It’s useless crying... fight it
Playing on the bed with her two young children, Rowena Enriquez accidentally brushed her hand over her breast and felt a lump she had never noticed before.
It was three days before Christmas in 2009, so the 29-year-old made a mental note of it but kept playing, her thoughts assuaged by the all-clear she got during her smear test and breast ultrasound just three months earlier.
But the incident resurfaced when the family doctor popped by the next day to visit her son who had fever.
“I took the opportunity to ask him to examine me. The second he felt the lump he urged me to do a mammogram immediately,” she says, recounting how breast cancer entered her life without warning.
Sharing her story has been cathartic, and as she graces the cover of the Health Ministry’s promotional publication, out today with The Sunday Times, her message is clear: “Telling your story will help you overcome your fear.”
Her story is all the more unusual because she has no family history of breast cancer, which makes her advice to young women to get regular check-ups and self-examinations all the more poignant.
Patting down the tufts of her pixie-styled hair, which has started growing back after the ravaging effects of chemotherapy, she recalls how that same day of the doctor’s visit she secured an appointment at a clinic down the road from her home.
As she was walking there with a friend – her husband Stephen remained with their children Miguel and Tiziana, at the time aged six and three respectively – they were joking and laughing, carefree and caught up in the Christmas spirit.
At first the clinic doctor refused to have a mammogram done on such a young woman and he only conceded after she proffered her GP’s paperwork.
The results were a cruel blow – a fast-growing cancer – and the doctor said if it were up to him he would operate immediately.
“It’s quite amazing how your life can flip upside down in one minute. I blanked at the news and broke down. You keep hearing about people diagnosed with cancer and your heart goes out to them, but you believe it will never touch you.”
Being the only girl after four boys, the family took it doubly hard, but everyone from her husband to their respective extended families tapped their inner strength to put on a brave front and face the challenge ahead.
On Christmas Eve she visited Mater Dei Hospital’s Breast Clinic to undergo a biopsy. The doctor had already left for the day, but he returned immediately. The operation to remove tumour was set for January 22.
Christmas Day was a blur, but Ms Enriquez insisted on going ahead with the celebrations for the sake of her children. Her emotions were tinged with anger as she kept asking, “Why me?”, but she kept reciting her father’s advice – “it’s useless crying... fight it” – until she finally convinced herself this was the only way forward. She made it her goal that she was going to see her children grow up.
Having discovered the lump early, meant the prognosis was good – just one of the 15 lymph nodes was infected with the cancer, but she still had to undergo eight sessions of chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy.
Her nails blackened and fell off, but the worst thing was seeing her hair fall out three weeks after the first chemo session. Her husband finally shaved it all off. With her head over the basin, her tears helped wash down her locks.
Her children handled the situation in different ways; while the illness brought out the protective nature in her son, her daughter retaliated when she saw her new look – this bald person before her was not her mother.
Ms Enriquez and her husband have chosen to send their children to a child psychologist to help them deal with the trauma through play therapy and both have benefitted tremendously.
“It was a tough ride. I felt as if I was in this black tunnel with no light at the end, but I feel proud that I managed to fight it and thank God I was given a second chance,” she says.
The family are slowly returning to normality, with the only difference is that her goals and priorities in life have changed – her mission, apart from her family, is now speaking out about her case in the hope of pushing people into doing regular check-ups before it was too late.
“Some prefer not to know what they have, but it’s not just about you. Think about the people around you and the pain you’ll cause them if something happens.”