A day before his birthday last December, the artist Robert Alejandro—Kuya Robert to his art students and fans—was in tears and extreme pain. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016, has been living with the disease since, but has not known such physical torment. It was like having a football in his rectum, he says.
The cancer had spread to his lungs and his liver, he was told. They looked as if covered in a thick spider’s web, he tells me, seeing his insides from a monitor. Robert couldn’t eat and couldn’t pee, sit or sleep or work. At that time, he had given everything up and just wanted to go home. He wanted to die.
And then two days later, the pain was gone. The “football” disappeared. “When he woke up that morning, he said ‘Good morning!’ May life yung ‘good morning’ niya! His eyes were bright!’” says Robert’s partner, Jetro Rafael. “He said he felt something different, and I knew there was something different. Yung galaw niya, yung tikas, iba.”
It couldn’t have been just the painkillers Robert was given, they thought. Even with medicine, says Jetro, pain will naturally resurface after a few hours—but Robert noted he was completely pain-free. And here’s another surprise: from not being able to discharge urine, the doctors said they could already try removing his catheter. “Nag-normalize yung urine niya,” recalls Jetro, “Lumabas yung urine when they removed the catheter.”
They didn’t tell the doctors first that the pain had disappeared, and why Robert suddenly—from being what seemed like a hopeless case—got better. Felt better. Jetro says faith had something to do with it. The fans, friends, and students praying for him and sending healing vibes must count for something. And then, of course, he says, “I think it’s the Budwig.”
When Robert was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, he knew he didn’t want to go through chemotherapy for treatment, afraid it will suck the life out of him. He was going to fight the cancer by eating healthy and living a healthy life.
Good thing his partner Jetro was into natural and healthy eating. Jetro was able to cure his own anxiety and depression through homeopathic healing. He has a background in chemistry and grew up in a barrio where people dealt a lot with herbal medicine. Jetro also ran Van Gogh is Bipolar, an experience-centered restaurant that serves what he calls life-giving food which is central to his advocacy.
It was Jetro who prepared Robert’s meals in the beginning. The patient was like a good, obedient disciple for the first two years, his diet consisting of healthy meals and juices. In the past three years, however, Robert went back to eating like he didn’t have a disease to fight. “For the longest time, wala siya na-experience na pain,” says Jetro. “He thought na paminsan-minsan pagbigyan yung cravings, that’s okay.”
Apparently, it wasn’t okay, and things only got worse in December. The gifts of the holidays arrived and many came in the form of sweets—from lengua de gato to strawberry cakes. Robert would groan in pain. He was admitted in a hospital December 10, and by the 20th, he was in a really terrible state. The doctors said they could no longer do anything about his condition. “The doctors used the word ‘metastasize.’ He’s no longer eating and his organs were shutting down,” Jetro recalls.
Before Christmas, a priest arrived in the hospital to perform an “anointing”—a ritual his siblings wanted before Robert undergoes a few procedures. One of these procedures will help him urinate, at least; they were going to put a stent in his kidney.
“That day na pumunta yung pari hindi siya nagbigay ng sermon agad,” says Jetro. Instead, he asked what treatment Robert was being given, and Jetro supplied the background. He told the priest the doctors were advising chemo and radiation therapy—which Jetro is sure Robert will refuse.
“Alam niyo ba yung word na homeopathy?” the priest asked. And sensing Jetro’s interest, the priest told him, “Ay hijo, may-i-email ako sa’yo.”
What the priest would send through email was information about the German biochemist, Dr. Johanna Budwig, who created an entire diet in the 1950s designed to help stop cancer cells from spreading. At the center of this diet is the creation of a cultured cottage cheese known as living QUARK. The cottage cheese is blended with flaxseed oil and makes for a non-medical anti-cancer formula. The cottage cheese contains sulfuric proteins, says Jetro, that when mixed with flaxseed oil produces a biochemical reaction that results in nurturing the healthy cells. “Ang resulta naman sa cancer cells, since may sulfur siya—and cancer cells kasi pag nagsama-sama ‘yan nagiging tumor—it penetrates the tumor and breaks it apart so napapagaling niya yung cancer, napapawala niya ang tumor.”
