EXCLUSIVE: Stronger, Bolder, And Happier: Cathy Nazareno Goes Through Her Second Battle With Cancer
For ordinary Joes and Janes, being faced with a second cancer diagnosis is debilitating.
Faith is questioned, morality is reflected on, depression becomes a veil that can't be removed, and life ultimately bleeds out of them—sometimes just figuratively, possibly quite literally, but often, rather painfully.
A second cancer diagnosis is not to be taken lightly.
So how do you address it? Do you offer an apology or crack a joke to lighten the mood? Is it offensive to compliment a patient's post-chemo wig or do you pretend not to notice and continue the conversation? Is a family still allowed to be happy and enjoy themselves despite a loved one having to go through treatment and accept the possibility of death?
Cathy Nazareno—who recovered from stage four colon cancer in April this year but was re-diagnosed with liver cancer in October—has the answers.
But Cathy—who considered her cancer one of her life's biggest blessings from day one—is also no ordinary Jane.
"I'm fine! I'm okay, I'm doing really well. I'm great. May cancer nga lang," she first says.
"How's my red lipstick? I've never worn red lipstick in my life. Ever. I thought it would go well with my bald head, like a fashion statement. But my liver is responding to treatment, yes," she continues.
It's not the attitude or response one might expect from a woman with a lot to lose should the disease take over; she happens to have a robust career in sports event management, three loving daughters, and a loving partner who considers her his rock.
But that's exactly who Cathy is, and why her story is worth telling.
To her, cancer downgraded to an inconvenience, not unlike a fly that ends up in your soup cup, or a hiccup that won't go away; cancer, even the second time around, was certainly never the end of the world for her, never a reason to stop living, loving, and being loved.
Her sickness is simply a sidenote to the beauty of life and the future she looks forward to with hope and brightness. Ironically, it was very well even the catalyst to her discovered positivity and optimism. She wouldn't be as happy a person as she is today without it.
Continuing to speak about her encounters with cancer and the good they've ushered in with them, she makes something very clear: cancer's not kicking her to the curb, and she wants those who have sat through chemo, endured radiotherapy, or been wheeled into the operating room to know that they, too, can find the strength in them to beat—and not be beat by—the Big C.
It can be done.
After all, she did it once, and she most certainly intends on doing it again.
It's been a month and a half since Cathy was informed by her oncologist that she had liver cancer.
However, the news wasn't exactly a surprise as she had been feeling a discomfort in her abdomen for quite some time, the strange sensation giving her a (literal) gut feel of what was to come.
When the doctor's appointment proved her right, she was calm and steady, but her partner, footballer Chuck Severino, who was with her, bore the burden of the emotional tsunami of the news just like the first time. ("He left the room. Inisip ko, 'Ay iiyak yan,' pero sinabi niya, 'I have to use the bathroom.' I thought, 'Ayun, iiyak nga,'" Cathy jokes).
Trying to practice sensitivity, Cathy's doctor eased her into initial talks about what they could do next. But being the headstrong woman that she is, Cathy aimed right at the target, scheduling her chemotherapy dates then and there without hesitation, the goal of which was to start getting better as soon as possible. As of this writing, she's finished five out of her 12 sessions (likewise, the mass found in her liver has also significantly decreased).
According to her, there was no reason for dilly-dallying or wallowing in distress. The energy that she had, she chose to spend on kickstaring the healing process.
"In sickness, 'pag may sakit ka, and you dwell on it, what do you think that’s going to make? Focus on what needs to be done to make yourself better—in anything. Friends tell me 'sorry' after they find out it’s the second time. They say sorry it’s back. I say, 'Don’t be. It is what it is,'" Cathy explains.
Was she worried? Yes, but certainly not to to the degree Chuck was, or that her mom (who called the diagnosis "heartbreaking") was, or her daughters (18-year-old Reese, 22-year-old Kitkat, and 26-year-old Franky) were.
Was she scared? Not at all.
Was she ready to face it? Most certainly, because just like the first time, her faith in God who she believes without question, has a plan for her is intact.
All of this Cathy considers part and parcel of the healing process. Not once has she interpreted this as a step backwards, despite what others might think a second cancer diagnosis might mean. In her eyes, she's been moving forward since the day she first learned she had cancer because of the role it's played in her life.
Without it, Cathy would have never learned to slow down and appreciate life for what it should be: quality time with the people she loves most, a satisfying cuddle with her two-year-old Maltese Casper, endless opportunities to laugh and smile, and most importantly, a chance to accomplish her purpose—to inspire people by example that cancer (or any life-threatening struggle, at that) can be taken as a gift.
The blessing of cancer
One can continue asking Cathy, Chuck, and the rest of her family how they've been since she was diagnosed with cancer, and it's in their answers that one will see Cathy accomplishing what she believes is her spiritual mission.
