‘Nuclear strike’ helps destroy rare cancer

I’m in life insurance, so I’m more careful about my health. For me, if any discomfort persists for more than six months, it has to be checked out.

I was at an overseas conference in June 2008 when my nose became blocked, and stayed that way for six months, worsening over time. When the specialist inserted a scope down my throat to view the nasopharynx, the area behind the nose, he looked concerned. He told me there was a small tumour there, which looked to be cancer in its initial stage.

The first thought that came to my mind was that cancer patients could die young. I was 32, and my daughter was 2½. I didn’t know what might happen. I locked myself in the toilet, and cried.

Waiting for the results was hard for my husband and me. It felt endless. But after feeling agitated and unsettled for a few days, I told myself, “Okay, you can’t be crying forever. Just acknowledge how you feel, accept everything and move on.”

I went for PET and CT scans. Doctors told me I had late stage 2/early stage 3 nasopharyngeal or nose cancer. I felt calmer when the radiation-oncologist explained that my illness is highly treatable and that the recovery rate is very high. But first, I had to undergo chemo and radiotherapy over a six-week period.

The first week was manageable but things got bad by the fifth. My mouth was inflamed and raw. My salivary glands were affected. It was difficult and painful to swallow even soft rice porridge. I couldn’t sleep, because my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I couldn’t eat solid food, so I began taking liquid supplements three to four times a day. Even then, drinking 250ml took an hour because it was very painful, and I threw up everything after that. I felt demoralised.

Cancer treatment helping to put things into perspective

I had to be checked into hospital for dehydration. Lying in bed, I felt sorry for myself. But then I noticed another patient, an elderly woman in her 70s, who was bedridden after a stroke. Thinking about how she would have to re-learn everything, from eating to walking, I felt that maybe, I wasn’t in such a bad place after all. I became determined to eat. That day, I took three hours to eat my porridge but I began to feel stronger.

Just when I thought I could pop some champagne, I was told I needed a second round of treatment because I hadn’t completed the first round of treatment for chemotherapy. I thought the worst was over, but I had to go through the pain and misery all over again. I was put on a different drug, which affected the nerves in my body and caused my hair to drop. At least, there wasn’t any nausea. My treatment ended in September 2009, and I went back to work two months later.

Today, I still have check-ups every three months. My mouth still feels puffy and spongy.

Being ill has brought things into perspective. You focus on the important things in life. You want your loved ones around you, and work comes second. I have cut work to three days a week. And I prioritise – I don’t like to waste time.

Finally accepting my illness helped me attain peace of mind. To me, acceptance means understanding that the sickness is now a part of me. Since I could not turn back the clock, I had to learn how to manage it. For instance, I went in for my treatment with a positive attitude and did not let pain or discomfort stop me from completing it. I constantly told myself that it was just like treating a more serious case of the flu.

It would have been harder without family support. My husband always accompanied me to hospital, even in the midst of setting up his own business. My mother looked after my daughter and my aunt cooked for me.

Good friends lifted my spirits, and I found comfort in the Nasopharyngeal Cancer Support Group. It held monthly talks on topics such as coping with the side effects of chemotherapy. We exchanged group emails to share our problems. I felt I was not alone.

After recovering from my illness, I try to live life normally. I’m happy I can go out and do a day’s work. I set aside more time for myself and my family, and this makes me feel good mentally and emotionally.

I look at things positively now. I see that I haven’t lost a lot, but I’ve gained other things. Learning to put everything in perspective, I feel that I live a much more balanced and rewarding life.

Ref: R14