Photos courtesy of Sheilla Gagui
“I called it my parlor visit since it’s just like a drip session,” says 39-year-old Sheilla Gagui jokingly about her first chemotherapy session.
It’s an exceptional moment in an athletic career that traces back to September 2015 when she first got acquainted with triathlon. Two months later, she competed in her first race at Tri United 4. “Then the races just kept on coming.”
Gracefully darting from her first marathon in Kyoto, Japan in 2018 to her first Ironman race in Subic before bolting into another full distance race in Vitoria, Spain in 2019—sprinkled with obstacle course races here and there during off-season—and it’s pretty clear that the former Etihad Airways flight attendant, loving wife and doting mother to two kids have spent the past few years threading in and out of joyful paths.
But that zest for life and unmistakable affinity for transfiguring herself for whatever adventure she comes across now looked like a preview of what else was waiting on the horizon.
“There’s not a particular degree of difficulty we can put in words when you get diagnosed with cancer… no matter what stage or what type, your world just seems to fall apart,” admits the Sante Barley Tri Team fixture.
But at a time when people all over the world are grappling with uncertainty (no thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic), Gagui is holding everything together and making a case built on the power of positivity—and no, not the toxic kind.
Not that she wasn’t ever blossoming optimism in the first place, but her experience with breast cancer invoked a more crystalline narrative that has never sounded more assured or completely and deeply hers.
“I was at my fittest when I got diagnosed with cancer and in a snap my health was taken away from me,” she says. “Coming from a person who’s rarely sick, who doesn’t even go to the hospital and doesn’t drink medicine when sick, who just did Ironmans and Spartans, who would have thought? It was a big surprise to me… to everyone. But I’m still here.”
Yes, she’s still here, and raring to get back to her highest levels and once again test her mettle at Ironman Philippines in June 2021. “Because I know I can,” she says when asked about returning to her training so soon after her recovery. “Since that was really the 2019 plan, it didn’t change at all even if I had my surgery and chemotherapy. I wanted to gain my confidence back and prove that cancer is not the end, and it won’t bring me down.”
As she continues to regain her momentum, Gagui sits down with us to map out the steps she took and reveal that the hardest and most vulnerable moments can also be the most powerful.
“I knew something was wrong”
In March 2020, while taking a shower, I felt a small lump on my left breast. I went to Cardinal Santos Medical Center (CSMC) to have it checked but the OB said not to worry as much because ‘it looked benign’ but [told me] to come back on Saturday for the ultrasound. But I said I’ll do it on a weekday anyway. What’s a few days if it’s just benign? That week came but the news [of the patient who tested positive for COVID-19] was admitted at CSMC. Then the lockdown happened. I said to myself ‘never mind since the doctor said it looked benign and maybe I can just wait for the situation to pass.’ But then days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, then they declared it as pandemic.
Two months after, I felt the lump has gotten bigger. I got worried and had it checked. On May 12, Wednesday, we did an ultrasound and the surgeon also said it looked benign but to be sure she did a core needle biopsy. Come Friday, I received a message from the clinic that I needed to come in on Monday. I knew something was wrong.”
“Everything went blank”
On May 18, the diagnosis was, “you have breast cancer.”
After hearing those four words, everything went blank. There’s not a particular degree of difficulty we can put in words when you get diagnosed with cancer… no matter what stage or what type, your world just seems to fall apart. You usually hear that a friend of a friend has it but it’s never you. I felt sorry for my husband and kids. To be putting them in this situation. I work out to be fit and healthy for them and then this. But there was no time to waste. I just had to go with everything they were saying. I had to be strong for myself and especially for my family.
After all the tests and scans, we finally had a date for my surgery—June 2. After taking out the 2.1-centimeter tumor, the doctor confirmed that what I had was Stage 2A left breast cancer. The surgery went well. I just couldn’t lift my left arm for a few months.
