He survives cancer not once, but twice. Mr Poh Khoon Yong shares on coping with two cancers that have left him with little speech but a whole lot of gratitude.​

When Poh Khoon Yong discovered he had a mouth ulcer in July 2013, he didn’t think much of it – swallowing and eating in general proved to be uncomfortable and that was all. However, when the ulcer didn’t heal after a bout of prescribed medication, the 57-year-old IT assistant manager, decided to seek further diagnosis.

The diagnosis revealed a soft palate tumour, which on further investigation, turned out to be cancer of the soft palate (oropharyngeal cancer).

First the nose…

With a heavy heart, he says, he knew that it was the side effect of the nasopharyngeal cancer (nose cancer), which he was diagnosed with in Jan 2003.

“That diagnosis came as a shock as I have always led a healthy lifestyle. I don’t smoke or and drink. There’s no family history from either parent and I always eat healthily,” says Khoon Yong.

He underwent a course of radiotherapy – 35 sessions in all – from February to April 2003, which left him with headaches, high body temperature, dry mouth, difficulty in swallowing, mouth and gum sores, stiffness in the jaw and nausea.

Khoon Yong was eventually given the “all clear” in April 2013.

… then the mouth

Of the oropharyngeal cancer diagnosis in 2013, Khoon Yong says, “I was really sad at the start but by wife gave me strong moral support. So did my family and friends. Hence, I told myself to be hopeful and take one day at a time as a way of coping with the illness.”

From September 2013 and for the next 12 months, Khoon Yong underwent a total of five major surgeries, around the lower jaw area. These included, among others, the removal of tumours on his soft palate and vocal cord, and even an emergency operation to address a haemorrhaging wound on the tongue. “This was my last surgery at the hospital and it healed well.”

Daily battles

Although no post treatment was required thereafter, Khoon Yong had to face the battle of another kind. “[One of the] side effects is my voice is not clear when I speak since my voice cord was removed,” he shares.

His meals are in liquid form – “like baby food” – that his wife blends down, and he has to be extra careful when swallowing to prevent food from getting into his lungs instead. “[That] will cause serious lung infection,” shares Khoon Yong and adds that he further downs eight cans of milk every day to make sure he has a balanced diet.

“The other [side effect] is a hole in my left ear drum, which hasn’t been able to heal and has thus caused hearing loss and tinnitus,” he adds.

Voice, interrupted

Through all the five major surgeries, Khoon Yong has kept up his spirits – though lagging at times – and he has managed well while reminding himself that he has much to live for.

He has learned to manage the loss of much of his speech with simple ways. “If people do not understand what I say, I will write it on paper,” he shares. The most difficult time is in the office when he’s talking to a customer or user on the phone – he will then seek help from colleagues to speak to the customer instead.

He is most thankful to his wife for her care, encouragement and strong moral support. She’s his “voice” and main care giver.

5 ways to cope with cancer treatment

The radiotherapy treatments left Khoon Yong drained of energy and with physical difficulties. He shares:

  1. Eat a nutritious and well-balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit (citrus) and vegetables (dark-green and deep-yellow ones) for every meal and reduce the intake of red meat.
  2. Get plenty of rest as radiotherapy can bring on severe tiredness that lasts for several weeks after the treatment.
  3. Drink plenty of fluids and water every day – for e.g. “cooling” herbal teas and coconut juice are good for controlling body heat that can cause headache and fever.
  4. Take good care of the skin around the treatment area – it’s more sensitive – and always apply lotion to soothe.
  5. Do not walk under the sun from 10am to 2pm and always use an umbrella to block direct sunlight on the head and neck.
Fact Sheet on Poh Khoon Yong
Personal data :Age 57, married with 2 children
Occupation :IT assistant manager at an institute of higher learning
Hobbies :Photography, music and visiting the library
Little-known fact :Would love to visit Europe

​What are your top 3 tips for living with nose and mouth cancer?​

  1. ​​Lifestyle changes are inevitable

    Learn to accept it and aim to eat more healthily and exercise. For e.g. walking barefoot on grass has health benefits. So does yoga and standing exercises, which are perfect for boosting one’s health.

  2. Stay positive

    Live, love and enjoy life each and every day, and a sense of humour is necessary. I have to be positive and believe that the worse would soon be over.

  3. Be appreciative

    I am blessed as I have the help and support of family members especially my wife, colleagues and friends. Get rid of emotional baggage – save your energy for more useful purposes. Do not live in fear; I have the freedom to do anything, without the fear of losing something.​

Ref: Q15