When Adversity Strikes: My Interview with Inspiring Cancer Survivors
Several months ago, I was invited by National Cancer Center Singapore to visit their facilities and perhaps do some coverage on PE to drive awareness of cancer in the society. I was cordially given a tour of their center at 11 Hospital Drive (Singapore), where I met their staff (including the nurses, their principal radiographer, their radiation therapist, their marketing communications team, and their doctors).
Me with the NCCS Marketing Communications Team: Shannen (who has since left), Adeline, and myself on the right
I’ve to admit that I knew absolutely nothing about cancer prior to the visit. I’m lucky not to have any experience with cancer in my life, be it by direct or indirect affiliation. None of the people in my personal circle has/had cancer before and neither do the people in their personal circles.
Being ushered from NCCS to SGH (Singapore General Hospital) for lunch with the nurses, principal radiographer, and the Marketing Communications team.
During the visit, I got to understand cancer a little better. I was educated about the pervasiveness of cancer (apparently a lot more people have cancer than I would have imagined—more than 10,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed every year in Singapore), the most common cancers in men (Colo-rectum, Lung, and Prostate) and women (Breast, Colo-rectum, and Lung), and the available treatment options for the disease (namely chemotherapy, drugs, radiation therapy, surgery, stem cell transplant, among others).
At the treatment room. This is where the patient receives radiotherapy (RT). Notice the illuminated ceiling panels—those are meant as therapeutic images for the patients to look at and relax as they receive their radiotherapy, which can be quite a harrowing experience.
I have to say that cancer has always come across as a very scary disease to me; the verdict remains the same after my visit. While there are various support options today, the fact remains that cancer is a disease that doctors and researchers from around the world are still trying to discover. As of today, there is no real cure for cancer, only treatment options to fight the symptoms and hopefully prevent its recurrence.
Tassha, the radiation therapist, doing a demo of how the head and neck patients are set up to receive their radiotherapy. The mold helps to ensure the patient doesn’t move during treatment so that radiation can be delivered accurately.
As part of my NCCS coverage, I requested to interview two cancer survivors, as I wanted to inspire you with real-life stories. After all, PE has always about growth through real-life stories. The two cancer survivors whom I selected were (1) Fay, 33, a stay-home-mom to a a 17-month-old baby, and (2) Mdm Tay, a 69-year-old lady with two kids, three grandchildren.
Fay with her husband and daughter at Run For Hope 2011. Run For Hope is an annual run in Singapore organized by NCCS to raise funds for cancer research.
Mdm Tay, a 69-year-old cancer survivor who was treated by NCCS
The reason why I chose them is because I feel they have very positive stories to share. Both have combated cancer and live to tell the tale. Both have pushed through during the darkest periods of their lives (to date). Both are ordinary yet inspirational figures because of how they handle life’s adversities.
Fay was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in Aug 2009 and her cancer has since entered remission after her treatment (chemotherapy and stem cell transplant). Mdm Tay was diagnosed with melanoma (skin cancer) in March 2011, signed herself up as a subject for clinical trials in May 2012, and has been responding positively to the treatment. While there are still cancer cells in her body, her situation has been put under control. Many of her cancer symptoms have disappeared and she no longer has new growths.
Without further ado, let me introduce to you: Fay and Mdm Tay.
Celes: Hi Fay and Mdm Tay! Can you tell the readers at PE more about yourself?
Fay: Hi! I’m a stay-at-home mom to 17-month-old baby girl. Previously, I worked as an analyst in a multi-national corporation between 2008 and 2009. I was diagnosed with cancer on Aug 2009 and stopped going to work after that.
Mdm Tay: Hi, I’m Mdm Tay. I consider myself an ordinary old woman. I used to be a tutor up until 2003, when I retired to take care of my grandchildren. I have one son, 36, one daughter, 38, and three grandchildren from my daughter—ages 8, 7, and 2.5.
