People

Marlene Balotro, more than a conqueror

I met Marlene in the early 90s. She was a childhood friend of my college friend Shirley. We all went to the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman together. Marlene and I were never really close, but we’d bumped into each other from time to time. Even then, and from the brief encounters we’ve had, my impression of her was that she was very put together; she was always upbeat, not in the the bubbly, overly cheerful way that irritates, but in the confident, no-nonsense way that makes you feel she is genuinely happy to see you.

She finished her four-year course in UP in three years, that was the last time I’ve heard of her, until many years later when we saw each other again in Facebook.

Even in Facebook, we were never really that close. But when she started sharing her battle against cancer through status posts and photos, I, at once inadvertently and later deliberately, walked the journey with her. I was fighting my battles too, back then, but not in the same magnitude and scope that she was fighting hers. She never knew it then, but her posts — sometimes angry, sometimes sad, sometimes defiant, but always hopeful — made me sit up and tell myself to conquer my own demons. I am still fighting mine, but Marlene has vanquished hers.

This, in her own words, is her story.

Christmas 2011, just getting her hair back after a series of chemotherapy sessions.

Christmas 2011, just getting her hair back after a series of chemotherapy sessions.

Hi! My name is Marlene. I’m a student of South Texas College, and I REFUSE to be called a cancer survivor. I’ll tell you more about that later, but first let me tell you about my story.

It was May 2010 when I first felt a lump in my breast. And I did what every other woman I know would have done: I brushed it aside. I was too busy living my life. I was too busy taking care of others. I was too busy surviving school. I WAS living my life.

Months passed by and I noticed that the lump wasn’t going anywhere. It didn’t grow in size, but at the same time, it was just there. By October, I went to see my doctor for my annual physical exam, and that’s when I told her about the mass I found. She instantly sent me to a radiology center to get my mammogram. When the result came back, it was inconclusive. The doctor couldn’t tell us what it was. They couldn’t say if it was cancerous, but they couldn’t rule it out either. It was inconclusive. And because of that I was sent to see a surgeon for a biopsy.

By this time, it was already January 2011. When the surgeon read the report, he was confident that it was nothing to be worried about. In his own words, “It’s too small to be something.” He assured my husband and me that whatever it is, it can wait. And so I decided to wait until March, Spring break, to have it surgically removed.

Marlene and Roland on their wedding day, 1997.

Marlene and Roland on their wedding day, 1997.

Spring break came, and I had a lumpectomy. After a week, my husband and I returned to see my surgeon for the pathology report. I cannot forget that date. It was March 21st, my son’s birthday. Just like any doctor’s visits, we waited and waited for what seemed to be forever until the nurse called us in to wait some more. Then, the doctor came in. He looked worried and was explaining something in Spanish. I had to stop him mid-sentence to remind him that we don’t understand Spanish. He stopped, looked at us, took a deep breath and said, “It’s cancer.”

I immediately felt disbelief. I remember feeling like I was watching everything from afar. It was surreal. But my husband shifted to panic mode. He was bombarding the doctor with so many questions. He was shouting and crying at the same time. When I realized what had happened, I had to make a choice. Minutes after being diagnosed, I made my choice. I turned to my doctor and said, “Okay. So I have cancer. What do we do next?” I had decided that it will be a battle I intend to win.

“Okay. So I have cancer. What do we do next?” I had decided that it will be a battle I intend to win.

I am here today not to tell you that the road I travelled was easy. The truth of the matter is that it was hell. The worst experience I had was having nausea and vomiting for seven straight days. I wasn’t eating anything, yet my body wouldn’t stop throwing up. By the third day, I was already praying for God to take me. It was painful. I was crawling on the floor so i could reach the toilet in time for me to puke. It was during those times when I really had to dig deep within me for strength. There has to be something in there…

I don’t know if any of you have seen Finding Nemo. But there was a scene in there when Nemo’s father was so scared to swim in the deepest part of the sea, because it was too dark. But he knew he had to do it in order to find his missing son. Then Dory, his fish friend, began singing, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming….” And that’s what I told myself. I have to keep swimming. One day at a time. One step after another. Never stop; never surrender. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”

And that’s what I told myself. I have to keep swimming. One day at a time. One step after another. Never stop; never surrender. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”

I am a firm believer that God will never give us anything beyond what we could bear. So when I was diagnosed, I am comforted with this thought. Being given this tremendous trial means that God saw something in me that tells Him I can do this. I believe that He saw me for who I can become after the storm. I just needed to believe in myself, too.

And so, I am here with you today to tell you that yes the road was tough, but it can be travelled. The journey was hard, but you can make it. Cancer can be limiting, but it is limited as well. It can take your hair. It can take days from your life, even your own life, but it can never ever take your soul away. Cancer took some of my strength. It took days away from my children, but it also made me stronger. It made my family closer.

In the beginning, when I introduced myself, I said that I refuse to be called a cancer survivor. For me, surviving means coming out of a battle half alive. I am not half alive. I am stronger. I am more than a survivor. I am a conqueror.

The Balotro Family 2011 Christmas card. The card says: "We conquered 2011!"

The Balotro Family 2011 Christmas card. The card says: “We conquered 2011!”

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2 thoughts on “Marlene Balotro, more than a conqueror

  1. Marlene (and I believe the Shirley you mentioned) was my blockmate before she moved to Diliman. I have been following her posts on Facebook also but have only read this story from your blog. Thanks for sharing the story of our conqueror friend.

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