Cancer Survivors vs. Cancer Beaters

So I’ve been gone for about a month (again), but this time with good reason: I’ve just completed a month-long pre-fellowship (think auditions, or try-outs, but lasting for a month) for the Medical Oncology program at a hospital in Quezon City.

Why Oncology? Because of two cancer patients I met in my youth whose strength and courage were inspirational to me.

The first one was my mom’s dear friend, and my godmother, Ninang Chita. Most of my memory of her from my childhood was getting gifts from her on my birthdays and during Christmas. She was a seasoned classical singer, and as I discovered my own love for music, I played around with the idea that I somehow “inherited” my talent from her (though my dad would protest). I was in my teens when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and strangely, I remember seeing more of her when she was sick (either that, or those later encounters just had more of an impact on me). Even in her illness, she never stopped being her sunny, thoughtful, caring self. She tried her best to carry on as she did before the diagnosis–she attended, and even sang at, her high school reunion, most people not aware that a tube was sticking out from her kidneys and into a bag, because the tumor had compressed her ureters so that she couldn’t void the normal way. Even in her final days, when her illness forced her to stay in the hospital, she seemed undaunted at the face of death. This I know because she never stopped loving, never stopped thinking of others. Whenever people would go see her, in her voice weakened by pain, she would ask her visitors to take a seat, and would they want anything to eat or drink?

Only a person who knows where her true home is could be so hospitable at her time of departure.

The second one was Sr. Paulina, whom I have written about before. The assigned nurse at the infirmary, she’s used to taking the sick (usually older) sisters to the hospital for consults and procedures. When one time, my mom came a-visiting at the convent and found her resting, she said jokingly, “What is the nurse doing in bed?!” To which the nun replied very casually with a smile, “Oh, I have cancer.” She then proceeded to proclaim God’s goodness, sharing that the cancer was an answered prayer–this particular malignancy ran strong in her family, and thinking of her brothers and sisters with children, families of their own, she prayed that if anyone should get it in their family, that it be her.

Do you know anyone else who rejoiced upon learning that they had cancer?

As their bodies were failing them, they looked forward to what was eternal with such courage, such hope, such faith. By definition they cannot be called cancer survivors, and yet I feel it right to say that they were the victors, that they beat cancer.

Because it certainly didn’t beat them.

Is this not what evangelization is all about? Sharing Jesus, sharing hope for the Heaven that God desires for all of us. This is what my mission, my service in Church and in community, is all about–making souls eager and ready for Life Eternal.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You trust in God, trust also in Me. In My Father’s house there are many places to live in; otherwise I would have told you. I am going now to prepare a place for you, and after I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you to Myself, so that you may be with Me where I am. –John 14:1-3

As I start this new chapter in my life and in training, I pray that I’ll be equipped to be the best Oncologist that I can be, that God will allow me to be. To cure sometimes, heal often, comfort always–to be God’s instrument of love and of peace, especially to those whom the Father is calling back Home.


My Year of Faith

Kung hei fat choi!! Happy Chinese New Year!

No, I am not Chinese. But with an ever-growing population of Chinoys (Filipino-Chinese), almost everyone is familiar with the above phrase, and is comfortable using it. So just because I can, I’ll say it again: Kung hei fat choi!!

I was born in the year of the Horse. Upon seeing a commercial on TV announcing the Chinese New Year, my mom remembered this little bit of information. “Hey, this is your year! This should be a lucky year for you!”

A lucky year for me. Huh.

In all my years of existence thus far, 2013 tops the list as my un-luckiest year. One after another, blow by blow, my heart and spirit was, in many ways and at many times, beaten and broken. Dreams were put on hold, a pregnancy was lost, and a rejection left me battling with my worst enemy yet–myself. I’ve spoken of this spiritual darkness that I’ve been struggling with and within. More than once, I had thought I was over it–that, having gritted my teeth for a long enough period, I had earned a sort of spiritual merit badge that I could wave as credit towards my path to sainthood. But I soon found out that grace (and holiness) cannot be forced nor feigned–but can blossom only as a fruit of complete surrender or, to borrow from a book title mentioned by a friend this morning, abandonment to Divine Providence.

