Freda Contreras

Surviving Cancer in a Foreign Land – In the past 12 years of my stint abroad as an overseas Filipino worker, never did I think that I will ever face a “death” sentence. Yes a death sentence – not as a consequence of a crime committed but because of having the most dreaded and deadly human disease as cancer! Thousands and thousands of miles away from my immediate family and country, having had to face this life’s ultimate ordeal is something, in itself, very debilitating! I thought that I will have to deal only with earning dollars so I can provide the best for my family back home in the Philippines! I was wrong!

I admit that I was really caught off-guard with the shocking diagnosis I received that fateful day of November 16, 2000! Who wouldn’t, anyway! Foremost on my mind was not the fear of dying – it came to fore much later as I went through the process of accepting my fate. Ah, the fear I had then!

Who will take care of my ailing mother, old nanny and youngest sister? Who will look after my two children and adopted son? Who will provide the needs of my other siblings? Who will help those breadwinners under my employ? Who will look after the interest of our land which I painstakingly redeemed numerous times from various individuals? I fear the land will go because, sad to say, my siblings’ hard-up situation will force them to sell the land. Then my wildest dream of having the happiest and the most beautiful family compound will all go to naught!

Those were the questions I asked then. Of course, they were asked because I thought I will die soon! Funny, really, how the word ‘cancer’ can make us think immediately of death!

Actually, these very real responsibilities I had were the ones which helped me fight back and stay convicted to live a long, long life! I tell you, there was once a time when I was in the last thread of hope that I asked God to end my life! Be quick with it, oh Lord, I prayed. Looking back, I strongly believe, that it was the time when I realized that God didn’t want to end my life. I strongly believe that He just wanted to shake me and tell me that: “Hey, you’ve been too much engrossed in helping others that you forgot to help yourself! Wake up and attend to your ailing body and reestablish your priorities in life!”

From then on, I faced my “death” sentence with renewed vigor! I promised myself that I will never, never allow my body to be wasted away by this dragon! As you know, some parts of my body were already removed and lately, as a consequence of another not-so-common human disease named osteogenesis imperfecta I inherited from my late father, two new bony areas are slowly wasting away. This, of course, along with my fast deteriorating hearing loss, is not connected to the cancer. I understand that some more parts will possibly be involved in the years to come but I don’t care! I will fight this monster until the last breath of my life! Even if I have to crawl in order to go to work! I want to be strong and I want to keep my body working for as long as it takes to function!

Since the publication of my article “Woes of an OFW” last December 5, 2000, so many people, known and unknown to me, have sent emails to ask about me. The steady flow of emails I received, especially the ones from the three mailing lists (two were created by me prior to my cancer diagnosis) I subscribe to, actually kept me going and amidst the trials I continuously faced, I slowly emerged from my temporary downfall into a stronger, positive and fighting demeanor!

The initial shock of the diagnosis started to wear off when I began to learn about my disease. The internet suddenly became my ally! I spent the next 10 hours or so, after hearing the bad news from my gynecologist, searching the web.

Leiomyosarcoma – such strange-sounding word! How do you get one, I asked then? Because I remember the doctor told me before that the fibroid is never malignant! Then how come I had a cancerous fibroid tumor? Leiomyosarcoma or LMS for short, is a very rare form of cancer affecting the soft (smooth muscle) tissues of the body. And according to one of my readings, LMS is known for its high metastatic activity! Oh, my, what now? The tumor was already removed after invading my uterus. Where else can it go, I asked then?

More search and I was finally taken to this mailing list which later has become my lifeline as I struggled to accept my life-threatening ordeal. The mailing list –The Leiomyosarcoma Online Support Group (ACOR) has provided me with accurate information and the latest innovative management for my type of LMS! I really am thankful to God I found the list because it has saved me from having to accept from the not-so-knowledgeable-on-LMS oncologists in Kuwait their standard practice of subjecting a “high grade” cancer patient to chemotherapy and radiation. The caring members of the list warned me that LMS does not, if at all, respond to chemotherapy and radiation.

