“Just 3 months after my last chemotherapy cycle, I took my cousin Therese up on her invitation to visit her in Toronto. I made a side solo trip to Old Quebec to visit the filming locations of “Goblin,” a K-drama that helped me get through treatment!” (image courtesy: Giselle Arroyo)
Stories of survival can surely inspire and empower those who are currently battling cancer. Giselle Arroyo’s story is one of them.
In this interview, she shares her breast cancer survival story, which is a journey that has been deeply defined by courage, faith, and a lasting sense of purpose.
Who was Giselle Arroyo before being diagnosed with Breast Cancer?
I was 36 years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a marketing job that required a lot of long hours and travel. But, overall, I thought I was in relatively ok shape, health-wise.
What symptoms did you notice that prompted you to consult a doctor?
In February 2017, I felt a lump in my left breast by accident when I was in the shower. But, I remember that a few years back, I would have intense pain in my breasts before my period.
This prompted me to get my first breast ultrasound in 2014. Back then, I had no suspicious lumps and the doctor said that the pain isn’t a symptom of breast cancer.
Nevertheless, she encouraged me to monitor every 6 months. But, I wound up not doing it until I felt the big lump almost 3 years later.
The doctor said the lump didn’t look like breast cancer because of its shape and it was avascular (blood vessels are absent). However, she still advised me to see a breast surgeon to be safe.
We have a family history of breast cancer, so I immediately got in touch with my Tita Doris, my Mom’s sister, who at the time was already an 11-year breast cancer survivor. She referred me to her surgical oncologist, Dr. Mark Richard Kho.
When I first went to see him, my mindset was that I was just going to his clinic to schedule the removal of a benign mass in an outpatient procedure. I wasn’t really thinking about cancer because the mass didn’t look too suspicious.
But then he started talking about breast cancers treatments like radiology and chemotherapy. I was so surprised and bombarded him with questions: “Why are we discussing this? I thought it was just a benign lump? What are the chances this is actually cancer?”
When he responded that it was 50-50, I almost fell off my chair. It turns out, the radiologist had written on my ultrasound report that there was something suspicious in my lymph nodes. But as a non-doctor, I didn’t understand that, so I wasn’t aware of the risk.
How did you find out that it was indeed cancer?
I was given my treatment options and some time to think about how to proceed.
After consulting my family and closest friends, I decided to go for a frozen section biopsy, wherein the doctor will remove a portion of the tissue mass. In the event that the mass is malignant, I elected to have a modified radical mastectomy, a procedure to remove the entire breast and axillary (armpit) lymph nodes.
It actually wasn’t until I woke up from my surgery that I found out for sure that I had breast cancer. I remember waking up in the recovery room and asking the nurse what time it was. When he answered that it was around noon, I knew that was it – I had cancer.
I had been told beforehand that if the mass were benign, the surgery would be short. But, if it were malignant, it would be much longer.
10 days later I was told that it was Stage 2A. Thankfully, there were no cancer cells in my lymph nodes (no lymph node involvement).
What was your reaction about the diagnosis and how did you cope with your feelings?
Even with our family history of breast cancer, I still wasn’t expecting that I’d get it so young. I was shocked to hear that my chances of having cancer were 50-50.
It’s a good thing my Tita Florian, another sister of my mom, was with me. She literally held my hand and cried with me in the clinic.
I’m grateful to have a wonderful, kind doctor who really took the time to explain everything well and patiently answered all our questions. That first consultation was almost two hours, and it’s normal for him to spend that much time with first-time patients.
When we got home, I couldn’t talk – so Tita Florian had to be the one to break the news to our family. I cried a lot in the first couple of days, to my family and closest friends.
But, I knew I had some big decisions to make and had to pull myself together quickly.
In your breast cancer survival story, can you share what happened during the treatment process?
Because my cancer was still in early stage (2A) with no lymph node involvement, I was given the option to just undergo the minimal 4 sessions of chemo, plus 18 cycles of targeted therapy (Trastuzumab) which aims to stop the growth of cancer cells.