Celes: When did you discover you had cancer? Can you talk the readers through the process?
Fay: I recall having backaches during June 2009. They started off as small aches, but became worse. It came to a point where it affected my sleep. I could not bend down, sit cross-legged, or even wash my face.
Thinking it was some back problem, I went to see two orthopaedic specialists. One of them did an MRI scan and told me I had a slipped disc, which I really did have. None of us knew that my pain was due to my growing, hidden, tumor.
It was in August 2009 when I was warded into A&E (Accident & Emergency) for the excruciating pain in my body. The pain was so bad that I had to be in a wheelchair and I was wriggling and crying in it throughout. A scan revealed a tumor in my pelvis area. It was then that I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (a kind of blood cancer).
Mdm Tay: In 2010, I found three lumps on my neck. I didn’t know why they were there and they didn’t fade away with time. I then consulted a general practitioner, who gave me a checkup, including a blood test, and said I was “okay”. So I thought I was okay and went on with my daily life.
However, the growths remained. What ensued was a series of checkups over a period of several months where I consulted an ENT (Ear, Nose & Throat) specialist and a few other doctors. I even got a CT scan (X-ray computed tomography) done. Each time, the doctor would say there was nothing wrong with me.
Eventually, I was referred to SGH (Singapore General Hospital) where an ENT oncology expert tested my cells and discovered poison in the cells. This was when I was told I have cancer. It was March 2011 then.
Celes: How did you feel when you were diagnosed with cancer?
Fay: Shocked, initially. My immediate thought was, “How can I have cancer?” I have heard of people with cancer before, but I just thought such a thing would never happen to me. I had always thought cancer was something that would happen to others, but not me.
Another thought I had was, “What kind of cancer is this? Is this going to be sarcoma (a malignant form of cancer)?” Sarcomas have poor prognosis in general. If I had a sarcoma, I would have very low chances of survival.
I also thought about the future—there were so many things I wanted to do then but had not done yet. At that point, my husband and I were thinking of starting a family, but with the cancer diagnosis dashed our hopes. It felt like everything had come to a stand still. It felt that my life had come to a stand still.
Mdm Tay: My brain was a complete blank. There is no history of cancer in my family, so I wondered, “Why would I have this illness?”
As I was already old (Celes: Mdm Tay was 57 then) and my children were all grown up, I thought perhaps being diagnosed with cancer meant it was time for me to go. I thought if the treatment was going to cost a lot, I would just let the situation go and let the disease take its course.
Celes: So what changed then, Mdm Tay? What made you decide to go for treatment?
Mdm Tay: I spoke to my children and asked them for feedback. They encouraged me and told me that I must be strong—I mustn’t give up. They said, “Don’t worry about the money. We will take care of the treatment cost. Just go for the treatment.” So I did.
Celes: That’s fantastic! I’m glad you accepted the treatment. What ensued after the diagnosis for both of you? What treatments did you undergo?
Fay: I proceeded with treatment right away. I was put up for six cycles of chemotherapy, administered once every fortnight.
During each treatment, I would lie on the hospital bed for six hours as the nurses drew my blood and injected drugs in my body. I felt like I was a victim as I laid on the bed and others took control of my body. As the drugs took effect, I would feel very tired, weak, and nauseous. I even lost sensation of my fingers. I felt I had no control over the situation. I felt I had no energy to fight back. I would constantly feel full with no appetite for food.
Receiving chemo also meant I lost my hair. (Celes: For females, this can be quite a traumatizing experience.)
It felt that there were many days to go before I would complete the cancer treatment and even then, it was not clear if my cancer would be treated then. In my mind, I wondered, “What happens if my cancer comes back after this treatment? Where is my life heading?” I couldn’t see the light of the tunnel.
Mdm Tay: After my diagnosis in March 2011, the doctors spent a few months checking my condition. It was found that I had over 10 growths! I ultimately went for surgery in September 2011, where my lymph node was removed.
