Sharing with you all a speech given by our founder, Nikki Herrera-Bharwani, at the Build. Inspire. Give. Women’s Forum on October 20th, 2016:
I am the youngest 38 year old I know. I am married to a wonderful man, my best friend, for almost 14 years now. I enjoy the company of friends who span almost 10 years my junior. I work from home for a business I truly care for and am passionate about, and as often as I am able, travel the beautiful islands of our country for inspiration and rest.
But this story is not about my age. Last August marked my sixth year of being cancer free. YES! WOOHOO! It’s been an incredible adventure that has brought me through two surgeries, six cycles of chemo, 28 flights to and from Singapore, ten doctors, scan machines and pin prick needles too numerous to count, three beautiful dogs, and an experience I hold deeply sacred in me.
Cancer happened so very fast. I had noticed a mild sharp pain on the lower right side of my stomach, likened to a stitch when you’ve been laughing non-stop or running long distance. I would say I was quite the active person when it happened–a young woman with a gym membership that was actually being used, weekly morning sessions that included boxing, pilates and 3-kilometer runs around the village. Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind. Besides, we did not have cancer in the family. So, I simply ignored the pain. The discomfort was negligible, and I merely attributed the stitch to my morning run.
Weeks passed and this pain got a little more pronounced, evidenced by my slower, more deliberate steps. One afternoon at the office I shared about this bothersome stitch to co-workers who responded with such paranoid presentiments that it scared me enough to skip my meeting and visit Makati Med.
Soon as I stepped into the doors of the ER, I began to vomit, my stomach pain ever more prominent. Doctors volleyed between appendicitis and UTI, but had no definite answers for me. I was sent home that night, and was advised to perhaps see my OB “just to rule everything out.”
I took the doctor’s advice and hobbled over to see the OB the next morning. She pressed on my stomach, quite similar to the appendicitis test I had just gone through the night before, and without hesitation told me the singular line that catapulted the series of events to alter the course of my life:
“I am 200% sure you have a tumor.”
200 percent. That is quite a shocking certainty. I couldn’t believe it. My mouth froze, unable to speak, while my brain tried to grapple with the notion that everything I had done in my entire life to be a good person, a dutiful Christ-follower, a conscientious, vice-free human being did not save me one bit from this oncoming medical freight train.
Scans revealed that this tumor had engulfed my right ovary–and was now actually my right ovary. The tumor was twisted and now on the verge of rupturing.
I never left the hospital that day. They prepped me for surgery that afternoon to remove the mass. I remember being wheeled into the operating room, leaving behind the closest people in my life, in that whitewashed waiting room, realizing for the first time that I had never felt so alone, and so afraid to be in God’s hands.
What was supposed to be a routine one-and-a-half-hour mass removal turned into a six-hour operation. Family and friends from community filled the hospital waiting room that night, some 32 strong, to be by my husband’s side and keep him company.
I did not know this, but I’m glad he wasn’t alone. I only remember dark, hazy glimpses in the recovery room; blurred shadows of my husband hunched on the side of my bed, caressing my arm as he tearfully sang an old hymn:
High King of heaven, my victory won
May I reach heaven’s joy, oh bright heaven’s Sun
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.
When I had finally woken, he held on to me as he told me that I had Ovarian Cancer.
I was in for a brutal and breaking year. I timidly faced death’s door as I learned that two out of three cancers in me were aggressive. This, on the same year my husband and I were finally going to try to have kids, Cancer told me I had forfeited the ability to have children.
In our grief, my husband and I held on to our faith, and we held on to each other. As dark as the circumstances were, we saw the kindness of God shine through the many people who walked alongside us and held us up.
After my first operation, we flew to Singapore to get a second opinion on what treatment I was to take. We were hoping to still have a chance at a pregnancy before pursuing treatment. We were referred to an OB Oncologist who, after seeing my scans and tests, told me that sadly, a second surgery was necessary. “I am very sorry, but your cancer is aggressive,” the OB Onco said, “I know you want to have a child, but your life is your priority.”
We exited the doctor’s office, hearts torn a million pieces, and waited to pay for our consultation. After quite the lengthy wait, the receptionist called us only to say that the doctor wanted to speak with me again.
My husband Bebo and I walked back into Dr. Tham’s office to find him on his desk with my patient information sheet in his hand (the form you fill up before seeing the doctor). “Nicole, please come in. I am so sorry! But I did not know your husband is a pastor.”
On the same chair from which we received bad news, he said, “I want to help you. If you decide to do your treatment here in Singapore, I will give you big discount. I will do your operation. I will take care of you.”
