As Robert Alejandro lay on the hospital bed, listening to the doctor tell him he had colon cancer, two thoughts came to his mind. The first was: “Where are my books going to go?”
An artist and illustrator, Alejandro is a voracious collector, his studio lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed full of volumes dedicated to art, photography, and of course, children’s books, including those he has worked on over the years. He is active in his family business, the stationery and home decor store Papemelroti, designing paper products and gift items with his signature playful whimsy. He was also once the host of the TV show Art is-Kool, teaching kids the basics of arts and crafts and the beauty of working with their hands.
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Still on the hospital bed, Alejandro decided he would donate his collection to Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan, an organization of children’s book illustrators that he works with. He knew his collection would fall into good hands.
Next, he thought about the people in his life whom he had watched battle cancer before him. He remembered his brother-in-law, who was diagnosed with skin cancer after consulting a doctor about a small discoloration on his leg. He underwent chemotherapy, but unfortunately, died within a month. Then Alejandro thought about his mom, who had tongue cancer. She decided to forgo treatment and continued to live for seven years—“amazing, wonderful years,” Alejandro recalls—before eventually succumbing to the disease.
Ever the pragmatist, Alejandro knew right then and there that the answer was clear. Before he got up to check himself out of the hospital, he decided he was going to skip radiation treatment and chemotherapy and start living his life. He did not bother to take further tests to find out what stage the cancer was in. The decision was made before he had told anyone else in his life that he was sick.
The first person he confided in was his longtime partner, Jetro Rafael, the man behind the popular Quezon City restaurant Van Gogh is Bipolar. Understandably, Rafael was extremely concerned. “He panicked, went through all the stages,” Alejandro says, while himself, the actual patient, remained surprisingly stoic and calm. Upon realizing he was firm in his decision, Rafael set about addressing the illness the way he knew how: “He prepared a really good meal for me. I’m very spoiled,” Alejandro adds, smiling. “It was shrimp with coconut milk and turmeric, all the stuff that’s supposed to be good for you.”
After that, Alejandro recalls that he was able to finally and properly use the bathroom for the first time in an entire year. “And I cried,” he relates. He had been having difficulty with irregular bowel movements, but because he was such a workaholic, he had learned to treat it as an inconvenience that was meant to be pushed aside. “I felt like going all the time, but nothing would come out… and that didn’t bother me, as long as I could do my work.”
It was only when he realized he would be unable to take a long jeepney ride to participate in an annual outreach program where he and his friends would hand out school supplies to children in the north that it occurred to him he might have a problem. “I realized it was stifling my lifestyle and what I want to do,” he says, which prompted the hospital visit for the colonoscopy that led to his diagnosis.
Up until that point, Alejandro confesses he had not been living the healthiest of lifestyles. “I would eat bacon, spam, spaghetti, hotdog…” he lists. “I felt so weak; the moment I would have ice cream, I would get a headache. But I didn’t connect it to my diet. My body was already complaining about all these things, and I didn’t know. I was always feverish, I would work out and then for a whole month, I would be sick. I didn’t eat vegetables. I don’t cook. I would eat out all the time.”
After the cancer diagnosis, Rafael decided that was all going to change. He took his food and cooking expertise and directed it toward creating a cancer-battling meal plan. Gone were Alejandro’s favorite ice cream and processed meats; in its place, he would prepare fresh juice, kombucha, and low-sugar, alkaline-based meals rich in “living food” or oxygen-producing spices and greens, like turmeric, coconut milk, coconut oil, and malunggay.
“Jetro studied everything he could about cancer,” Alejandro explains. “Cancer is the lack of oxygen; that’s what makes it thrive. So, the food has to be alive, it has to be green. And he made it yummy!” Favorites include a clear mushroom soup with coconut milk and a green juice infused with honey. “If it’s not delicious, Jetro knows I won’t eat it. It’s amazing that healthy food does not have to be bland.”
Rafael even went as far as opening a second location that focused purely on healthy, healing meals called Bi-O, also on Maginhawa Street. It eventually closed, but the dishes he designed are still available in a space right beside his original establishment, on a spin-off menu called Van Gogh is Bipolar Light. It’s become a go-to for cancer patients who are looking to incorporate healthy eating into their treatment.
“But I’ll tell you something,” Alejandro says, lowering his voice to a whisper: “Everyone who had chemo, they’re all gone. And here I am—working, still alive. I guess I’m doing something right!”
A second chance
It’s been four years since Alejandro received his diagnosis, but today, he is feeling happier, healthier, and more alive than ever. He has gone from wearing pants that were a size 34 to a 28, and finds ways to incorporate light bursts of exercise into his daily routine, like dropping down to do push-ups while waiting for his building’s elevator. Admittedly, he is a bit more relaxed with what he is eating these days. He shares that he just had danggit, adds sugar to his coffee, and even allows himself the occasional fast food trip or bag of potato chips. He doesn’t go to the hospital for regular check-ups, tests or treatments, nor does he take any vitamin supplements or maintenance meds.
“If you read about colon cancer, it’s all about pain, and I have no pain,” he notes with a shrug. “I have problems with my elimination, but then I’m not in pain, and for that alone, I’m really grateful. I feel great! And that’s enough for me.”
The biggest transformation, however, and one that he believes truly saved his life, started on the inside. “I’m the one who put this upon myself, because before the cancer, I was very depressive. For years, I thought about suicide. Maybe from the time I was 12 years old. I hated myself so much. I saw myself as garbage. It came from being gay, I think,” he reflects.
“At a very young age I was told that I was going to burn in hell, that there’s something wrong with me... and nobody knew that I looked at myself as a waste of space—even though I was on TV, this cheerful personality. It didn’t matter one little bit. There was something wrong with me that I couldn’t change.”
But the moment Alejandro stood up from that hospital bed, he made it his mission to squeeze every bit of joy that he could out of his remaining days, and encourages everyone around him to do the same. “I don’t have much time left. I no longer want to hate myself. I’m going to love everything about myself—the flaws, the sins, bad decisions, imperfections… everything. I don’t care what other people say. And that’s who I am now. I am living the best years of my life. My insides now match my outside. I’m grateful, whereas before I was always struggling and worrying. Now, I don’t care!” he exclaims, eyes shining, throwing his arms wide open.
“There are people who see cancer as a blessing. I’m one of those,” he continues. “I wanted to kill myself. But when I got cancer, I decided to enjoy myself. I’m really just spreading love, living my life as though I’m leaving. One hundred percent of what I do now is in preparation for my leaving this earth. And honestly—isn’t that the way we’re supposed to live?”
Photographs by Chris Clemente