Cancer runs in the family for nurse Ng Xin Hui, 34, who has lost her mother, brother and maternal grandfather to the dreaded disease.

She was just seven years old when her mother died of colon cancer at the age of 44.

Her grandfather died a year later - also from the same cancer.

But the biggest blow was the death of her brother, 33-year-old dentist Ng Kun Liang, in 2010 of the same disease.

Ms Ng nursed him during his final days, and his death spurred her to pursue a career in palliative care, she said. One of her inspirations was the palliative care team who had looked after him.

She said: "I was very impressed by how tactfully they could discuss the subject of death and how they treated their patient as a whole person, instead of someone with a disease to manage."

She realised her own experience put her in a place to help others in the same situation.

As a palliative care nurse at the National Cancer Centre Singapore since January, Ms Ng not only provides nursing care but also facilitates conversations between patients and their families on end-of-life issues.

Ms Ng is the youngest of three children, and has an elder sister who is a social worker.

Her memories of her late mother, a teacher, are hazy, but she remembers clearly her anxiety and fear of losing other loved ones after her mother died.

Ms Ng said: "I couldn't sleep until my dad came home. Looking back, I was a bit wary that things could happen and someone might not be around."

Her father, who is now retired, remarried a few years later, and her stepmother treated the children like they were her own.

As Ms Ng had been a child when her mother died, her first real struggle with loss came when she was 17, with the sudden deaths of two cousins in a car crash.


Then at Nanyang Polytechnic studying for a diploma in nursing, Ms Ng felt the pain of not getting to say goodbye.

"All the deaths taught me the importance of having closure. Like if you were diagnosed with a terminal illness, you have time to say your last goodbyes or to give your thanks. But there is no closure for sudden death," she said.

The family was to be tested again when her brother, then just 30, was diagnosed with end-stage colon cancer.

She said: "After my mum died, my brother really took on the role of a big brother. He doted on me. He was very charismatic and everyone was drawn to him." At the time, Ms Ng was studying for a nursing degree at the University of Sydney. Her brother kept the severity of his illness from the family as long as he could.

He would give vague answers when she asked about the tumours. He also "seemed all right" outwardly, and he continued to work and keep to his usual routine.

She said: "Maybe we were in denial and so we didn't probe too much."

He lived for three years after his diagnosis.


"Everyone goes through hardship and it is really about accepting situations we have no control over. Resilience is being able to accept, adapt and to draw positives out of hardship." - PALLIATIVE CARE NURSE NG XIN HUI

It was only when his health started deteriorating rapidly in the last few months of his life that the grim reality sank in.

He became gaunt and breathless, was in pain and frequently needed help to have the fluids drained from his abdomen.

In his last days, Ms Ng would rush home after work to care for him.

"After my brother's death, I felt I could understand caregivers better. So I always tell my patients' caregivers about the importance of taking care of themselves, and of rest," she said, adding that her Christian faith has also helped her to cope with her grief.

Her last interaction with her brother haunted her for a long time.

On the day he died, she was rushing to go to work in the morning when he asked her to drain the fluids from his abdomen.

She did as he asked, but her brother sensed her frustration, and apologised. With tears in her eyes, she said: "I just felt really bad that he had to apologise when he really needed help."

He died that night after she returned home from work.

In her 14 years as a nurse, Ms Ng has seen more than her fair share of pain, suffering and death. It still is never easy when patients die.

"I try to think positively, like at least I had the chance to know this person and he or she does not have to suffer any longer," she said.

"I try to attend my patients' wakes as much as possible. It is my form of closure."

Ms Angel Chen, 34, who is the sister of Ms Ng's husband and has known Ms Ng since they were in Secondary 1, says it is in her nature to care. The office manager said: "She's very helpful, very giving and easygoing as a person. She went to many of her patients' wakes although she didn't need to, because she genuinely cares for them.

She added that Ms Ng recently volunteered for nursing duties for about one month at foreign worker dormitories at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Ms Ng is married to a chef and they have no children.

Before she got married, she told her future in-laws that she was at a higher risk of getting cancer, given her family history. Thankfully, she said, they accepted her.

She has since tested negative for the gene for an inherited type of colon cancer, which was a huge relief, but she is acutely aware that anything can happen to anyone.

But she does not dwell on thoughts of mortality.

She said: "Everyone goes through hardship and it is really about accepting situations we have no control over. Resilience is being able to accept, adapt and to draw positives out of hardship."