some awarded with certificates. The event coincides with the birthday of Dr. Mae Dolendo, pediatric oncologist, who cares for the kids in many ways other than medically.
A news item on this event appears on Mindanao Daily Mirror:

The second event was the Christmas Party for some 30 pediatric cancer patients of Dr Jeannie Bernardo-Ong at the Harana Restaurant in the afternoon of December 12. This is the first party held by Dr. Ong for her patients since she began her medical practice in Davao City a few years ago. It was held to enable patients and their parents to get to know each other for mutual support and to show that there is life in spite of cancer.

Patients and their parents came from as far as Cotabato, Davao Oriental and General Santos City

The Mindanao Daily Mirror also has a news coverage:

Events like this makes one realize how fortunate he or she can be. More importantly, one re-learns a life paradox - that simple joy is not sought nor bought. To be experienced, it must be given away.

November 16, 2009

Her Parting Words Reverberate

"See that girl? She has cancer, it's leukemia. But her parents are fortunate, because she is a fighter! Please, take care of her!"

These were my daughter's words as she kept her elder brother Joseph awake during the wee hours of April 17, 2008. Though she talked in bursts and with perceptible incoherence, it was clear that she was talking about herself. On the evening of that day, she expired. Leukemia won over her body.

For months after her death until now, I allotted time to help kids with cancer. It wasn't a strange routine since we'd been visiting cancer kids together when she was alive and okay. Now, mostly by myself or with my wife, I volunteer for Kythe Foundation at the Davao Medical Center (Kythe provides psycho-social support to kids with cancer). At times, I visit and encourage parents and their sick kid whom I know, or those referred to me by my daughter's hema-oncologist. It's usually a brief visit, a touch and some minutes of sharing. Whenever I am able, I shared whatever I can.

One day in April or a year after my daughter passed away, I received a call. It was a request to serve as volunteer for a Manila-based foundation, the Cancer Warriors. It was the start of a more organized assistance to indigent pediatric cancer patients. A Davao-based hema-oncologist identifies her most needy patients and refers them to me. I require them to submit pertinent documents and recommend them for assistance consisting of maintenance and chemotherapy medicines on a monthly basis.

Starting with one patient in April, three were added in June, another three in August and one last month. We are assisting a total of eight (8) kids now.

Two weeks ago, I received an email from a pediatric-oncologist who is known for her bull-strong advocacies to help pediatric cancer patients. She just arrived from St. Jude Children's Hospital, the leading research hospital seeking cure for childhood cancer. She wanted to see me and my wife for a "very important matter". I knew it has to do with cancer kids and I knew it has to do with passion for life.

It was, it is, it will be. She shared a vision - a very compelling one. But a very tough one, too. One that is much, much bigger than life. It's for kids stricken with cancer, and how to help and care for them.

My mind wandered, and flashed back: "See that girl? She has cancer, it's leukemia. But her parents are fortunate, because she is a fighter! Please, take care of her!"

I realized one thing - kids care so much about their parents, too, even when they are sick. That's why they fight back against their illness.

My daughter's parting words - how loud and pleasant do they reverberate. Join me!! Let's take care of cancer kids.

October 24, 2009

My Journey From Illness to Wellness

(I am posting this article since the Big C Magazine website, where this was published in a slightly edited form, is not active. This was written by my 12-year old daughter Yam as she recalled her battle with leukemia. Except for the title, the sub-headings and some minor checks, I am posting the article as she wrote it.)

An Unwelcome Summer Guest

Imagine this. It’s the last day of school in March 2006. Two months of summer is right in front of you. Then, a fever welcomes it. And after missing the first week of the wonderful summer, BOOM!, a bomb of cancer has exploded in your body.

Pretty bad, right? But with medicine, modern technology, tons of love from friends and family and all the help you could get from the whole universe (especially from up above the heavens), it would be an unforgettable chapter to write in your book of life.

A 10-year-old girl was alone at home, lying on the bed. Her family was out to attend her brother’s graduation. She couldn’t come because of a dreadful fever she had, on and off, for almost a week. I was that little girl.

A few days after that, my parents decided to bring me to the hospital, thinking that it might be something serious. I was admitted then and there, and the diagnosis - pallor and anemia. On the third day, my doctor, Dr. Jeannie B. Ong, considered pre-leukemia because of the presence of many immature cells in my bone marrow. It wasn’t long before we found out that it really was Acute Myelogenous Leukemia or AML.

Honestly, I don’t remember what I felt that time when I was told I had cancer. All I knew about cancer at that time was that it was something severe. Plainly put, a severe disease in you body. And from what I have seen in the television, people with leukemia lose their hair. Man, I wasn’t ready to lose my hair that time! NO WAY!

