The passing of Manamea Apelu-Schwalger on Sunday was a tremendously sad moment for this nation. It was especially sad for her family, close friends, the Samoa Cancer Society and cancer patients – here and abroad - who had looked up to her as a role model since she stood up to become the face of the battle against this deadly sickness.
The fact is that since early 2016 when Manamea revealed her battle with breast cancer, we knew that her time was limited. She knew it too.
It was inevitable that she would one day be called home. That day came on Sunday when she died peacefully surrounded by her loved ones.
But it’s not how long you have on earth that defines you.
It is what you do with the time and the resources you have been given that does and Manamea did that better than anyone we know of. Her work to promote the need for women and men to get tested early for cancer is what she will be remembered fondly by.
Folks, it wasn’t as if Manamea was not a person of high profile already. Being a former Miss Samoa and Miss South Pacific are titles many women can only dream of.
But when Manamea passed away on Sunday, the countless tributes from Samoa and abroad about her strength, courage and fighting spirit were not about her being a beauty queen. Rather they were about a woman who refused to let cancer define her and how she used the platform God had gifted her to make a real tangible difference.
They were loving compliments about a wonderful human being with the heart of a lion who wanted to make the most of the time she had to help save another life.
Indeed, she used her influence to raise the profile of cancer awareness in Samoa, breast cancer especially. How can we forget the Apia Town Clock being turned pink to promote Pinktober among many other initiatives including the Miss Samoa Alumni?
But that wasn’t all. Every time she had the opportunity to speak – whether it was through the media or other formal gatherings - she would talk from the heart to encourage, enlighten and empower people. What a wonderful spirit she was. She had mana in every meaning of the word.
But we need to go back to her first public address to understand that she knew exactly what she wanted from the moment she stepped up. The occasion was the commemoration of World Cancer Day at Moto’otua in 2016 when she spoke publically about her ordeal, which she had already been privately battling for 13 months.
Encouraging members of the public to make healthier lifestyle choices to avoid the leading cause of death in Samoa, Manamea promised she would continue to advocate for testing and early detection of cancer as long as she is alive.
She recalled the moment she got the news.
“Thirteen months ago, I came to the National Hospital after self examination on my left breast where I discovered a lump,” she said. “Unfortunately for me, after my surgery the lump was found to be malignant and so my journey started as a cancer patient.”
At Acute Seven, Manamea said of six patients, three suffered from cancer.
“The first one opted to go home by choice,” she said, “a choice I could not understand at the time (because she went) to seek the assistance of a traditional healer.”
“The second person, a 35-year-old mother who had battled cancer for a very long time, was released from the hospital to go home. I presumed she had farewell her family of young loved ones.”
“I, fortunately at that point in time, was given the opportunity through the generous support of the Samoa Medical Scheme to travel to New Zealand to undergo yet another surgery and six months of chemotherapy.”
It was a trip that brought relief.
“Four months after my last chemotherapy, I came home elated. I thought I had beaten cancer. In November, I underwent my third surgery because the lump had come back and cancer has come back aggressively.”
Right there and then, Manamea said she had a very simple message about cancer.
“Cancer does not discriminate,” she said. “My doctor friend said ‘treat the causes, don’t treat the symptoms. But don’t cry for me. I joke with my friends, ‘don’t cry for me Argentina, I don’t want your pity, I don’t want your sorrow, I want your strength’.”
Manamea wanted Samoans to live healthier lifestyles.
“I beg of you make healthier choices for yourself and for your children. Choose healthier living. Cancer has no cure but it can be made to go into remission, advanced medicine has blessed very many in their battle against cancer.”
It was also there that Manamea made a public vow that she would treat every day as a gift, living life to the fullest with her supportive husband, Su’a Alan Schwalger.
“My last reflection is, God has a master plan for us all and I’m going to be brave for whatever second, minute, day, year that He gives me. I will live and breathe and hope that my story, my strength, will challenge the next person to look at healthier living and choices.”
Well Mana, we hear you loud and clear.
Of a number of legacies she leaves behind, her advocacy work in a bid to save a life and help anyone who listens is what we will remember the most.
Samoa, the Samoa Cancer Society and everyone who was touched by the life of this beautiful, loving, and faithful soul, owe it to her to continue the work.
As for Mana, well this is not goodbye. See you later!