What exactly was, is, my darkness? In a word, it is the trap my favorite saint spoke of extensively and warningly: self-love. All my eyes and heart could see was how I was unappreciated and unrecognized, not trusted and not believed in. Amidst the myriad of other emotional stages I went through, a profound sense of uselessness overwhelmed me. I was of no use, and no good–to anyone or anything. I found that I could not, would not, share the nature of this darkness to anyone other than my husband and our spiritual director, fooling myself that I was doing so out of humility, desiring to suffer in secret. But in truth, I failed to bring it to light because I was ashamed. I knew that the root cause of all this turmoil was my inordinate love of self, and it was a love that inevitably stood in the way of my accepting the greater Love.

This humility is no weak or negative thing. It is the most powerful thing in the world, for it is the key which unlocks the soul to grace. By ourselves we can do nothing to increase in us the supernatural love for which we were made, but by grace we help by removing that which is in the way of the divine love, namely, self-love. With every act of humility, every time we accept a humiliation lovingly, more of self is removed, and therefore there is more room for the divine love to dwell in the soul. The depth of the ocean depends upon the depth of the caverns that lie below, and the depth of supernatural love in a soul is exactly in proportion to the caverns that humility has wrought in the secret recesses of that soul. And so the Sacrament of Penance takes its place quite simply in the Little Way as the heavenly Father’s plan for emptying the soul of self-love, enabling the little one to take firm hold of His hand again. The soul that is really humble and empty of self-love, surrendered to the love of God, is the soul of which Jesus can take full possession and carry through difficulties and up to heights which otherwise the soul would find impossible. That is why humility is the most powerful thing in the world. —from The Message of St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Msgr. Vernon Johnson (emphasis mine)

Towards the end of 2013, a friend observed that quite a number from our community seemed to have struggled and suffered much during the Year of Faith. And it wasn’t the type of struggle that lets you come out feeling stronger and wiser, but rather the type that leaves you on your knees, helpless and aware of your own weakness, desperately clinging to the One who lifts up, sustains, redeems. And isn’t this the true test of faith–the destruction of our inflated belief in ourselves, and the magnification of our dependence on God?

If I have learned anything from my Year of Faith, it is that without Him, I can do nothing (John 15:5)–no good, no hope, no love.

So, do I have a “lucky” year ahead of me? Who knows. But what I do know is that I will not triumph by relying on my own strength. I move on from 2013 weaker, smaller and more helpless than before…and I have never been more grateful.

It is, then, about my weaknesses that I am happiest of all to boast, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me; and that is why I am glad of weaknesses, insults, constraints, persecutions and distress for Christ’s sake. For it is when I am weak that I am strong. —2 Corinthians 12:9b-10 

Sa ‘Yo Lamang


I have such a long, meaningful history with this song, that when my spiritual director (and friend) asked if I would want to do a JMM (Jesuit Music Ministry) Cover, I immediately thought of this. Cayabyab’s Prayer of St. Francis was the artistic, musical choice; Sa ‘Yo Lamang was the choice of the heart.
How I wish I could post an english translation! But I do not trust myself to do so (and ruin the whole experience for you). Sending out an open request to Fr. Manoling Francisco, S.J.–an english translation, if you please? 🙂

Bearing and Birthing: Starting the Year with Mary

Apologies for the tardy post–I’ve been disconnected from the blogosphere for more than a month, and it took a bit of time for the creative juices to start flowing again.

New Year’s: the holiday (and holy day) celebrated by everyone around the world regardless of race, religion or ruling government. (As an aside, I found myself writing “Merry Christmas” and never “Happy Holidays” on all my cards and gifts…just because I can.) The New Year refreshes us with hope (things are bound to be better!) and enlivens us with resolve (I am going to be better!) for the year so pregnant with promise and possibilities.

While the rest of the world gets psyched with lists of best habits and techniques to get to that “better YOU in 2014,” the Church, as She does every year, invites us to start the year with Mary, the Mother of God. That this feast falls within the liturgically jam-packed Christmas season speaks much about its importance–that it lands squarely on the Octave of Christ’s Nativity makes it as holy as Holy Days get.

I find it interesting to note that the title “Mary, Mother of God” is the oldest of all Marian titles and feasts. It was first used after the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, which was convened to address the doctrine of Nestorius who asserted that Christ’s human and divine natures were separate. As the council proclaimed Jesus true God and true man, it followed that Mary was not just Christotokos (Birth Giver of Christ) but Theotokos, Bearer (or Birth Giver) of God.