Battling A Beast

Anyway, after knowing the unwelcome summer guest, we went on to step number two. Behold, chemotherapy! This treatment makes you better and sick at the same time. You might not get it, but it’s easy. It makes you better because the medicine kills the bad cells. But it also kills the good cells since it can’t identify if the cell is good or bad.

Now, the drugs also make you even more sick. The drugs kills the good cells which results to hair falling, nail beds turning into violet and your appetite to back off. And so we went to the hospital back and forth.

On my first chemotherapy, everything was a bit new to my parents, ‘watchers’ and me. Soon, my family learned how to buy medicines with weird names, how to ask for donors for my blood transfusions, get in contact with other leukemia patients and deal with my condition. They also got used to seeing me just lying on the hospital bed either sleeping or doing nothing at all. After the first dose was administered to me, I began to feel nauseated but not exactly right after, maybe after several hours. Then, I began to vomit. Even if I liked the food, my appetite always fought with me and always won. This is what happened the next days of my first chemo session.

My first session lasted for more than a week, and then I was discharged. Expecting that my next chemo was still two weeks away, it was quite a relief. But then, after a week, my temperature abruptly went up. And before I knew it, I was back in the hospital. After the usual laboratory tests, it showed that my platelets were very low. My doctor advised that we quickly secure a platelet donor. After my parents found a donor, my fever was still persistent. Dr. Ong said this was febrile neutropenia and it was expected for leukemia patients that just had chemo.

The Beast Strikes Hard

Few days after my first chemotherapy session, when I awoke from my sleep, my hair was all messed up. My sister, whose favorite subject is me, offered to comb my hair. I accepted her offer since I can’t comb my hair because my right hand was connected to the intravenous (IV) feeding bottle.

I sat on the bed and gave her the comb. After a while, she fell silent. “Yam,” she said showing me a handful of black hair. That black hair was mine. The sight of my hair falling around the white sheets each day saddened me. All my mom and sister could do was save my fallen hair in a plastic bag. To make a sad fact alluring, I joked to them “Pwede na yan na ipagawa na wig ni daddy!” (You can save my hair for Daddy's wig)

Fighting Back With An Army

Well, I knew I had to keep fighting even though I was already semi-bald. So, after I was discharged from the hospital, we went on with the second and third session. After the second session, my doctor announced that I was already on remission. And the same thing after the third session.

Being on remission means that there are no more cancer cells in my bone marrow and that I was ready for a Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT). The transplant would increase my chances of not having a relapse. Now all we need to do was to find a compatible donor and raise funds for the operation, which at that time costed about Php 2-3 M.

According to experts, it’s difficult to find a matched donor. But with me having three siblings, there is a good chance that one of them could a match. We started off with my sister. We were subjected to HLA typing. HLA means Human Leukocyte Antigen. It has something to do with the nature of our blood and bone marrow. Unluckily, she wasn’t a match. Next was my eldest brother. This time, we were compatible.

After knowing that my brother and I were a match, my doctor immediately told my parents the names of doctors in Manila who could possibly do the transplant. Every time my father would go to Manila for meetings, he would find time to talk to them. Back here in Davao, my brother and I were busy with a series of blood tests in preparation for the BMT. While occupied with the tests, we were also busy with the funds for the transplant.

And by that time, my school, the Philippine Women’s College of Davao, already knew about my condition. They also began fund raising events to help in my operation. On the second week of September 2006, my parents, helper and I went to Manila. My sister was left here in Davao together with our other helper and two of our mom’s colleagues. My dad had a high school classmate living near Asian Hospital (the hospital where I was to be admitted) who gladly invited us to stay with them while there in Manila.

Before I was admitted at the hospital, we went to the Philippine Charity and Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) to claim our grant. They gave us a big amount of money for the transplant. Then we went to meet my two new, handsome doctors, (they’d hate me if I didn’t write handsome there) Dr. Francisco Lopez and Dr. Allan Racho. A few days after that, I was finally admitted in the hospital and in no time, I was in the operation room for the insertion of the central line. My mom was there with me. Of course, I was asleep the whole time because if I were awake, it would be so unpleasant. After the insertion, I woke up at the recovery room. Then I was brought back to room 713, my domain for the next three weeks.

Before harvesting stem cells from my brother, I went through a last round of chemotherapy. Days before the transplant itself, my brother was given shots of GCSF. That’s the acronym for Granulocyte Colony-Stimulating Factor. Its purpose is to increase the stem cell production and to enable the stem cells to come out of the marrow and into the bloodstream. What my brother is going to donate is his stem cells not the marrow itself. Stem cells are the ones that come out of the bone marrow and eventually become the blood cells.

Defeating the Beast

My routine was still the same; weekly lab tests, consultations, medicine, you name it. In early January 2007, we went back to Manila to attend the BMT party that was held yearly. Other leukemia survivors also attended. It was also in that month that I was to reach my 100th day post transplant. I forgot how we celebrated that milestone, but I was happy that time.

