Hoping Big & Still Holding On To My Dessert Plate: My Encounter With Cancer

Lori Baltazar

Note: The serious subject matter addressed here necessitates a lengthy piece. It’s best appreciated in one leisurely swoop or in parts as your time permits.

Last January, a girl approached me at St. Luke’s hospital and asked to have her picture taken with me. “I’m a cancer survivor and I read your blog during chemo to help me pass the time. I’m a fan!” She exclaimed. She ended up emailing me the photo and soon, a friendship was formed.

photo with Sharon
Sharon and I last January at St. Luke’s for an unexpected photo-op. I was at the hospital because I was suspected to have dengue. Beginning with a simple photo request, we are now each other’s cancer buddies, exchanging emails of support and tips on how to get through chemo and baldness.

Perhaps it was a portent of things to come but two months later on March 9, I was diagnosed with Stage 2B breast cancer. This was the week leading up to my Food & Flair event, and I had to summon all my super powers in order to keep it together and take care of my purveyors. Underneath my smile, I was experiencing discomfort from the 2-day-old wounds of a breast biopsy and struggling to come to terms that I had cancer.

The following week, I spent every day at the hospital: consulting with doctors, getting blood tests and a chest x-ray, along with a bone scan and CT scan to check if the cancer had spread to other parts of my body (fortunately, it hadn’t). I’d like to say that the week was a blur but I remember every detail distinctly – the perpetual pricks of needles, the sensation of the CT scan’s contrast dye as it flowed into my veins, the warmth of my favorite scarf around my neck as I navigated the cold hospital halls. Most of all, I remember the absolute numbness that engulfed me in my moments of stillness. I was alone during all those tests, refused any offers of company because I needed to process what was going on. When I was told that I had cancer, instead of being sad or angry or shocked at first, I immediately launched into autopilot mode. “Okay, what do we do now?” I remember asking my doctor. I’ve always been an extremely disciplined, decisive person and those traits were more important than ever now in helping me do what needed to be done, and quickly.

A life not on hold
When I was diagnosed, I lost all interest in the outside world. Here were people carrying on with their lives, lives free of needles and doctors, a life so different, and seemingly happier than my own. 2015 was supposed to be a big year for me, chief of which was celebrating the 10th anniversary of my blog, Dessert Comes First. It was tempting to say that cancer put my life on hold. But no, right now, this is my life, and I’ve succeeded in surprising myself in many ways, the first of which was my attitude.

I had overheard my Bin on the phone saying, “The hardest part is seeing her cry….” That made me sad so it was there that I made the conscious choice to be as upbeat as I could, when I could. I also chose and still choose to say my encounter with cancer because battling/fighting cancer sounds too militant. I was stunned when an OR nurse told me right before my mastectomy, “Ma’am, you’re a patient we’ll remember, you’re so positive.”

wheeled to OR
My dad took this picture as I was being transferred to the OR for my mastectomy.

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of bad days. I once cried so hard that a blood vessel in my eye burst and the resulting dark red patch alarmed small children and some adults, I believe. But while I acknowledge that this is a very rough time for me, I strive to be calm and hopeful when I’m around people. I’ve noticed that they take their cue from me and I want to put them at ease right away. It’s better for everyone, and being as lighthearted as I can be is part of my energy tool kit.

The doctors who are helping me heal

Fast forward 20+ years, Karen and I are still there for each other; here she is visiting me during my first chemo. She’s a great surgeon, and an even greater friend.
There were people who were brought into my life to help me heal. On March 26, I had a modified radical mastectomy (MRM) with axillary lymph node dissection, a 4.5-hour operation. The surgery was performed by Dr. Karen Nielsen, a close friend of mine from high school and whom I’d lost touch with since my wedding 17 years ago. Right before the operation, I stopped by the toilet to pee and just because I could, I walked into the OR (operating room) and then hoisted myself onto the operating table. (“Wouldn’t expect anything less from you, Lori,” a friend remarked when I told her this story later). I recall pop music playing through a speaker somewhere and though I was already feeling the effects of anesthesia, I told Karen, “If you could play me some Maroon 5 please, I’d love it.” Immediately, I heard the familiar strains of “Sugar” streaming into the room. “Ah Karen, that’s more like it,” I mumbled before drifting away.

