Kara Magsanoc Alikpala’s cancer journey

Kara and her mom, Letty Jimenez Magsanoc


Today, in observance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m turning over this corner to breast cancer survivor Kara Magsanoc Alikpala, broadcast journalist, documentary film maker, founding president of I Can Serve Foundation, VP at Cancwe Coalition Philippines, board member at Philippine Alliance of  Cancer Patients Organizations, and daughter of the late great Letty Jimenez Magsanoc.

On Valentine’s Day in 2019, the National Integrated Cancer Control Act was signed into law. The law guarantees that all cancer patients and cancer survivors regardless of cancer stage, age, ethnicity, gender, religion will have a chance for more meaningful and memorable tomorrows.

As founding president of the I Can Serve Foundation, I represented the organization when we co-founded the Cancer Coalition Philippines, a coalition of different cancer patient groups and medical societies to lobby for the cancer law. In Asia, only Japan has a cancer law. And now us!

I was jumping for joy when I found out that both the Senate and Congress approved the law. Then I thought of the many friends I lost to cancer, including my Mom, and wish they were around to experience this joy. I also thought of those patients who could’ve made it if the law were in place.

To be part of history in helping save cancer patients, and giving them the gift of time with their loved ones, was farthest from my mind 24 years ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, I was misdiagnosed by my cancer doctor. Thankfully, my father, Dr. Carlos Magsanoc, a colorectal surgeon, insisted on a biopsy because he suspected cancer. Many things would’ve been different if my cancer was discovered earlier. 

Knowing I had cancer never shattered me. Pain, suffering, and death never scared me but not being a Mom crushed my heart and soul. That was the time I learned to deeply trust the Lord, and surround myself with people whose prayers were not rote but alive and life-saving. Maybe I had no choice in the beginning, but letting God have His way without question started to feel right and easy. His answer to my prayer was—and is—always better than what I imagined. After my cancer treatments, I married my best friend. Four years later, we had a miracle baby girl.

My level of advocacy is dictated by my station in life. I was determined to raise awareness for basic breast cancer facts, because I wished I knew more. My cancer wouldn’t have been as advanced and I probably would’ve had more children. Shame on me! A journalist and documentary filmmaker, I am in the business of information and storytelling, yet I didn’t bother to know more about the big C.

I also had a paternalistic relationship with my doctor, back when patient power was unheard of. So I started to advocate for equal partnership. I told the patients they also had the responsibility to learn all they could about their disease. Information is the first line of defense. Being in the know gives one a sense of control. And being in control makes coping a breeze.

Every woman should know all they can about prevention, the risk factors, family history, and guidelines on early detection. Breast cancer is the number one cancer here and in the world. That’s why they say being a woman is already a big risk factor.

Crisann Celdran, my sister-in-cancer through and through and currently chairman of I Can Serve, two other friends, and I started the foundation to embark on high-impact information campaigns to ramp up awareness. We kept hearing the same stories. Women thought cancer spelled death, so why bother getting checked? Why bother pursuing treatment?  Women could not afford mammograms, all the more cancer treatments. It got tougher to promote early detection if resource-challenged women couldn’t afford the next steps.

In partnership with local government units, we launched Ating Dibdibin, a barangay-based program aimed at promoting early breast cancer detection, access to accurate diagnosis, timely treatments and patient navigation.  The program is instituted in a local ordinance so the project is made permanent and assured of regular funding. Our partners report that breast cancer is now being diagnosed earlier when it’s most curable and affordable to treat. Our partner cities fund the whole process from detection to diagnosis to treatment and survivorship. Our partners are still our local government units with any kind of cancer program and the local cancer law.

Later, we formed the Cancer Coalition when we found that some of our partners could no longer take their projects to scale. The coalition’s mandate is to identify our common concerns, gaps, and aspirations for every cancer patient and to lobby for a bill that would pass into law to afford patients more protection and hope. Only government has the manpower and might to respond to a gargantuan problem. We needed it in the same way we needed everyone to unite to pass the cancer act. With the law, cancer was no longer an issue that could be easily be ignored or postponed. 

My advocacy has been a 24-year journey. From my hospital bed, where I wondered how much longer I had, how I could relieve my family and loved ones of the anxiety my cancer inflicted on them, to other hospital beds at public hospitals and barangay health centers, where I would counsel other patients, to the halls of Congress, I learned how to accommodate the different demands of the cancer community and I learned how to play politics without losing my soul.

If I weren’t misdiagnosed, I probably wouldn’t have appreciated wellness and being a mother as much as I do now. I wouldn’t have discovered early on the awesome power of prayer. I can’t even describe it in the way I can’t describe the pain and joy of child birth. I probably wouldn’t have much empathy for the sick and the poor, if not for my brush with death and living with the daily threat of the possible return of cancer.

Many crises can define us and shape the story of our lives. Mine just happened to be cancer. Cancer or no cancer, the real fear is not death but leading a life without meaning and purpose.

(Next Week...Hope and Breast Cancer)