Robert’s siblings, it turns out, have also gotten wind of Dr. Budwig’s diet, and messaged Jetro about it the same day. Jetro took the coincidence as a sign he needed to act on the information. He prepared the cottage cheese and flaxseed oil concoction for Robert the day he was going to undergo the kidney operation. He planned to feed him with the mixture after.
But it turned out the procedure could not be performed. Robert’s tumor had gotten bigger and has engulfed his other organs.
The Budwig meal was their “huling alas,” says Jetro.
“His whole body had turned acidic that he can’t swallow food. Magtu-two weeks na siyang walang pagkain, puro IV lang.” Worried, he convinced Robert to eat the Budwig formula. “Sabi ko, Robert, eat this. Your body is shutting down na, they will force-feed you na.” Robert had three tablespoonsful of the mixture, and then had a few more that evening.
The next day, he woke up feeling like a miracle.
Back at it
When we spoke to Robert on the first week of the New Year, he was already drawing, a pen on his hand and a sketchpad on his lap as he sat on his bed. He was smiling. He was also off pain medication for 11 days—not a single tablet, Jetro says. “I feel absolutely fantastic,” Robert tells me before breaking into tears. “I will never forget the pain,” he says. “My life is a miracle. I am surrounded by angels.”
He remembers what he was like the days prior. How he was not even lucid because of all the medicine. He was shouting at doctors and shouting even at Jetro. He remembers the dream he had the day before he woke up feeling better. It sounds like a trip. An escape from the pain. He dreamt of heaven. A place that looked like Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, he says, where there was an outdoor market selling all sorts of handcrafted things, peopled with artists and artisans. In the dream, Robert was with her college friend Sienna and they were thinking of buying a “chandelier shirt” in denim; they would split the cost and its use. There was a “car wars” parade, he adds, and there was a throwing of confetti. And his friend, the writer Gilda Cordero Fernando, was in the parade, too. It was a very happy place, Robert says.
He seems happy, too, in real life. His getting better gave Robert the chance to mend his broken relationship with his siblings. He struggled with being gay and self-hatred for much of his life and distanced himself from his sisters who he thought won’t be able to understand his homosexuality.
All these are documented in a Facebook page called Kuya Robert’s Healing Journey, a diary of the well-loved artist’s experience from when he was still in the hospital in December to how he got better. It documents many of the meals Jetro has prepared and continues to prepare for Robert, but also the other equally important parts that contribute to his healing: the love of his family, his work, having a healthy relationship with his surroundings.
The meals take up much of the posts, however. Robert's food is composed of a lot of vegetables, freshly made juices, no meat (he uses mushrooms as substitute), no sugar and absolutely no processed food.
Robert and Jetro aren’t exactly sure how people will take to Robert’s story of healing, but they agree there are parts of it that might be of use to people looking for solutions themselves. Anyone who’s interested in changing the way they eat for the better would benefit even just from the recipe ideas: a homemade Food for The Gods, or a Fresh Tomato and Mushrooms Soup, or an Adobong Kangkong and Tanigue with coconut amino liquid sauce and virgin coconut oil.
The page, now with close to 5,000 followers, is chockfull of information on the nutritional value of, say, eucalyptus, or moringa, or making one’s own kombucha. The intention of sharing Robert’s healing updates, says Jetro, is to empower people to make better decisions when it comes to what they feed their body, for people to become more conscious of the food they consume and the kind of energy it provides. “Is it life-giving, or life-sapping?” He wants to send the message that it’s not about the amount of food we take in but the quality.
Almost everyday, there is a new entry in the page, and the feed comes to life even more when a new photo of Robert pops up—which is often followed by messages from his followers saying they’re happy to see him up and about and looking good. That or they’re wishing for his continued strength. Everyone seems to be rooting for him. Robert became one of the bright lights on social media early in the pandemic when he started giving out online drawing tutorials to kids—live and for free. By documenting his road to wellness, he continues to spark positivity and hope in these still often grim times. An early January post in the Healing Journey page says he still doesn’t know how else to explain the overnight disappearance of his troubles. But what is clear is that his journey continues, and that he’s learned to believe in miracles.
[Photographs from Kuya Robert's Healing Journey]