Prof. Nieves R. Confesor is one of the most accomplished women in the country. She is Faculty Member and Associate Dean of the Center of Development Management of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), Chairperson of the Philippine Government Panel Negotiating with the Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front-New People’s Army (CPP-NDF-NPA), and enjoys the distinction of being the first Asian woman to head the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Governing Body, and being the first woman to be the country’s Labor Secretary. Yet, not only is she able to handle the most complex of matters deftly, but she does so with a feisty, even fierce disposition; and not even a bout with cancer could slow her down.
“Nieves has always been an important national figure in economics, trade, the peace process, and the academe,” says Dr. Samuel D. Bernal, Consultant Adviser of The Medical City’s (TMC) Regenerative Medicine Program, and Nieves’s friend and physician. “She is a very dynamic person, and she didn’t want her illness or her treatment to interfere with her lifestyle and her career goals.”
In her usual take-charge manner, Nieves managed her condition—a rare and aggressive uterine tumor called leiomyosarcoma —instead of allowing it to manage her. She underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy in June 2006, and seemed to be over the hump.
“However, it was discovered the following year that the tumor had spread to her lungs,” Dr. Bernal recalls. “It was aggressive in its ability to grow fast and to spread to distant sites. She had surgery on her left lung to remove some nodules, but there were still others left in her right lung.” Thus, it seemed that Nieves had run out of options.
But she did not let the situation discourage her. In December 2007, Nieves contacted Dr. Bernal as she was familiar with his impressive and successful forays in the realm of Regenerative Medicine. A number of years before, their paths had crossed in an AIM engagement. In Dr. Bernal, she had found a kindred spirit in her aim to put Filipino on the global stage. Now she had a potential collaborator in her battle against cancer. She did thorough independent research, engaged him in exhaustive consultation, and then signed up for TMC’s Regenerative Medicine Program.
In Regenerative Medicine, stem cells are collected from the patient, and these cells undergo extensive stimulation and sensitization in order to transform them into specialized, disease-fighting cells.
“In Nieves’s case,” Dr. Bernal recounts. “The stem cells were taken from her blood, and then processed to become dendritic cells—immune cells that transmit signals to the rest of the immune system, identifying the “enemy” cells that should be attacked. These dendritic cells were then injected beneath Nieves’s skin in the form of a highly sophisticated vaccine customized to her cancer.
Alongside chemotherapy, Nieves started receiving these stem cell infusions in March 2008. Regenerative Medicine therapies have been found to be quite effective when pursued in tandem with more conventional treatments, as these enhance the body’s ability to counter inevitable drug resistance, and reverse the toxic effects of these treatments.
In addition to its pioneering programs, Nieves also appreciated the hospital’s unique patient-partnership philosophy. There were many occasions for open and constructive communication among her health care team, but one stands out in her mind. Apart from TMC’s experts, Nieves had also consulted doctors from a leading medical institution in the United States. She requested that her TMC physicians participate in a conference call she was organizing with the U.S. doctors, and they gladly complied. The resulting discussions further aided Nieves in making her decisions on the treatment options that were right for her. The fact that TMC staff provided her with much actionable information, and encouraged her to voice her opinions and concerns made her feel truly empowered — a state that she actively seeks as a natural course, but did not really expect in this context.
Now, after the prescribed series of stem cell infusions and chemotherapy treatments, Nieves is back in fighting form. She has new appreciation for life and renewed passion for her life’s work. As her body has been regenerated, so has her spirit. And she’s all the better and the stronger for it.