Over the next months, I started taking the examinations from our school. Fortunately, they allowed me to have a home study program since I have this condition. A teacher from school comes to our house every week to administer the test. During the summer, my friends from school kept on calling me, which was good because I missed them so much. Most calls were from Karla and Elaine, two of my closest friends. We were also informed that I somehow managed to pass all of my tests, meaning if I planned to go to school the next opening, I would be a sixth grader.

June came, which meant school. And it meant the same for me. I went to school; I sort of looked different especially with the hair. You see, before I got the disease, my hair was straight. Now, it’s curly, the very reason why I’m now known as ‘curly tops’ in our batch. I saw my most of my classmates back when I was in grade four.

But it was different now; I was already in grade six. My teachers already knew about my condition and asked me how I was doing. I attended school from June up to August with some absences in between because of occasional fever. At the start of September, we went to nearby Panabo City to attend a Science Quiz Bee. There were three students representing each school and I was one of the three from ours. We went back to Davao in the afternoon. Unfortunately, we didn’t enter the next round of tests for the quiz bee.

Survivor Me

This time, the whole family was present. I mean the WHOLE, man! (Excluding the lolos and lolas okay? Just the six of us.) They were all home because of Christmas break, which helped me a lot.

I was discharged from the hospital after ten days meaning I missed the party and I celebrated Christmas in the hospital. NO BIGGIE! At least I’m still alive, right? Since I didn’t celebrate Christmas that lively, I planned to make it up for New Year.

New Year was a blast. The usual family photo shoot and Media Noche (though we ate it after New Year) was still made. Not to mention, all the pictures were not serious. I mean, not a single shot was fit to be put in a frame! But who cares? We had a lot of fun!

The following day, my sister had to go back to Manila. Seriously, why do the need to be back at school by January 3?

Then, both my brothers went back to their work places. And so, I was again left alone. But I was happy despite that.

While writing this article, I remembered what my friend Karla always says to me. She always says that I’m unlucky yet I’m still lucky. I guess now, I absorbed what that really meant. It meant I was unlucky because I got this cancer but still lucky because I also got friends and family that would never leave me. And that’s more powerful than the disease I got in my body, which made me hang on and fight and it also made me realize that I wasn’t alone.

October 18, 2009


Fourteen. 14. Easily a charming number. My daughter Yam should be 14 today.

Last night, my wife and I agreed to visit Yam's grave site this morning. But this morning, I felt the urge to finish some urgent work before a scheduled trip tomorrow. We opted for a late afternoon visit, which we made with our son John.

On our way to Forest Lake, we dropped by Bangkerohan Market for a week's veggie supply, then to the other side of the bridge for flowers.

When we reached Yam's site, we were met by a pleasant surprise. There were three (3) flower arrangements, 3 green candles and a letter. At least three of her closest friends paid a visit. They fondly remembered her on her birthday. They seem to have lingered for a while. We can only imagine how they giggled as if their friend was around in flesh, and shouted, "Happy birthday, young woman!"

Thanks Karla (Mami K) and other friends. We are happy how much you love Yam the way we do. She must be very happy.

August 16, 2009

Hope at the House of Hope

16 August 2009, Sunday. Two days ago, I received an invitation to the thanksgiving lunch of the House of Hope (HoH) at the Davao Medical Center (DMC). I was so elated and immediately accepted the invitation and thought what little thing I can bring. After all, I expected to see kids with cancer with their parents or caregivers and the little thing I can bring might just give the kids their day's "simple joy".

The occasion was the House of Hope's second anniversary. HoH was built as a transient dwelling for cancer patients and their parents. Dr. Mae Dolendo, oncologist at DMC, who spearheaded the building and operational management of this edifice, describes HoH exactly what its name says. Cancer patients from far places come to DMC for treatment and usually never return because they have nowhere to stay and no money for lodging in between treatments. When HoH was built, it bridged a gaping chasm by providing a temporary accommodation for patients who, otherwise, couldn't afford to rent a place. The two year statistics of transients says a lot about HoH's success (

My wife and I arrived to the lunch date just on time, bringing balloons to the cancer kids. There were some 15 to 20 of them, all beaming with glee at the sight of guests coming. They were all over the place, some helping in the registration and welcoming the guests. Their innocent smiles conjure life and a hopeful future. And as the guests, who are all supporters arrived, they appeared more excited.

During and after lunch, my wife and I engaged another guest and her husband into a hearty conversation. We were glued to an hour of sharing, though I took some moments to get to know some of the HoH staff. The guest is a cancer survivor. And her story is a testimony that cancer can not steal life and living and can even make it more meaningful.

We are happy at how the House of Hope brought much hope to the hundreds it housed in the last two years and the hundreds more in the future.

We are happy at