I started chemo 6 weeks after my surgery and had sessions every 3 weeks. The Trastuzumab started on the second cycle of chemo.
My last chemo cycle for breast cancer coincided with my birthday. So, instead of having the usual outpatient treatment, I decided to check in to the hospital for a night and have my family and friends over to celebrate my chemo graduation/birthday in my room. It’s definitely one of my most memorable birthday parties ever!
Did you have obstacles, side-effects while you were fighting and surviving breast cancer? How did you overcome them?
Thankfully, my side effects weren’t severe compared to what most breast cancer patients go through.
My appetite and sense of taste were never affected, although I did have some stomach problems. I only experienced extreme nausea once. Losing my hair was probably the hardest part, as it is for most women, so I just had to constantly remind myself that it was just temporary and my hair would grow back.
I’m very grateful that I had it relatively easy. Knowing that others had gone through much worse helped me keep things in perspective.
Areyou still getting treatment now? What activities does your doctor caution you with?
My treatment ended with the drug Trastuzumab and I’m pretty much back to normal.
My doctor isn’t strict with my diet – the one thing he advises against is drinking alcohol. I also don’t smoke and am more careful of what I eat compared to before.
I don’t believe in depriving myself of yummy things that aren’t healthy, as long as everything is in moderation. This is a philosophy I learned from my ICanServe sisters.
Who was part of your support network while you were fighting and surviving breast cancer?
My family provided me with so much love and support throughout my breast cancer survival story.
They really went above and beyond the call of duty to care for me. I know everyone – especially my parents and brothers – were scared. But, they never showed it and were so strong for me.
My two breast cancer survivor titas, Tita Aggie and Tita Doris, were my inspiration. Because of them, I knew I could beat cancer, too.
My company gave me all the time I needed to recover. And of course, my friends were also amazing and offered so much encouragement and support.
I appreciate each and every gesture – the home and hospital visits, phone and video calls, the endless stream of flowers, food, and gifts that were delivered to the house, and of course, all the prayers.
Now that I’m in the “survivorship” stage, my fellow survivor sisters in ICanServe have become a huge part of my life. Once you’ve had cancer, it’s so important to have someone who understands what you’ve gone through because they’ve been through it themselves.
When you have that kind of support system in your “second life,” it makes challenges easier to overcome.
Can you give us a little background on ICANSERVE? What inspired you to be a part of the foundation?
As I mentioned, my Tita Doris was already an 11-year survivor when I was diagnosed, and she had been active in ICanServe for many years.
When she recruited me, I immediately said yes, knowing that ICanServe has done so much life-saving work through its years of awareness and advocacy campaigns.
ICanServe Foundation was founded by four breast cancer survivors in 1999, back when there wasn’t very much information about breast cancer available to women, much less a network of support groups or fellow survivors to lean on.
Led by co-founders Kara Magsanoc-Alikapala and Crisann Celdran, in its 21 years, its battle cry of “Early detection is your best protection against breast cancer,” has touched thousands of lives around the country – not just of women, but of the families who depend on them as well.
At the age of 20, every woman should start the habit of conducting a monthly breast self-examination and practice this throughout their life! At the age of 30, they should have a clinical breast exam done by a doctor or trained health worker. And at the age of 40, women should start having an annual mammogram.
This year, even in the midst of the pandemic, ICanServe has found ways to get its message of early detection across to communities of women who need to be empowered with information to take their breast health to heart.
One of the most important things Kara and ICanServe have worked on recently, as part of Cancer Coalition Philippines, is the National Integrated Cancer Control Act. The law was passed last year, but it has yet to be implemented.
The National Cancer Control Act (Philippines Republic Act 11215) aims to strengthen cancer control in the Philippines, increase cancer survivorship and reduce the burden on families as well as cancer patients.
What do you wish everyone to know about your breast cancer survival story?
That breast cancer is conquerable and survivable.
I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s really true that having a positive attitude is very important in beating cancer.
Lakasan lang talaga ang loob! I have personally met so many walking, living miracles in ICanServe who have proven that with faith and courage, anything is possible!