Fuego Filipinas’ Mayi Maligaya beats the depression out of breast cancer survivors with sports and exercise

By Romeo Moran | Photo by Arlo Angeles

Breast cancer, at the risk of stating the obvious, is no walk in the park.

Carrying the affliction is worse enough with the toll it takes on one’s body; what people might not know, however, is that survival is oftentimes just as taxing. Life after breast cancer brings about a host of psychological and emotional issues for the survivor. As a result, survival sometimes feels like a pyrrhic victory.

Triathlete, doctor, and dragon boat rower Mayi Maligaya, co-founder of Fuego Filipinas, knows all about this. Founded in November 2013, Fuego Filipinas is an all-women’s dragon boat team whose aim is to raise awareness and help out breast cancer survivors by being a support group that encourages them to engage in a healthy and active lifestyle—not only through dragon boat rowing, but through any activity that gets them moving. The mindset is that physical activity keeps them busy and energetic enough to beat the depression and sadness that the disease leaves with the survivor.

“Most of them, after chemotherapy or surgery, would be depressed,” says Maligaya. “Most of them are afraid to get back and live a normal life and be active. But what they don’t know is if they become active, it actually decreases the risk of having breast cancer again.”

The camaraderie that being in the team brings is no small reward as well. “They have another support group that would treat them as normal people,” she says. “We don’t treat them like they’re special. It gives them a lot of hope and so their quality of life increases. That’s what we want to do for them.”

Maligaya hasn’t had breast cancer but in her line of work as a radiologist, she encounters people with the disease all the time. Being exposed to their situation was what led her to co-found the group. “Most of our patients are breast cancer patients and we’ve seen how others survived and others didn’t,” she recalls. “We go beyond. We treat them whole—before, during, and after [the cancer], so maybe that’s the reason why.”

We don’t treat them like they’re special. It gives them a lot of hope and so their quality of life increases. That’s what we want to do for them

While Fuego Filipinas is a dragon boat team, their objective of getting survivors to be as active as possible naturally makes it easy for them to consider branching out into other sports, with triathlon being one of the avenues they’re exploring. Maligaya and the other triathletes in the team are actually planning to form a relay team that aims to pledge money towards their advocacies for every kilometer they finish.

Eventually, they’re going to expand their activities to help out everyone within their network. “We would plan for projects to support more breast cancer survivors and their charities,” she says. “I’m sure they also have their support groups.”

And the only important thing for the team’s future is that its members continue to have the drive to do what they do out of love and dedication. “The hard part of forming a dragon boat team is to keep people coming and training,” explains Maligaya eagerly.

“Some [people are] tinatamad, some have work, they have their own reasons, and they’re not getting paid. So we recruit plenty of people; for sure, out of 10, two will remain. But those two, for decades na ‘yun. They won’t quit. You just have to find those people; just recruit more, not give up. That’s it—to persevere.”

As for survivors, Maligaya definitely recommends triathlon, believing it would not affect them in any negative way. It will even be good for them. “Nothing is off-limits,” she encourages. “They can do anything.”