I thought the worst was over, but it wasn’t. In Mar 2012, the doctor found growths throughout my entire body. I thought it was the end of the road and there was nothing left for me. I thought I would just live out my days and let my life to come to an end.
Celes: How did you guys handle the situation? How did you turn this adversity around?
Fay: In between my fortnightly treatments, I would try to do some leisurely activities like sing songs, go for a walk in the park, and go out for dessert. The drugs tend to affect your thinking, and sticking to the daily activities as much as I could helped me to feel better.
I also reflected about death and what life is about. It made me think, “What is my purpose in life?” Through my religion (Christianity), I realized that it didn’t matter what I did and I should just be the person I was created to be. It was then that I gained peace and focused on becoming just that.
I realized that it is in our weakest times when we gain revelations on things we normally don’t think about. It’s when we are at our lowest that we realize what are our priorities and figure out what matters to us most. This episode (with death) has helped me to realize that my family relationships are the most important to me.
Mdm Tay: Talking to my daughter, my sisters, and my son really helped me. Every time I talk to them, I would feel better after that. My spirits would be uplifted.
My daughter often reminded me about my three grandsons. She would say, “Don’t forget about your three grandchildren. They are still young. They still need their grandmother.” She would also say, “Don’t forget about your son. He’s not married yet. You have to see him through the day he gets married.” My grandsons would also encourage me by saying I would live till 100 or even 1,000 years old.
Everyone I spoke to would keep telling me “not to think so much” and to “live on”. They would constantly remind me to get help so that I would recover and become better. Hearing these constant words of encouragement made me decide to continue to live and fight—for them. These are the people who love me and whom I love deeply. I decided not to give up and fight on with courage.
Celes: What happened thereafter?
Fay: My chemotherapy turned out to be very effective—I responded very well to them. By the sixth (and last) cycle of treatment, I was considered in remission. This was December 2009 (Celes: three months after Fay was diagnosed).
To lower probability of a relapse, I was recommended to do stem cell transplant. In Jan 2010, I went for high-dosage chemotherapy, administered over three days, during which I was put in an isolation ward. I was hospitalized for almost a month.
While it was a very painful and weakening experience, the stem cell transplant was necessary to keep the cancer cells away. The treatment was a success! I feel very happy and blessed that I was able to experience the festivities thereafter, from Christmas, to New Year’s Day, to Chinese New Year.
Mdm Tay: I received good news in April 2012 when my doctor told me about this new medicine which was in clinical trial phase. If I agreed to go in as a trial subject, I would get the treatment for free. However, there would be potential side effects like vomitting, diarrhea and blisters on hands.
Several patients declined to undergo the trial test as they were afraid of the risks. After all, it is in experimental stages. It is possible that it would not work and my condition would worsen. However, I decided to go for it anyway. In my mind, I thought, “What did I have to lose?”
So in May (2012), I went in as a trial subject. As it turned out, I responded very well to the treatment. The red sores that used to my hand disappeared by the third week; the ones on my feet faded away after that too. Right now, all my external cancer symptoms have disappeared. My tumors have shrunk and I have not had any new growths since the treatment. My condition is effectively under control.
Celes: Fay, Mdm Tay, I’m really happy for you that you have pushed through the darkest period and your illness is now under control. What have you learned from this experience?
- Life is actually very short—anything can happen at any time. You may not think that any of this will happen to you, but it could. My mindset now is not to plan for things that are too far ahead, as I do not know if I’ll be around to do them. (Celes: Fay’s point is that it’s important to live in the moment, vs. overplanning and deferring your life to the future.)
- I realized the importance of my family and I value my family relationships very much today.
- Insurance is very important as medical cost is exorbitant (Celes: especially in first-world countries like Singapore). My hospital bills chalked up to $150—$200k, which were paid through my company’s insurance, husband’s company and my hospitalization insurance. I would never have had the money to pay for this if not for insurance.
