Christmas brings renewed hope to cancer-stricken Pinoys in Milan

Mye Mulingtapang, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at Dec 30 2017 10:52 AM | Updated as of Dec 30 2017 10:54 AM

MILAN - While many are wishing for material things this holiday season, two cancer-stricken Pinoys based here only hope for prayers and good health.

For Justine Balatbat and Philip Acuña, the holidays have been tinged with sadness and uncertainty. With everybody busy with merrymaking, the two are battling terminal illness. Their families also struggle with the thought that this year might be their last Christmas or New Year celebration.

Child warrior

Justine Balatbat (third from left) is bravely fighting cancer with support from her family. Contributed photo

What began as a niggling leg pain one afternoon in February of 2016 became brutal the day after, when Justine, just 12 at the time, was diagnosed with stage four acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). 

ALL is a type of leukemia that starts from white blood cells in the bone marrow, the soft inner part of bones. It develops from cells called lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell central to the immune system, or from lymphoblasts, an immature type of lymphocyte.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia invades the blood and can spread throughout the body to other organs such as the liver, spleen, and lymph nodes. It is an acute type of leukemia, which means it can progress quickly. 

The diagnosis changed everything. She had to deal with the emotional and psychological impact and physical symptoms of cancer, multiple hospital appointments, scans and chemotherapy, and an uncertain future. 

The biggest change was fear, but faith and love was the glue that kept Justine tough. She credits her family for constant support. 

“Whenever I look at myself in the mirror I always wish that someday, the pain will be gone so that I can go back to a normal life, so I can be with friends and hang out with them, because I have never experienced that,” said Justine. 

Understanding Justine’s medical situation was hard to process for her mother Bella. 

“I asked why it has to happen to my daughter. At a very young age, she had to endure the pain. We cried for months before we were able to accept that my daughter has leukemia. For months, there was no time I didn’t cry,” her mother said.

Justine’s father also suffered the shock of her painful condition. 

“At work, tears just fall down whenever I think of her condition. Most of the time, I just stare blankly from not knowing how to resolve the situation. My employers would often ask what happened to my daughter. It’s tough when I have to think of the bills to pay here and in the Philippines. Sometimes I feel like giving up."

After 18 months of her chemotherapy, Justine has been spending time alone at home. It has isolated her. Her brother goes to school and her parents go to work - a normal situation in Italy where parents spend at least 10 hours at work every day.

At 14, she has coped with the physical and emotional changes that come with her disease and takes every day as it comes. 

Everyday miracles

Philip Acuña is taking it one day at a time as he battles cancer. Contributed photo

For Philip, cancer is like carrying a time-bomb running quicker than feared. In learning to live with death, he has emerged stronger. For Philip and his wife Tessie, the magic of Christmas lasts all year round and they continue to fight for life to appreciate what it has to offer every day. 

Philip has been battling multiple myeloma for 17 years. 

Just when everybody was celebrating Christmas, Philip underwent an ulcer surgery on December 25 while still doing another round of chemotherapy. This was how he and his wife spent the holidays. 

“I thought of just waiting for my time to die... Whatever God has planned for me there’s nothing more I can do. I have given my all,” said Philip.

A flare-up of his illness has curtailed Philip’s daily routine. He had to stop working as a concierge. Fortunately, he gets free medical treatment from the Italian government which costs millions, the kind of medical assistance that he thinks he may never get in the Philippines. 

It was difficult for his wife and son to find positivity to face a complex range of issues, the uncertainty over how his cancer will progress, and making decisions on which treatments could potentially extend his life. 

For Tessie, cancer brought her and her husband closer together, and even to other people. Having the urge to fulfill Philip’s pledge after waking up from a coma to use his time helping others, they formed a group of Filipino blood donors in Milan. Philip wanted to help save lives of people like him suffering from cancer.

With the will to live, he continues to fight the odds. 

“Whatever comes my way, all I can do with myself is to stay positive,” Philip said.