Karen - HS
Karen (2nd from top) and I (4th from top) in high school hamming it up with our friends.

Karen was already brilliant back in high school but now, she’s beyond exceptional. As a doctor who topped the medical boards in 2004, she’s masterful with a scalpel and is a highly respected surgeon. Karen saved my life and I continue to trust her with my life.

I’m also grateful to Dr. Joel Unson who reconnected me with Karen. An old high school friend of my Bin, he was present at my MRM and visited me during both of my surgeries. Joel is one of the country’s top plastic and reconstructive surgeons – models from all over the world fly in to have work done by him – and I know he’s more than capable of giving me the “boobs I’ve always wanted.” When I cheekily told him once, “I want my A-cup back, Joel,” he rolled his eyes and scoffed, “Don’t waste my time, Lori. It’s a B-cup or bigger!” It’s a hilarious inside joke we repeat whenever we see each other.

Overflowing love and support
Because I’m a very private person, I was very careful about who I chose to tell about my diagnosis – my family of course, and a select group of very close friends. My parents however, felt it was best to flood heaven with prayer petitions, and proceeded to tell everyone they knew about my condition and to please, please pray for me. “You must’ve told the whole country, Pa!” I lightly chided my dad one time. “Half the planet actually,” he chuckled in reply.

with Patty
My dear friend, Patty, flew in from the United States to see me the day after my mastectomy. A classmate of mine from culinary school and a dear friend, people who know us say that we’re actually one and the same person, from our blunt-as-balls attitude to the boisterous laugh.

I received numerous get well soon cards, flowers, text messages and emails – declarations of continuous prayers from people I love and even from people who barely knew me. My dear friend, Patty, even flew in all the way from Los Angeles to be by my side. Read her blog post about her visit back to Manila and seeing me.

get well cards + sleeping St Joseph
Some of the get well cards I received and my beloved Sleeping St Joseph statue. Below, some food gifts that boosted my flagging spirits.

Nutella bread

peanut butter cake 094

I especially loved the gifts of food I received after coming home from the hospital: flowers, baskets of fruit, loaves of bread, chocolate cake, and pints of artisan ice cream. My heart swelled with gratitude. And when people found out that St. Joseph was my favorite saint – I’ve been praying to him since I was 12 – I received four statues of the Sleeping St Joseph.

Truth be told, though I’m now hairless and (one) breast less, I’m the same Lori I was before my diagnosis, still wildly witty, still dessert-obsessed.

with Kaie + Bal
On May 2, to celebrate DCF’s 10th anniversary, two of my closest friends, Kaie and Bal, took me to lunch.

While I’m deeply appreciative of the concern and support I continue to receive, some friends chose to peace out on me. “I don’t know how to act around you,” I’m told as they exit from my life. I was disappointed and hurt at first but people react to shock differently and a cancer patient isn’t someone everyone is comfortable cozying up to. Truth be told, though I’m now hairless and (one) breast less, I’m the same Lori I was before my diagnosis, still wildly witty and dessert-obsessed.

Month of healing
In the month that I had after my mastectomy and leading up to my first cycle of chemo, I concentrated on getting stronger. The axillary lymph node dissection had left my right arm numb and painful, so I diligently did and continue to do exercises to strengthen it and prevent lymphedema (swelling of the arm when [some] lymph nodes are removed as part of cancer treatment). Three weeks after surgery – again, just because I could – I’d bypass the hospital elevators and climb up to 12 flights of stairs whenever I’d shuttle from one doctor to another. I also resumed my workouts but because of my still-tender right arm, doing jumping jacks and the downward dog yoga pose was near impossible, my efforts, laughable. Sports apparel manufacturers should seriously consider making sports bras that zip in the front for women like me who can’t raise their arms fully; I have better things to do than trying to slither into a sports bra.

On my newest “accessory” and chemo

My Port-a-cath looks like something straight out of a sci-fi flick but it’s saving my life. It’s my latest accessory and an excellent conversation piece.

After consulting with Dr. Gary Lorenzo, my oncologist (a doctor specializing in cancer treatment), I decided to have another surgery exactly a month after my mastectomy, this time to install a port in my chest, Often called a Port-a-cath (portable catheter), it’s a quarter-sized disc positioned under my skin that’s attached to my jugular vein through a catheter. The port facilitates my chemo treatments and spares me the agony of regular IV insertions and collapsed veins. During chemo, a special needle “volts in” – as my Bin describes it – right into the port, and because the vein is so large and is connected directly to my heart, the chemo meds are dispersed quickly into my system.