Computing all medical costs, from the operation to the chemo, including back and forth trips for two to Singapore for each chemo cycle, we found that it was still more expensive to do the treatment in Manila. Needless to say, Dr. Tham performed my complete hysterectomy, and two weeks after, I began chemo treatment in a cancer center in Singapore where I received the best care and support that money did not buy.
What happens when sickness takes away more than just a few good cells? What does one do when life takes you down a path you cannot see, when the lemons and curve balls are far too fast for you to juggle and spin?
Amidst all the busyness of treatment and life decisions that had yet to be made, I remember my husband sitting me down during chemo and telling me, “Now is the time to really, really think: What do you really WANT to do?”
It was a tough question to answer. But, all complexity is gone when you don’t have a choice. If you look clearly, you will find that you are only faced with what seems to you is the little time you have left, and the choices become simpler.
So. What do you do if you had cancer, and couldn’t have kids, and was absolutely sure God was on your side?
I responded the only way I knew how. I embraced it. All of it. The sickness, the childlessness, the void, the new beginning. And I told myself I was not going to let any of it go to waste.
I left the Advertising industry I was in where I was in TV commercial production, and decided I wanted to do something more meaningful and earnest, something less stressful, where I would be able to spend more time at home with family. Out of a job with savings gone to treatment, we had very little to work with. BUT. I had a new lease on life, I had my husband, and I was excited to try something new.
Driven by a drastic need to also eat healthier, I began to procure fresh produce straight from the source and later decided to start offering vegetables to friends. My husband and I would then deliver these gulay orders out of our own personal car. Soon enough word got around, the demand grew and that started our little grass-roots business called The Green Grocer.
Life was incredibly simpler, but oh, what a fulfillment to start over, to be alive! To have little and yet feel you have all that you need. After all that I had been through, experiencing the kindness of God and compassion of so many people, I wanted to truly and sincerely give back. It was the least I could do.
What’s funny is, when you open yourself to be available, life sends you the opportunities to act upon it. I would soon receive emails from The Green Grocer customers who would share that the vegetables they were ordering were for their mom who was battling cancer, or that the patron himself was undergoing treatment. I would cry over their stories and unabashedly give myself to my email replies, sharing hope, encouragement, practical tips, anything.
My path led me to young people, mostly women, who were going through their own fight, and whatever knowledge I had I would give it, if only for them to know that they were not alone. Talking to a few women soon led me to start a small Viber group and we became a support group of cancer patients and survivors exchanging stories and experiences, comparing side effects, managing expectations, encouraging each other to the finish.
I remember Bebs and I having our favorite dimsum at the Singapore airport, waiting for our flight back to Manila after having just concluded my last chemo session. In a booth at Crystal Jade, it suddenly occurred to us that we (and I say we because my husband was every bit a casualty), we had finally completed the treatment. It was finished: the routine trudge from airport terminal to airport terminal, our pretend brave faces, the forbearance during infusions, toxic side effects, that undeniable smell of sickness. The suffering was finally over. The realization evoked such a ball of emotions that we simply cried over our hakao and noodle soup.
The frailty of man is that our sophistication demands that we make sense of the disorder in our lives. Because, really, what the hell just happened? How does life choose who gets the bad days, and who gets severe days? Surely there is a reason, a marked significance to one’s pain.
But there is no conclusive answer to why they happen. My mastery of the world is clearly just a meager understanding to the omniscience of a vast God. If there is any lesson cancer taught me, it is that I know nothing. Not the amount of control I have of the outcomes of life, and certainly not my time on earth. But what I do know for certain is that there is always grace — enough to pull you through your sorrow. And there is always love to encompass all your aching.
So here I am, six years later, alive, broken and yet with an inexplicable capacity to share Hope. The absolute truth is, I would not have been this person were it not for what I went through. But as I have heard it say, it takes broken soil to produce crop, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength, and a broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume.
In closing, let me share with you the verse from the Psalms that carried me through my whole cancer experience. It was my little prayer which I repeated over and over and over, every time I was afraid or uncertain of outcomes. If you are going through a tough time in your life, I hope it encourages you. Psalm 31 from The Message translation reads:
You are my cave to hide in, my cliff to climb.
Be my safe leader, be my true mountain guide.
Free me from hidden traps;
I want to hide in you.
I’ve put my life in your hands.
You won’t drop me, you’ll never let me down.
Desperate, I throw myself on you:
you are my God!
Hour by hour I place my days in your hand,
safe from the hands out to get me.
Warm me, your servant, with a smile;
save me because you love me.
Thank you, I am grateful for all of your time.