Before she was the Immaculate Conception, or Queen of Heaven and Earth, or Our Lady of [place name of virtue or apparition site here], she was firstly a mother, the Mother.

Christ’s humanity has no other subject than the divine person of the Son of God, who assumed it and made it his own, from his conception. For this reason the Council of Ephesus proclaimed in 431 that Mary truly became the Mother of God by the human conception of the Son of God in her womb: “Mother of God, not that the nature of the Word or his divinity received the beginning of its existence from the holy Virgin, but that, since the holy body, animated by a rational soul, which the Word of God united to himself according to the hypostasis, was born from her, the Word is said to be born according to the flesh.” (CCC#466)

2013 saw me battling with a darkness I’ve started calling the SELF–propelled by inordinate self-love and self-pity, needing (demanding) repeated validation of my perceived self-worth. Darkness spreads as far as we’ll let it, and soon every aspect of my life seemed covered with this self-indulgent depression. The only time I didn’t feel gripped by despair was when I was with my children–playing with them, laughing with them, hugging them, kissing them–I seemed to forget whatever sorry state my soul was in. I was needed, I was loved…not because I had done anything to merit such affection, such devotion, but simply because I was their mother.

Darkness spreads because I let it…because in some twisted, self-indulgent way, I like it.

This is the first of all Marian feasts and titles because, while every other aspect of her person inspires us to be like her, her divine motherhood is reason enough for us to love her.

And in the sacred place of a mother’s arms, Theotokos calls all her children to follow her example–to bear witness in the world to Christ’s love and mercy, to let Him be birthed into our lives–that those who live in darkness may see Light, may be Light. Suffering, trials, tribulations? Well, you can’t give birth without experiencing labor pains.

At the start of the year, our Mother guides us thusly:”Do whatever He tells you.” (John 2:5) Mary, Mother of God, and our mother, pray for us that we may respond with the very words you uttered: “Let it be done unto me as you say.” (Luke 2:38)

A Survivor’s Story

Amidst so many heartbreaking tragedies, there are still stories of hope. Truly, now is not the time for pointing fingers, but for opening our hands and our hearts to our brethren.

Color My World (charly's blog)

Lieutenant Colonel Fermin Carangan is the Commanding Officer of TOG 8, the Air Force unit tasked to provide air support for the islands of Samar and Leyte. On the morning of Friday, November 8, he and his troops were in their office near the Tacloban Airport on red alert, having been informed of an incoming Super-Storm named Haiyan (local name: Yolanda). Here’s how he narrated his ordeal to Lt Col Allan Taguba, as Haiyan unleashed her fury on the city of Tacloban on that fateful Friday morning.

We were out of the office at 6 am Friday observing. Winds brought by Yolanda were already strong around that time. We (the Air Force troops in Tacloban) were prepared for the possibility of rescue missions days before the expected landfall of Yolanda. Just before 7 am, the rains started to pour, so we took shelter.


Around the same time, we noticed that…

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STOP CHRISTMAS SHOPPING! (and other different ideas to help Typhoon Yolanda victims)

Whoever you are, wherever you are, there is something you can do, something you can give.



Coming from a weekend retreat, I only recently saw footage of the utter devastation wrought by Yolanda. For a good hour, my wife Pauline and I were just silently watching, with a hand on our mouths. I’ve never seen this kind of footage from Ondoy, Habagat, or even the recent 7.2 Bohol earthquake.

It was heartbreaking.

I have some friends with families in the regions affected who still cannot call to confirm whether or not their loved ones are alive or not.

It was also particularly shocking to see our countrymen resort to looting. I think this is the very first time I’ve heard of this happening, even if we seem to be hit by a disaster every quarter. This is one proof for me why Yolanda is unprecedented.

(this morning’s Inquirer headline confirmed this: The Worst Disaster To Hit PH)

I don’t think we’ve ever been hit this way…

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Praying for (Forgotten) Saints and Sinners

All Saints’ Day weekend is big in the Philippines, big enough to call a nation-wide non-working holiday for the sake of those who annually visit the final resting place/s of departed loved ones. To be honest, I think there are more commercial establishments closed for the 1st of November than for Holy Week. (Does this mean it is more acceptable to suspend a day’s revenue to remember the dead than to do the same to remember Christ’s Passion and Death? Hmm, let’s ruminate on that for a second…)

While November 1 isn’t a Holy Day of Obligation in the Philippines (I checked), my mom always stressed that going to mass for the intentions of our dearly departed was the best thing we could do for them (actually, she told us it was a Holy Day of Obligation, but moving on…).