Looking at the chemo machine – I’m still trying to decide if I look perplexed or totally terrified…

As the date of my first chemotherapy session neared, my mind took me to frightening places. I feared chemo more than my two surgeries. Overcome by anxiety and always close to tears, I flirted (dangerously!) with the idea of not doing chemo, until that idea was swiftly vetoed by the two most important men in my life – my Bin and my dad.

My chemo sessions last about three hours and, without getting too technical, consist of a series of meds that are pumped into me through a machine via my Port-a-cath. My Bin says that it all looks very impressive, I think it’s surreal. I’m eternally grateful to Dr. Lorenzo and his oncology team who are all highly proficient and make me feel well cared for.


Chemo really does a number on my tastebuds: I drink vinegar by the cupful to mask the constant metallic taste in my mouth.
fresh tamarind
Fresh tamarind is my favorite, terrific for staving off nausea.
preserved yuzu
My friend, Kaie, keeps me stocked with lots of sour stuff. Here, preserved yuzu, Japanese citrus, and below, preserved ginger and sour plums.

preserved plums + ginger

The wild ride
It’s said that reality is never as dark as the places your mind visits in anticipation, and I’d like to believe that that’s true. But while my chemo sessions are largely peaceful, the after effects are anything but. I’m bloated and riddled with dizziness and because of the severe nausea, I spend a lot of time staring into the depths of my toilet bowl. It’s there where my anger and grief bubble up to the surface, unbidden, just like my tears. It’s these days after chemo that I feel my life ebbing away, dying a little so I can live a little longer. Satiated only by foods that are sour (fresh tamarind and cups of vinegar) or salty (sinigang na bangus), I slip into self-pity and wonder if I can survive this. Then I remember Dr. Ramon Diaz, the cardiac surgeon who installed my Port-a-cath. “You have to be ALL IN when it comes to your cancer treatment, Lori,” he exhorted. “There can be no wavering.”

Let’s talk about food
Everyone has their own cancer story to tell, and because of this, some people think they know all about cancer and what feeds it:

Vacherin Mont d’Or
Luscious and spoonable Vacherin Mont d’Or cheese.

Dairy is death!

Mushrooms cause mayhem!

And my all-time favorite, “Sugar feeds cancer!”

The most hurtful thing ever said to me was that I got cancer because I ate too many desserts. These are all knee-jerk reactions, pronouncements by ignorant people who have never had cancer. They say these things because they think they know best, and it’s what somebody else told them.

The idea that sugar feeds cancer is widely believed by the general public but it’s a gross oversimplification. There is no ratio or direct link between sugar – or any other food – and the resulting growth of cancer cells; rather, cancer occurs due to a highly complicated storm of factors unique to every individual – genetics, environment, lifestyle, etc.

with Dr Lorenzo
Me and my oncologist, Dr. Lorenzo, at the Cancer Center of the Makati Medical Center where I have my chemo sessions. He is the only person I’ll listen to when it comes to healing my cancer.

Please, if you’re not a medical doctor or you aren’t afflicted with cancer, please stop dispensing dietary and medical advice to those of us who are cancer patients.

After much research and consulting with Dr. Lorenzo, I decide to stick to my whole foods/plant-based/dessert diet. A mostly vegetarian eating plan, it’s really not that far from how I used to eat even before I got sick. I eat everything in moderation (this is key), but I’ve given up certain things because I feel they don’t serve my body well. Because of its extreme estrogen component, I avoid all tofu and soy products. I don’t drink alcohol anymore either, and though I eat fish, I will eat other seafood and meats like beef, pork, and chicken only if my body asks for it, which is very rare now. I believe that it’s the (phytochemical) nutrient density and diversity of my diet that offers the most dramatic protection against a cancer recurrence. For everything related to treating my cancer – including what to eat – I will only listen to Dr. Lorenzo. If he tells me to sleep standing up because it will help heal my cancer, then I will!

rainbow cake
A life without dessert is not a life I’m interested in living. Dessert is FUN and not fatal, as the flag in photo proclaims.