“I wanted everything to be positive”
After meeting my oncologist for my treatment, I was given eight cycles of chemotherapy every three weeks. I was scheduled on July 6 for my first session. I called it my parlor visit since it’s just like a drip session and I just wanted everything to be positive even if it’s the word “chemo.” The doctor said my hair will all fall off so I cut my hair short—my first ever pixie cut my whole life. It was hard to see my hair all over the place. I started to feel and look sick, and that I really have cancer. My husband shaved my head. He too shaved his and my son wanted to shave his as well too. I was really touched by his gesture. How much love and support he’s showing me. even at that his age (he was five-years-old then).
“I fought the fatigue”
Living with cancer is hard, especially with the lockdown and the pandemic. You can’t get a massage to relax your body or go to the beach or some place else to relax your mind. And with chemotherapy, you’ll never know what you’ll feel after every session. I fought the fatigue, yes, but I was lucky enough to not have side effects. I was still able to stay with the kids during their online school and ran with them while they were biking or doing the IronKids virtual run. I didn’t stop working out but I wasn’t consistent. I prepared my body by making it stronger for my next “parlor” visit. I started with 30 minutes on the bike but I got so tired that I needed a nap right after. But the next sessions got longer and longer until I biked for 1:30 while in treatment. Last September, I even got to swim two or three sessions before my oncologist restricted me given that the last four cycles are stronger.
“Finally, I graduated”
Nov. 30 marked my last cycle. Finally, I graduated. I can call myself in remission. But I gained 20 pounds and I couldn’t even run 10 minutes straight. I had to stop every five minutes then walk for a minute then continue running again for five mins just to complete running for 10 minutes at six kph. And I was like super tired.
“I started consistently working out again”
I’m an active person so feeling weak and heavy really made me sad. In December, I started consistently working out again. And now I’m training for Ironman Philippines in June 2021 (if it will push through!). I got my pre-cancer weight back and yes after two months of working out, I can now run 30 seconds at 16 kph, 45 seconds at 14 kph, two hours of easy run, 4:30 hours on a bike, do brick workouts—and I am truly proud of that.
“It’s like preparing for the finish line”
I realized that in those years that I did triathlon, it was to prepare me for this hurdle. It made my body stronger, my mind more powerful and my heart tougher. I remember that I used to eat goji berries and drank lots of vitamins to prepare for my Ironman races. When I was doing chemotherapy, I was advised to eat goji berries to help with my white blood cell count. The first thing that came to my mind was ‘Wow it’s really like preparing for the finish line. Preparing for the race of my life! The biggest and the grandest one.’
“I can’t let it define me”
I’m truly thankful and grateful to God. It was only by His grace that I was able to be proactive and remain as active and hopeful as I did. I always reminded myself that God will not give anything we cannot handle or surpass. He has a reason for everything. A bigger plan for us.
My husband Peejay is my source of strength. He’s literally my rock. He was there every step of the way. He held my hand from the start to the finish line. Never missed a parlor session. Told me all the time ‘ang ganda ng asawa ko kahit kalbo, partida pa yan ah’ and hearing those words comforted me.
I had the best support crew during my journey. A few, yes, but they were all I needed. Only a handful of family and friends. I was really happy with that decision. I blocked all the negativity that can and will harm me. I chose to be private with this matter because I know people will label you or pity you. But the fact is, we’re still living. There is no weakness in any of this. The diagnosis and the disease don’t have to be a definition of who we are. I can’t let it define me. And I am going to do so with a good attitude.
“Don’t waste your precious time”
Always choose positivity. Choose kindness. Choose what’s good for you and your soul. Eliminate toxic people in your life. Always be positive especially with your outlook in life. It is how you perceive life.
If you need help, ask for it. Don’t be embarrassed; everyone is struggling in their own way. It is important that we take care of ourselves so we can take care of the people we love. But we have to love and take care of ourselves first in order to do that. Do what you love. Don’t waste your precious time. Say ‘I love you’ while you still can. Show it while you still can. Do things you love while you can. I was at my fittest when I got diagnosed with cancer and in a snap my health was taken away from me—coming from a person who’s rarely sick, who doesn’t even go to the hospital and doesn’t drink medicine when sick, who just did Ironmans and Spartans. Who would have thought? But I’m still here.