Struggling with a “death” sentence

A triumphant and jubilant Audrey Herrera (right) with her daughter, Megan, at the latter’s convocation earlier this year.
With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Weekly Echo is airing the poignant and innermost thoughts of a cancer survivor, Audrey Herrera, who shares with us her battle and how her sheer tenacity and love for her daughter, Megan, is egging her on with life, and an eventful life at that!

By Audrey Herrera

In June 2014, my world turned upside down!

While still grieving the loss of my mom to breast cancer a year ago, I received my own diagnosis of breast cancer Stage 2B.  I was in total shock and disbelief. Despite my knowledge of the disease due to my mother’s battle, nothing could prepare me for my very own personal trial.

My mother had faced breast cancer at 70, and recurrence at 77. While I faced it at only 46, with an 11-year-old daughter, Megan, in my care. I had wished it was all a nightmare, and that I’d wake up to my own healthy, happy life.

Reality was harsh and I had to live through this nightmare. Amid the why me phase with questions being thrown in my mind, fear gripped me. 

Cancer forced me to pause and reflect on my relationships with family, friends, God,and most importantly, with myself. I learnt the power of forgiveness and self-love. I learnt I had to forgive many people in my life and many others to ask for forgiveness.

The uncertainty of life and death loomed large, and I, who had not been particularly religious, turned to God for guidance and strength. My mother’s prayer items became my solace as I turned to daily prayer, begging for the chance to see my daughter grow up.

I shifted my focus from fighting cancer to self-healing, drawing strength from within myself. I needed to forgive and love myself first.

In moments of doubt, my mother’s words, “You can do it, Auds” echoed in my thoughts. Life threw many trials my way, but I didn’t give up, driven by my responsibility towards Megan. And I wasn’t done with life yet.

In my innermost recesses, I had kept many negative things which I strongly believe triggered the cancer in my body. I believe that one is unaware of how strong one can be until there is no option. We all go through rough patches in life at one point or another, but it’s how we rise when we are down that really matters. This is when growth occurs. You grow through what you go through.

The day finally came when I completed my treatments; it felt like I had graduated from hospital life. I battled the side effects of a gruelling 18 months of chemotherapy, radiation and Herceptin with a brave face; embracing wigs, makeup and stylish outfits to put up a strong front!  

It’s crucial to have a support team when ill. Besides my family and a few friends, I found new friends in online support groups, connecting with people from around the world whose lives had been similarly interrupted by cancer.

Slowly, I adjusted to the new me, reembracing the joys of healthy activities, art, writing and dance and once again, resuming my love for travel.

As I began to regain my health and find happiness once more, life delivered another blow — my husband left me through a text message.

It was devastating, but in hindsight, it turned out to be a huge blessing. I realised I deserved better. And, when a supportive, loving man entered my life during my lowest point, I knew God had great plans for me.

I also joined ‘Pink Unity’, a cancer support group within the National Cancer Society of Malaysia (NCSM), not only for the camaraderie but also to contribute my experiences. I delved into various activities, seeking inspiration besides inspiring others through my journey. Life was good, and though I didn’t have a full-time career, my days were spent doing what I loved. 

I’ve been diligent about my six-monthly check-ups. A gut feeling prompted me to request a PET scan in the fifth year post-diagnosis. The results revealed a shadow on my left lung. My oncologist wasn’t alarmed and just said we would monitor it.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic delayed my follow-up and I finally saw the oncologist in October 2020. The PET scan detected the shadow was indeed a lump, and it had grown in size. This news shattered me, and the subsequent biopsy was a terrifying experience. The diagnosis: lung cancer, stage 1.

To improve my chances of survival, a lobectomy was recommended, and I underwent the surgery after seeking a second opinion.

Post-surgery recovery was painful; the results revealed I had non-small cell lung cancer that had reached stage 3. After four chemo sessions, I was put on targeted therapy (Tagrisso) for three years. Thank God for insurance for no way could I afford RM33,000 per month just for pills. 

I’m now in my second year on Tagrisso,  I know the odds for stage 3 lung cancer aren’t promising, but I’ve accepted that reality. I still focus on self-care, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and cherishing every day.  

As always, I’m grateful and blessed to still be alive. My “why” remains my daughter, and I want to create more lasting memories with her. 

This is not a recurrence from the earlier breast cancer. This a new cancer in my body. What are the odds of this happening? What are the lessons that I need to learn? I cry heaps, but I always pick myself up. The strength lies in not giving up. And it helps to have a loving and supportive partner by your side.

These days I keep myself busy. There’s no time to feel sorry for myself. I’m in the modelling group called ‘Pink In Heels’, which is under Pink Unity and I attend practice twice a week for an upcoming fashion show.

I realise everyone is a survivor – If they can do it with a smile and laughter, so can I! I’ve also been helping dog rescuers, whatever way I can; recently, I rescued and adopted a stray dog from Perak. I find it therapeutic when I bond with my two dogs.

My mom used to say, “We all have a number, and when our time is up, we must go.” All of us are sure of one thing and that is death. But until then, make the most of this life. Never give up on yourself. You are strong, live a healthy, happy life and cherish your loved ones.

Be kind, generous, and positive. Surround yourself with people who matter, do what you love, and give back to society. Most importantly, love yourself, as it all begins with you.

And when it’s time for me to leave, I hope I’m remembered for the way I made you feel when our paths crossed.  And if it wasn’t a good encounter, I’m sorry if I ever made you feel that way.