- I have learned that I’m very brave. I found courage in me to face this illness which I didn’t even know I had in me. (Celes: It definitely takes a lot of courage to face an illness like cancer. Mdm Tay and Fay are incredible individuals who have displayed overwhelming courage in the face of such a harrowing disease.)
- As people, we have to care for one another. If you have an illness, let other people know. Know that the people around you will be ready to understand and help you out. Even if physical support is not possible, they will always be able to offer moral support.
- If you have an illness, take action and try to treat it. Don’t be stubborn. See the doctor, listen to what he/she has to say, and be open to trying different things. If you don’t treat it, you will simply die. If you do something, you might actually get better from it.
(Celes: As mentioned above, Mdm Tay is actually a trial subject for a new cancer treatment. Her cancer has come under control because she gave this trial a shot. On the other hand, there have been people who rejected being trial subjects and are still battling with their cancer today.
The point here isn’t to try everything without regard of risks, but to be open-minded to different treatment methods. Give yourself a chance in being treated and to be cured, vs. being closed off to opportunities.)
Celes: We are coming to the end of the interview. What are three things you would like to share with the readers at PE?
- Cancer is such a prevalent disease today. I recommend everyone to read about it and contribute to the cause as a society (Celes: such as via donating to cancer research). I had a niece who passed away in 2008 due to a cancer named Malignant Rhabdoid Tumor. Due to its rarity, doctors were less confident of treatment protocol. (Celes: On the other hand, if there had been enough research done on this type of cancer, it’s possible that there could have been a cure discovered for it and Fay’s niece could have been treated in time.)
- Life is short. In places like Singapore, we can be very concerned with chasing the material goods. In the midst of chasing after these material objects, perhaps it’s more important to figure out what really matters to us the most as we don’t know when our life would end one day. (Celes: It might well be tomorrow, or the day after, or two days after.)
- Spend some time to think about death and life after death. Because we will go through that one day. (Celes: After all, death comes to all of us at some point.) It’s good to start thinking about that while we are still on Earth.
- Please see the doctor if you are ever not feeling well. This applies regardless of your age.
- If the doctor reveals an illness, don’t ever give up. Be courageous and be open to try the medicine. Encourage yourself while continuing your daily routine. If you like to exercise, continue exercising. Continue taking your meals.
- If there is someone who wants to help you, accept that help! Don’t always think you are by yourself. Sure, you might have money or material things, but you always need moral support. When you tell someone (your concerns), you lift a burden from your heart.
Celes: Thank you so much for your time, Fay and Mdm Tay! Your stories are very inspiring and will no doubt open the eyes of the readers at PE. I wish you all the best in your journey ahead.
I hope you have found the interview helpful.
This is quite a different coverage from what I usually share on PE (the last interview series I did was the Successful Businesses Interview Series featuring eight diverse entreprenueurs), but I thought it would be valuable all the same. I feel that PE is about becoming a better person through self-reflection and self-betterment, and Fay and Mdm Tay’s profiles definitely fit the bill.
More importantly, they show that no matter the adversity you face in life (and being diagnosed with cancer IS a tremendous adversity), you can overcome it by adopting the right attitude and approach. If Fay or Mdm Tay had given up right at the beginning when they were diagnosed, they probably would have wasted the lives to cancer, vs. beating their illness into remission (or in Mdm Tay’s case, bringing it under control). Their positivity and tenacity have kept them alive and helped them emerge victorious against the disease.
I have gained a fair bit from talking to both of them and I hope you have gained your own lessons from reading the interview above. Feel free to share it with anyone whom you feel can be inspired by Fay and/or Mdm Tay’s stories. Thank you!
This post is not sponsored by NCCS in any way. I decided to do this coverage to help drive awareness of cancer and share positive real-life stories. I hope you have been positively impacted, one way or another, by this article, and I look forward to many great times ahead with you on PE.