So, please, if you’re not a medical doctor or you aren’t afflicted with cancer, please stop dispensing dietary and medical advice to those of us who are cancer patients. The fear brought about by such careless statements is very stressful, the negative health effects of which bring about the exact opposite of the purported benefits of eschewing dairy, mushrooms, sugar, and God-knows-what-else. I know people mean well but I don’t buy into the hype. Besides, if I listened to what everyone had to say about what to eat and what to avoid, I wouldn’t be left with anything much to eat except maybe, grass.

A life blessed

Though life has hurled one hell of a curveball at me, it’s also gifted me with immense clarity. After reading the pathology report of my tumor, one of my doctors told me that if I hadn’t moved quickly, I would’ve been dead in six months to a year. Such a declaration illuminates what’s truly important in my life: spending time with the people I love, eating well, and living my life one day at a time. Because that’s all I have.

When it came to treating my cancer, I didn’t have a choice with many things. But I chose to shave my head to save myself the heartbreak of seeing my hair fall off because of chemo. So we made a day of it. Here I am with my Bin and my best friend Bal, showing off our newly-shorn heads last May. Gal pal Kaie, took the photo. My Bin’s hair has grown back and at my request, he’s keeping it long, but Bal insists he’ll stay bald for as long as I am too.
And because I’m now bald, I’m always on the lookout for fierce and fashionable head wraps. Here are some of my favorites.

As I go about living and healing, I’m awed by how very, very blessed I am. My family’s love is boundless, and their constant support bolsters my spirit. My in-laws rally around me with prayers and give me comfort. I have the greatest friends who make me laugh and who are always game to split a sweet with me. My loyal household staff who’ve been with me for 17 years ensure I’m always comfortable at home, including my driver who also shaved his head to show his solidarity.

I’m eternally grateful to the doctors and nurses taking care of me, they are exceedingly skilled and compassionate. We have OUTSTANDING medical care in this country, let me tell you. I’ll say it again: We have OUTSTANDING medical care in this country.


tofu cross out
Boo and I took a vegan cooking class together. She’d crossed out the tofu in her recipe notes because “tofu’s not good for you Mom, and I won’t eat it either.”

My 13-year old daughter, Boo, is my guardian angel. She’s a pillar of strength and wise beyond her years. Since my diagnosis, she’s mindful of what I eat – “is there estrogen in any of these dishes, Mom?” She’s especially sensitive to how I feel – “how are you today, Mom?”, and she tucks me in when I’m reeling from the effects of chemo.

Someone once asked me, “What are the bad days like?” The answer: I cry, primal wails that penetrate my heart, sobs that rip through my very core. The only person who’s seen me like this is my Bin, the man whom I want to live another 10 lifetimes with. No husband should have to see his wife endure cancer but he is doing it with composure and equanimity. “I just want to get you better,” he whispers in my ear as he wipes away my tears and hugs me tightly.

For all these people I am grateful.

Cancer conqueror : yup, that will soon be me.

Lori Baltazar - head wrap

Healing and living
My Tito Manny is an oncologist who lives in Michigan. His advice and assurance has guided and girded me since the very beginning. When I’m ensnared in the claws of utter despair he remarks, “It’s okay to struggle. Sometimes, accepting that you are having a terrible time is better than fighting it and trying to stay positive. It really is not easy.”

And just like that, I come upon the strength that my Bin assures me I’d one day find: yes, I’m having a really rough time but I’m doing the best I can.

Looking back at how I’ve lived my life, I have no regrets because I know that I’ve taken care of my body and now it’s taking care of me. When I am – dare I say it? – healed of my cancer, I will think of something else to call myself instead of “cancer survivor.” I dislike how that term implies victimization, and not once have I felt that I was a victim in any of this. Even when I had a tumor in my breast, I chose not to see it as evil, only as something that needed to be removed. Again, a deliberate effort on my part to be calm and hopeful because it enables me to better deal with my situation.

Lori Baltazar side view - color

Right now, I’m really liking the sound of “cancer conqueror” and “cancer vanquisher.” So I’m raising my dessert plate as my fervent wish to hoping big and healing completely because as a friend said, “You’ve still got a lot of desserts left to eat, Lori.”

Credits: Studio portraits of me shot by Aldwin Aspillera. Makeup by Ces Guerrero.

Related material:
The following are links to material that have increased my understanding of cancer. All are from credible journals and websites and are easy to read.

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