Another major surgery
Just over a month after undergoing my first ever major surgery – myomectomy, to remove the fibroid tumor from my uterus – I was again wheeled to the operating room last November 29, 2000. The operation, according to my husband, lasted for nearly five hours. The surgeons, after removing my uterus, two ovaries, two fallopian tubes and cervix, took their time in looking into my other organs for possible infiltration of the cancerous tumor. My appendix went, along with a very “suspicious” nodule above my small bowel.

What else did they remove? I remember asking my husband as soon as I regained consciousness. I was informed beforehand, and was made to sign a paper testifying to the knowledge, that the surgeons may remove other organs aside from our previously agreed ones (the whole reproductive organs) if needed. Did they remove my stomach, or part of it? What about my intestines? My liver? My spleen? My gallbladder? My kidneys? My urinary bladder and ureters? Oh my, you should see the expression on my husband’s face!

As related by my husband, he had difficulty controlling his tears, when he saw me after the surgery. It was too much for him to take and he wished no other husbands will ever be subjected to the same situation he faced! I was white as a paper, he said, and all kinds of tubes, bottles and bags were connected to my body. He could hardly see my face because of the oxygen mask covering almost all area of my tiny face. I have one large tube connected to my nose; another tube to the right side of my neck (central venous line) where three bottles of solution were simultaneously connected; a tube connected to my left arm where blood was dripping from a bag; a tube on both sides of my lower abdomen where drains from my abdominal cavity were pouring into weird-looking bags; and another tube for draining of urine. A funny-looking object was also connected to my right index finger (was reminded of ET, the movie) which gave off a sound everytime my vital signs showed below or above normal. My chest was full of numerous small round patches connected, by tiny wires, to another machine which monitored my heart. And one tiny wire connected to my back – the only tube, in fact, which I welcomed gladly – which supplied my body with pain-relieving medication. In one hour, I was allowed to press the button four times, and the machine will pump the heavenly drug into my system.

I stayed in the Recovery Room (Intensive Care Unit) five days and four nights. By the time I was moved to my room in the Female Ward (of the Kuwait Cancer Control Center), I only had three tubes – the central venous line and the two ones connected to both sides of my lower abdomen for draining out the secretions from inside my cavity.

My saga continues, my dear readers, on the second part of this long-overdue story. You won’t wait that long because I plan to have it published by next Friday, July 27, 2001. See you then!

The following was written at a later date.

One way or the other, each one of us takes his/her own share of the world’s ills. Depending on our strength – gained or inherent – we either succeed or fail. But sure – we all fight in order to survive! Those who failed, I believe, didn’t gain enough “experience” to deal with the stress, or might have just started to have the experience and the problem being faced is already serious or life-threatening!

I consider myself blessed to have undergone a lot of trials in life and I’ve learned early on that I become a stronger person each time I overcome one. As in rainy days, my life’s “pours” come incessantly. Yet each pour has given me the experience to battle bravely the coming ones!

“I won’t be surprised if a bomb falls over my head right this very moment!,” I remember telling my husband after reading a report of my first post-operative CT scans. Complications, yes, but I tell you – not the first! Let me continue with my saga…

On the sixth day of my confinement at the Kuwait Cancer Control Center (KCCC), I was informed by the head of the Oncology Team assigned to my case, that my blood sugar was continuously elevated. This could be because of the intravenous fluids I’ve received, and was still receiving (his eyes focused on the 5% Dextrose currently running) or as a result of my body’s reaction to the stress. Oh, no, I said, unbelieving and dismayed, yet very aware of the possibility!

So, I have diabetes as well! I know that I got it from my mother, who, if you remember, had her right leg amputated last year because of a gangrenous foot.

It seemed that the list of my own share of the world’s ills was adding up by the leaps. Brittle bone disease (or osteogenesis imperfecta), deteriorating hearing loss, diminishing eyesight, cancer and now diabetes! Hmm… what next?

The rest of my 11-day hospital confinement passed by uneventfully. The pains I endured from daily needle pricks; gradual removal of the various tubes connected to my body (with naso-gastric tube the worst of all!) and from the still fresh 18-cm long surgical wound on my tummy were all temporarily forgotten when I was finally discharged. Actually I asked to be discharged – ahead of the time-frame established by the oncology team – because I was terribly missing my own bed!

