20 years in the making: Man finishes UP degree after bout with leprosy, cancer

Ianna Gayle Agus, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 15 2022 12:44 PM

Charles Aguinaldo graduates from UPLB after a bout with leprosy and tongue cancer.
Charles Aguinaldo graduates from UPLB after a bout with leprosy and tongue cancer.

MANILA -- After battling leprosy and stage 4b tongue cancer, a 36-year-old student from the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) finally finished his degree, fulfilling a long-held promise to his mother. 

While he and his family never talked about him getting a diploma after he stopped school, Charles Edward Aguinaldo felt like he owed his mother a college degree, after all her sacrifices taking care of him when he was still recovering from cancer treatments and the mood swings his medications caused him. 

“Yung mga panahong mahina ako, talagang nag lalakas-lakasan siya… kinakaya ni mama na kahit na alam kong may sakit din siya,” he said. 

Aguinaldo resumed his academic journey in June 2021, 19 years after he first entered the university. He sent a letter of appeal, asking for a chance to continue his studies and finish his remaining 9 units. 

“I am deciding to finish my degree now, because I have already achieved my goal of being able to provide for my family… More importantly, I want to be able to spend the rest of my life without the regret of not being able to present a UP Diploma to my mother,” he wrote in his letter of appeal, which was eventually granted. 

Aguinaldo was enrolled in BS Biology in 2002, but the discomfort and pain brought by leprosy made it hard for him to focus on school.

“I must admit na mahirap din talaga kahit nakakapasok ka, mahirap din na makapasa ka kasi uunahin isipin ng katawan mo yung pagpapagaling, yung mga masakit sayo, versus matandaan yung mga lessons,” he said. 

He had to go through all this while working as a full-time call center agent to help him with his finances, which consequently took a toll on his academics and health.

His condition became even more burdening when his skin color started to change and became reddish—a symptom which contributed to the stigma that surrounded his illness—that he had to excel at work just so people would not look down on him. 

“Kaya rin siguro ako nag strive talaga na i-build yung career [ko] para kahit na makita nilang may diperensya yung katawan ko, or makita nilang ang pangit pangit ng itsura ko, they would not dare ask anong problema sayo, or they would not dare judge you kasi mas mataas ka sa kanila or mas may achievement ka sa kanila,” he said. 

His treatment for leprosy was supposed to run for only six months but his condition did not improve. His treatment lasted five years and was finally declared free from the infection in 2009. 

Father’s death 

As if his illness was not yet enough to make his studies and life difficult, Aguinaldo was forced to stop attending the university after his father, a driver, died from a car accident. 

“Patapos na yung semester dapat, naaksidente pa si Papa. So doon na ako nag decide na since tapos na yung semester, I might wanna just work,” he said. “Naaksidente si papa nasa LB ako, tapos umuwi ako ng diretso galing sa Los Baños na wala na si papa, inaayos na siya sa morgue,” he added. 

Battling cancer 

All the years after he stopped studying, Aguinaldo spent working to earn money. But little did he know that in 2018, he would face yet another debilitating illness—cancer. 

He was diagnosed with stage 4b tongue cancer so he had to apply for sponsorships just to finance his treatment. 

“Yung nagka-cancer ako, mas mahirap,” he said. “Sa treatment, papatayin mo muna sarili mo bago ka magpatuloy mabuhay,” he added. 

Money became even harder for him as he was retrenched when the pandemic hit. He got by with the help of friends and relatives. 

“In times like this pala, may mga tutulong kahit hindi nila siguro feel na meron silang makukuha in return,” he said. 

“Maiisip mo din na dapat sa mga susunod na panahon, hindi mo man maalala kung sino dapat mong mapasalamatan… hindi mo man yun maalalaalala, ang maaalala mo, ikaw naman siguro yung pwedeng maging support ng ibang tao in the future,” he added. 

But even when he was facing a life-threatening illness, Aguinaldo kept a positive mind like it was the cure for his cancer—an advice he got from his former boss who is a cancer survivor.

Now, life has a different meaning for him.

“At this point in my life, na achieve ko yung mga gusto kong i-achieve, most especially makalabas sa UP kaya sobrang nakaka-proud. Pero hindi pa ako pwede mamatay,” he said. 

He is hoping other people could take a lesson or two from his experience and use it to keep going. 

“And as they say, cancer really changes everything—especially one’s appreciation of life. Now that I am in remission, I want to make sure that all the remaining time I have in this world is put to good use,” he said.

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