Everyone has been touched or affected by breast cancer in one way or another, and although many have gone through it, no two stories are ever the same. In light of Breast Cancer Awareness month, we spoke to three brave women in this series of interviews to offer insight, comfort, and hope. Meet Letecia who survived it, Margaret who is currently battling it, and Jazreena who has to live with losing a loved one to breast cancer. A humbling reminder that even in the most difficult of times, we are in it together. This is Letecia Aguilar’s story.
“Breast cancer? What, how, when??” I was gobsmacked when my mother revealed her diagnosis to me. It was well after it had happened. I was blindsided, having been abroad studying for over a year, and completely oblivious to her entire ordeal. She sat me down, told me calmly that she didn’t want to worry me, that she was diagnosed and had a mastectomy, and that she’s okay now. She lifted up her shirt, and the scar was right across her right chest. The first thing that came to my mind was ‘strong’. It was a moment of admiration; like seeing a war wound. A testament to a battle she won. The mark of a survivor.
Despite being a private person, she agreed to share part of her journey with her daughter, in hopes that it will offer comfort to someone who might be going through it now.
How did you feel when you found out your diagnosis?
I was about 40 years old when I discovered a little peppercorn just below my shoulder blade. I didn’t pay much attention to it until a few months later, when to my surprise, it grew into the size of a corn kernel! I went to the doctor for a mammogram and the results came back negative.I felt that something wasn’t quite right, and insisted on more checks. My doctor said it wasn’t necessary, but I trusted my gut instinct, and finally, after multiple tests and two biopsies, the results finally came back. It was positive. The first thing that came to my mind is, “I need to heal myself to get rid of the cancer.” I didn’t feel fear. I was very practical. I wasn’t devastated or afraid; I was confident. The only thing I was afraid of was not being able to pay the bills.
Can you elaborate on the procedure and experience?
I went through radiotherapy after my mastectomy. It took me about two years of proper rest before I eased back into my regular routine and felt more like myself. I was very positive throughout the process and determined to heal myself. I read a lot of books. Back then, there was no internet, so I went to the library and researched cancer. I became very particular with my diet after. For two years, I didn’t eat red meat, just fish and kampung (free-range) chicken. No fried food. Everything was either steamed or soup-based. I eat organic produce whenever possible. My own mother really motivated me. The things she said made me want to carry on. She had breast cancer when I was about 15 years old. I remember her telling me, “You have to be strong. The coming days, the future, that is what you need to think about. You need to live and not give up. You cannot leave before me.” That hit me hard and made me determined to beat it.
How has it changed you as a person?
A week after the operation, I realised something was missing and incomplete. I was depressed, wondering if my husband would still love me. When I asked him if I’m less of a woman, he said, “You should be thankful you still have one breast left.” We had a good laugh! Jokes aside, cancer has definitely changed me. It humbled me. I was in my 40s, and a bit wild and vibrant. I used to be temperamental too, so it calmed me down. It also made me stronger in the sense that no matter what I am going through now, if I could have gone through that part of my life, what can’t I survive?
It also turned me into a compassionate person. It helps me connect with others, inspire them, and motivate them through their battle with cancer. In a way, I’m glad it happened. A small sacrifice to gain something far more meaningful that can help others. Life is fair. When you lose something, you will always gain something else.
You are a Pink Ribbon member and volunteer in Sabah. Tell us a little bit about your work with them.
I help with fundraisers, dance shows, fashion shows, runs, and so on. The women at Pink Ribbon share a very special bond – we share a common experience and we understand each other. We talk about our experiences and lend support, especially with members who are still going through chemo. They come to a place where they can find refuge and forget about it for a while. We learn a lot from each other. Being in a supportive community helps.
What is your advice to those at risk of breast cancer?
Go for your yearly checks, every six months if possible. There’s no harm in getting checked regularly. Cancer can happen within a few months, and sadly, many people detect it at a later stage. Unless that part of the breast is painful or has obvious lumps, you wouldn’t know. Listen to your instinct, even if the results are negative. If you feel like you need a second opinion, please get it.
For those going through it right now, your state of mind is of utmost importance. Don’t feel ashamed or worry about what others say about you. It’s okay to share and let people know what you’re going through. When you open up about it, others will come forward and share their own experiences. But it’s also more than just positive thinking, it’s also positive doing. Think of small acts you can achieve; like, what do you need to do to survive today? The treatments will make you tired, weak, and cause you to throw up. You need to prepare yourself and arm yourself with vitamins and supplements to build your immune system, because chemo and radiotherapy will deplete you.