You guessed it right. First thing I did upon reaching home was to connect to the internet. I was very excited about the emails which have accumulated in my mailbox. Although my husband had been supplying me daily (all throughout the 11 days I stayed in the hospital) with emails from known relatives and friends, a lot were still there waiting to be read, mostly from members of the three mailing lists I subscribe to. Of course, all the junk mails had already been deleted by my thoughtful hubby. He’s really an angel, you know!

When it was time for the stitches to be removed, I went back to KCCC, happy with the knowledge that I will soon be freed from the irritating dressing and tapes over my surgical wound. The first 14 stitches, starting from up (1 and ½ inches above my navel), went without problem. Grip, cut, pull, grip, cut, pull – so went the forceps and scissors continuously. I felt very less pain. Ah… but I was wise enough to take pain killers before leaving the house!

When the surgeon reached the last four remaining stitches, he felt something extra soft, pressed down the skin a little too hard and ‘snap’ went the third and fourth to the last stitches! Serous fluid then oozed out, a lot, believe me!

Voila! Good “new” diabetes was doing its job very well! With two pieces of gauze stuffed inside the opening, I was finally sent home with instruction to come for a daily dressing.

E. coli infection
The following day, I was informed that the culture and sensitivity report (from a body discharge taken prior to the surgery) finally arrived and showed positive for E. coli infection. Not again!

Ah well, I said, antibiotics can easily solve the problem – as it did to an E. coli infection of urinary tract I had over a year ago! The doctor prescribed antibiotics alright but alas not the tablet or capsule kind but the intravenous (IV) one, to be taken every 12 hours! Needle pricks again! Will I ever finish?

It really helped being a nurse. You know what I did? I asked for an IV line to be established – as I know I won’t be able to take the twice a day prick into my veins. I already developed this “needle phobia” and besides, most of my veins were already collapsed. Now, picture me with this needle-guided thin plastic tube imbedded into a vein in my arm. The tiny tube was connected to a long bigger tube curled around and taped to the base of my left lower arm with a small plastic stoppage at the end. Each time I was due for the antibiotic push, I would remove the tapes, uncurl the tube, open the plastic covering the stoppage, and push the antibiotic solution via a disposable syringe, grimace a bit because of the pain felt as the cold solution passes through my vein and then do the action in reverse.

Oh, yes, I was doing it to myself at home – most of the time alone or with my husband’s assistance! Why not, I protested, when my husband initially refused for me to do the IV push in the house! It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last! I was referring then to the first one (in a series of many episodes) I did while serving a private hospital during the infamous invasion and occupation of Kuwait by Iraq. Because of the scarcity of staff and the lack of time to properly imbibe food, I resorted then to giving myself an IV shot of Vit. C with calcium – alone in the ward! The fastest way I know to regain the strength continuously lost by lack of sleep and food – just like I was a drug addict!

During one of those recent IV pushing actions, I experienced this profound feeling of self-pity. It was actually triggered by my difficulty in removing one of the sticky tapes holding the curled tube in place. I was already using both my right hand and mouth but each time I made a move I was feeling the thin tube imbedded under my skin moving out of place. Exasperated, I almost pulled the whole thing out, especially after my right elbow accidentally pushed the syringe – full of antibiotic solution I prepared earlier – down to the carpet! Luckily enough, I managed to stop myself. I cried instead and all those unshed tears in the past days suddenly gushed out uncontrollably! Oh God, please help me, I shouted! Help me overcome this insignificant difficulty and please take me out from this pit of self-destruction and self-pity!

After I recovered from that soul-searching episode, I got up revivified, to prepare another antibiotic solution ready for another try. When it was time to remove the sticky tape, I didn’t encounter any difficulty. The tape just went easily! Unknowingly, the tears, which flowed down earlier to my left arm resting on my lap, sipped underneath the tape.

Oh, what a wonder! I then smiled and felt this unexplainable peace in my heart!

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The Sarcoma Alliance strives to improve the lives of people affected by sarcoma through accurate diagnosis, improved access to care, guidance, education and support.