"I will never forget the day I lost my breasts," said Maria Bugasto, at a support-group gathering of women suffering from breast cancer. Bugasto, whose sole mission in life is to cheer up and motivate women like herself, exudes extraordinary energy while narrating her experiences of battling the dreaded disease.
"Being told you have cancer crushes your life - like you will never know how to get up again," she says. But then, the very next moment Bugasto strides across the room like the 'well-endowed' woman she had been before her surgery. "I was size 42 cup DD!" she laughs. "I feel bad to think that some women spend a lot of money to get bigger breasts, and I had to pay to get them removed."
Despite the gravity of living with cancer, Bugasto's stories are often punctuated with jokes. She sports a new hair-do after many months - her hair has begun to grow back after it fell out during chemotherapy.
"The impact on any woman, who is told she has breast cancer, will always be the same - no matter what stage; no matter what type of cancer. There's always that fear of leaving your family behind," she says. Bugasto has two daughters and three grandchildren.
She was first diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer when she went for her annual check-up and her gynecologist noticed that her left breast had a thick
feel to it. That was in June 2005. By July 15, both her breasts were removed. And six months later, Bugasto had a hysterectomy. In a mere six months, her life was changed forever - she had undergone painful chemotherapy sessions and three major surgeries. "I was declared cancer-free in May 2006. I tried to get my life back - I went to the gym and started doing advocacy work."
It was during this period that Bugasto met Mercy Baterina, a former nun of the Pink Sisters, a contemplative order based in Baguio. Baterina was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in March 2004. Two days later, her left breast was removed. Chemotherapy followed from May to September of that year.
Despite the blow, she preferred to remain positive. After her first chemotherapy session, she treated herself to a movie and a good meal - even though she couldn't even taste the food. Baterina is now in her third year of remission.
Today, both Bugasto and Baterina are trying to help other women through Minda's Buddies, a support group for women living with the disease. Noni Marzan, who passed away from the disease in 2004, had founded the group, named after a woman who had also succumbed to breast cancer.
The group members' emphasis is on living life with grace, despite being terminally ill. "Mercy and I gather our members together to talk. Friends in the community donate food for our meetings," Bugasto reveals.
Bugasto's battle against is far from over. In December 2006, her doctor told her that the cancer had metastasized to her bones and that she had Stage 4 cancer. She has been given about five years to live but remains hopeful.
"With what we've gone through, our faith has really been tested. God provides. Friends give and there are so many good people who support us," Baterina says.
The two women also pray for cancer patients and give pep talks to first-time patients. "She (Baterina) prays; I talk." says Bugasto. And patients of cancer specialist Dr Felina Adefuin, who supports Minda's Buddies, have certainly benefited from their endeavour.
But their commitment goes beyond words and faith. They quietly extend a lifeline to other cancer patients by raising much-needed funds. At the recent Avon Walk for Cancer, Bugasto raised close to Php 50,000 (US$1=Php 40.6). She also held the hand of a young university student suffering from nasal-pharyngeal cancer for whom she helped raised Php 10,000 during the walk.
"We tell other patients that there is life with cancer; and that there is life after cancer," says Bugasto. "Laugh along the way, have a positive attitude and the positive vibes will surely be beneficial."