This story originally appeared in the Vaughan Citizen.
At 37, Alicia Bastalla received the call that would change her life.
Her surgeon had good news and bad news. The good news was that the recently removed lump in her breast was harmless. The bad news: a cancerous tumour was growing undetected under her breast muscle.
Ms Bastalla had two options to fight the disease. She could either immediately undergo surgery to remove her breast, or wait a week in the hope medication and chemotherapy would shrink the tumour.
She chose to wait. It was a risk, but either way she knew the years ahead would be a rocky road. From the start, Ms Bastalla vowed to face her illness with resilience.
“I only cried the day they diagnosed me with cancer,” she said. “That day, I bawled like a baby. I bawled at the clinic and all the way home.
“But after that night, I didn’t cry at all.”
Cancer is one of the most difficult ordeals any person can go through. Ms Bastalla has beaten the disease – twice.Now 43, she is a member of Vaughan in Motion, an organization that holds fundraising events for cancer research. She even participated in its walk to cure cancer while still undergoing treatment.
Peter Badali, president and co-founder of the organization, remembers the moment fondly.
“She was bald at the time and was battling cancer,” he said. “It was really touching, everyone noticed.”
Ms Bastalla was first diagnosed with cervical cancer at 21. The prognosis was optimistic. She had one surgery in which an inch of her cervix was removed. Overall it was a success and she was still fertile.
But her second diagnosis, at 37, was far more serious.
She first noticed something was wrong when a lump in her breast kept growing.
At first she was told it was benign. But by the time the cancer was discovered, the malignant tumour was in an advanced stage. She would have to immediately undergo chemotherapy to halt the growth of the tumour.
Not easy to forget
Those days are not easy to forget for Ms Bastalla. She was often sick, fatigued and in pain.
She even remembers the exact day she started chemotherapy, Dec. 14, 2004.
But what is imprinted most vividly in her mind is an encounter she had with an elderly woman, whom she presumed was also a cancer patient, at the oncology clinic at St. Michael’s Hospital.
The woman didn’t have much hair, was wearing an eye patch and used a walker. She approached Ms Bastalla and said, ‘First of all, I want to tell you that you’re beautiful’.
By this time, Ms Bastalla was bald, barely had eyebrows and had gained significant weight.
“I thought, ‘OK lady, have you taken a good look at what I look like right now’?” Ms Bastalla said.
But the woman continued.
“I’m going to tell you one thing,” she said. “Cancer does not like happy people.”
Ms Bastalla never found out the woman’s condition or name. She never saw her again, but remembered her words.
“After that, her words stuck with me,” Ms Bastalla said. “Without her knowing, she was kind of one of my mentors.”
Now, Ms Bastalla helps organize events with Vaughan in Motion and serves as its spokesperson. So far, the local organization has donated more than $80,000 to the Vaughan Health Care Foundation specifically for cancer research.
“This is my thing in life, to show people that you can survive,” Ms Bastalla said. “If everybody does their part, we truly believe we can make cancer history.”
She first got involved with Vaughan in Motion while participating in the walk to cure cancer in 2005 at Vaughan Mills.
Ms Bastalla initially joined the walk at the insistence of her children, Xavier and Paola. She hopes that by sharing her story with others, she can provide inspiration, much like the woman at the clinic did for her.
“If it helps somebody when they’re going through it, to look at somebody else, and say, ‘They did it, so why can’t I’?’, then my job is done,” she said.
Ms Bastalla is often asked how she was able to beat cancer on two separate occasions. For her, the answer is simple.
“I just wasn’t ready to go,” she said. “I wasn’t ready to die.”
In some ways, she compares herself to a dandelion, stemming from the Spanish phrase “bad weeds don’t die”.
“You can step on it, you can put chemicals on it and the damn thing keeps coming back,” she said. “I thought, ‘that’s me’.”
Ms Bastalla’s children played a big part in motivating her to stay strong throughout her ordeal.
Until today, she feels remaining optimistic in the face of adversity was a huge factor in her beating the disease.
“We all have 1,001 reasons to be miserable,” she said. “But we also have 1,001 reasons to be happy.”