…day and night they never stopped singing: Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, the Almighty; who was, and is and is to come. (Rev 4:8)

Attending mass on those 2 days (Nov. 1&2) was enlightening, to say the least. Firstly, I was reminded that the Feast of All Saints was not just a blanket commemoration of all the saints, but in particular, a remembrance of all those who lived holy lives and yet have stayed under the Church’s radar. If we were to use any blanket statement, it would be this: on this day, we honor all souls in Heaven. But with canonized Saints and their respective feast days, it feels right to take a day to remember these unsung heroes.

Secondly, I learned that on All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2), the whole Church takes on the task of praying specifically for the intentions of the souls undergoing purification in Purgatory. By offering our prayers and the Mass, we believe that we are helping them–whether in the purification process or in giving them consolation.

And who can bear the thought of a loved one suffering amidst a cleansing fire? We like to think of our loved ones resting fully in Heaven, and so we offer what we can to hasten their getting there. As I glanced around the crowd at mass that day, I recognized some neighbors and co-parishioners whose stories I was privy to–she who lost a brother in his 30’s to a heart attack, she who lost a daughter to cancer, he who lost a father, a son, a wife…so many stories. And as I saw them, and prayed with them, I secretly blessed them for faithfully remembering.

And then I remembered Patient X.

Patient X was a man who came into the ER unconscious. All signs and tests seemed to point to a massive heart attack–his chances were grim. I was the resident-on-call when he was admitted to the ICU that night, and on seeing his vitals, I asked if I could speak to the family–to explain the situation, and to present the parameters of the DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) form should they want to sign it.

A good chance he wouldn’t make it till morning…

To my surprise, there was no family member present. I discovered that a woman–his second wife? his mistress? I won’t pretend to know the whole complicated story–had brought him to the hospital, but had left abruptly when they needed to contact the patient’s “legal” family as listed by his HMO. And from what the nurses from the ER told me, it took a whole lot of explaining to even convince the man’s family to come.

Hours later, a girl who looked about my age came in–Patient X’s daughter. As soon as I started to gently explain the situation to her, she raised her hand to stop me. No need to discuss all these with me, she said, I don’t need to know, I don’t want to know. Just give me the papers that need to be signed.

Even though I was taken aback, I insisted on delivering my briefest DNR speech ever. Rather impatiently, she nodded her head at each resuscitative measure to be withheld. After we had gone through all the paperwork, she asked us one last time if there was anything else we needed her for. I told her that was all for now, and we would just contact her again once Patient X had expired.

With a look of exasperation, she asked if that was really necessary. I’ve already made arrangements for the body to be taken cared of, if that’s all that needs to be done, then I don’t need to come back here anymore. 

Shocked, I watched her walk out of the ICU. She didn’t even look into her father’s cubicle.

Wow. What kind of hurt did she have to go through, I wondered, for her to shake the dust off her feet like that? And what kind of life did Patient X live to end up dying alone in a hospital bed?

Did he deserve this? Does anyone deserve this?

In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins’ she offers her suffrages for them. (CCC#958)

I come to tell you that they suffer in Purgatory, that they weep, and that they demand with urgent cries the help of your prayers and your good works. I seem to hear them crying from the depths of those fires which devour them: “Tell our loved ones, tell our children, tell all our relatives how great the evils are which they are making us suffer. We throw ourselves at their feet to implore the help of their prayers. Ah! Tell them that since we have been separated from them, we have been here burning in the flames!”…Yet how quickly we could empty purgatory if we but really wished to…We must say many prayers for the souls of the faithful departed, for one must be so pure to enter heaven. –-St. Jean Marie Vianney

Because there are souls with no one to pray for them, some of them forcibly forgotten, we also remember them. The 2nd of November is a special day in that priests are allowed to celebrate more than the usual number of masses permitted in a day, as we the faithful are  likewise allowed to go to mass (as well as receive Holy Communion) as many as 3 times. Indulgences are attached to visiting a church as well as visiting a cemetery, all merits gained for the sake of these suffering souls.

What a beautiful tandem of feasts: one to remind us of our Heavenly aspirations, and the other awakening in us the reality that, to reach Heaven, we need all the help we can get.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.