No one around her is sad. None of her three daughters cry over their shared pain with their mom. Even Chuck has picked up on Cathy's strength, realizing that if she's more than just alright, he should be, too.
Everyone is lively and spirited, acting like a classic portrait of a Filipino family at Christmastime, albeit with an added layer of closeness. In fact, that's Reese, KItKat, and Franky's favorite thing about their mom's diagnosis (that's right; this family is so resilient that they havve each found something to appreciate about Cathy's cancer).
In the joint journey of Cathy's healing that began in September 2017, when cancer first reared its ugly head, this family, for the first time in a very long time, saw itself spending more time together.
In the times that each member would usually be preoccupied with their own agenda, those turned into moments to catch up, enjoy a meal with everyone present, or just be together. When Cathy's daughters' memories of her were once just of her working late nights and on weekends, they now have many side-splitting stories of fun times they had with mom, and not a single one of them is about being slowed down by cancer.
And if in the past, Cathy would be her old self (i.e.: a short fuse who didn't have the phrase "take it easy" in her vocabulary), today, she is much more easygoing and accepting of what life has in store, definitely more capable of deciding which situations are deserving of her effort versus those which should simply be let go of or lifted up to the heavens.
Cathy was right—cancer can be a blessing, if you make it as such.
The prayer, the effect
"I feel stronger now than ever, overall. Emotionally, physically, my mindset, spiritually, I’m really stronger now... My prayer is that I really want to be able to have this effect on people. [For them to realize that] there is always endless hope," Cathy shares, as she contemplates on the change of perspective her cancer ignited in her.
Considering that she received her diagnosis in the week of her youngest daughter's 18th birthday and a mere month before her 49th birthday this December, the prayer to be of service to others becomes even more admirable than it already is.
Modern science and medicine, at present, are already giving cancer patients everything they need, physically speaking. But in terms of spiritual, emotional, and mental healing, these individuals need something—or in this case, someone—to hold on to, and this is exactly what Cathy hopes to address.
Cancer is often more than just an affliction of the body, as she realized for herself. More often than not, it is a manifestation of a deeper stress, of anxieties that go beyond what meets the eye. And it's in this area where those fighting the disease need the most help, yet receive very little of it, or don't know how to provide themselves with.
Metro.Style visited Cathy during one of her chemo sessions, and joined her and her family in celebrating her birthday in Anilao, Batangas last December 20. And it is during these moments where we really saw how strong and positive Cathy is and how solid her support system is as well.
One day, Cathy hopes to be able to give talks where she can speak about her experience from the heart to an audience hungry for hope and encouragement. (She actually already had something similar planned for this month, but was sidetracked by her diagnosis). She acknowledges that nothing speaks to cancer patients about the value of staying hopeful like an actual cancer survivor (and second diagnosis patient) and someone living their reality herself.
Her family is in full support of this, too.
Cathy's daughter Franky, who's spent some time with her mom during chemo, pointed out the beauty in the strangeness of her approach to everything.
As she recalls, Cathy was seated with friends she made over treatment. The group of energetic women were comically comparing the severity of their hairfall, a subject that might make many a female cancer patient break down in tears, but not Cathy and the friends who have felt the effect she so dearly wants to have on people.
They were laughing about the experience, wondering out loud about whether to wear a wig or not. (Cathy chooses not to, in case you were wondering, because she wants to look and feel herself despite the drastic physical change. Chuck prefers her without one, too. Her mom, on the other hand, half-seriously and half-teasingly, implores her to wear the one she purchased for her at a high-end salon yet has been largely ignored, much to her defeat. As mentioned—life goes on and life is normal in the Nazareno household).
Even with their cancer, even while sitting at the hospital, these women were joyful in the presence of Cathy.
All of it was proof, yet again, of how cancer has done good in Cathy's (and her family's) life.
Cathy celebrated her 49th birthday with her family at their rest house in Anilao, Batangas
Cathy with her kids (from left) Kitkat, Franky, and Reese
It's easy to assume that a cancer diagnosis that arrives during the days leading up to Christmas can be devastating.
Maybe it was, for a few minutes in Cathy's vibrant life, but was quickly replaced by the excitement of a trip to their Batangas rest house—Cathy's peaceful place that she and Chuck visit every after her chemo sessions—and family Christmas traditions to be held on the 24th (they claim to have a very intense session of white elephant secret Santa and one-of-a-kind family cash raffle draw).
"I'm still alive, 'di ba?" Cathy teases, the Cathy effect in play once again.
She is, and is likely the most alive she's ever been in her four decades and nine years of life.
This is Cathy Nazareno. She's not cancer-free just yet, but that doesn't matter. It never has.
She's alive and kicking, and there are many tomorrows to look forward to, all of which will be filled with gratefulness and given meaning by a purpose-driven existence.
She is Cathy Nazareno, and she is conquering her cancer, one smile, one inspired person, and one brave sweep of red lipstick at a time.
Photography by Daniel Soriano