BATTLING cancer is a journey full of emotional and physical struggles.
It is even more challenging for those diagnosed at an age when they are about to start a career or family.
When life seems full of promises and the future looks bright, dealing with cancer is the last thing that any young adult expects to face. Suddenly, their lives are thrown off balance. They have to shoulder extra challenges and deal with issues concerning their health and how it in turn affects their jobs, finances and family.
Living with cancer is a harsh reality to swallow but life must go on. For N. Lavania, 23, Yap Pak Ken, 30, and Wan Musfirah Aimi Wan Supian, 33, being diagnosed with cancer in the prime of their lives has taught them to live in the moment and appreciate every single day.
The trio have known each other for about a year through the Young Ambassador Support Group, a voluntary group initiated by patients (under 35 years old) who have gone to the National Cancer Society for education and support.
Lavania, from Taman Keramat, Kuala Lumpur, was born with a birth defect called imperforate anus (missing anal opening). She has been living with a colostomy bag attached to her abdomen since 16. It was during one of her routine checkups that her doctor saw a lump on her neck.
“The lump was the size of a golf ball and looked like an Adam’s apple. I thought nothing of it because it wasn’t painful. But after a thorough checkup, I was told that I had stage 2 thyroid cancer which had spread to the lymph nodes.
“At that time I was just 21 and had just got a job at a law firm,” says Lavania, a former public relations student at TAR College, Kuala Lumpur.
The news was a blow to her because she was unsure whether to inform her employer or not.
But she had to take leave for surgery and radiotherapy treatment so she had no choice but to inform her employer and eventually, she was asked to resign.
“My boyfriend also left me after I broke the news to him,” she says.
Lavania completed her treatment at Hospital Kuala Lumpur in December 2016. Now she spends about RM2,000 a month for medical expenses (both for colostomy and cancer) and dietary requirements.
Apart from some financial support from her family, she pays her bills from her income as a freelance photographer. She also cuts down on shopping and other expenses.
“The toughest thing to deal with is not being able to get a stable job. I don’t have the confidence to be honest about my health condition with potential employers because I know my chances will be slim. However, I am grateful that I can still work despite my illness,” says Lavania, who is the only daughter in her family.
“Despite these obstacles, I take things positively. From the day I was diagnosed, my life motto has been carpe diem or seize the day.
“My job now enables me to do just that. I love taking pictures and capturing people in their happy moments makes me happy and helps me forget my pain,” says Lavania, whodreams of becoming a renowned photographer one day.
LUCKY AND BLESSED
Yap was just a few days away from his 30th birthday on Feb 2 last year when he was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a common cancer in men.
“I have family members who are living with cancer or have succumbed to it, but I never thought that it could happen to me.
“I didn’t know how to react to the news. But I didn’t dwell on it for too long especially when I had just started a new job,” recalls Yap, who was barely three months into his new job as a personal financial consultant when he was diagnosed with the disease.
Yap went for his first chemotherapy in February followed by a second round of chemotherapy and radiotherapy in June. The treatments were gruelling and also cost almost RM200,000. But he was lucky because the bills were paid by his employer.
“I was also paid my salary while I went on leave for those treatments,” says the University of South Australia graduate.
These days, he spends about RM800 monthly, mainly on supplements or special oral hygiene products meant for people with this type of cancer. Overall, he says the expenses are still manageable.
What has cancer taught Yap?
“It has taught me not to take things for granted and to know my limits. I used to have a stressful life because it was hard to say no. Now I try to take things easy and set priorities. I’m focused on getting my career back on track and to achieve my dream of travelling around the world while I’m still working,” he says.
Wan Musfirah Aimi, fondly known as Aimi among family and friends, found out she had breast cancer at 30. She subsequently had a mastectomy and has been going for radiotherapy and hormone therapy for the past three years.
As a working mother and someone who has been an active her whole life, cancer has not slowed her down. It’s all about making adjustments in life.
“I was having the time of my life with my family and a promising career when I was diagnosed. It took me a while to accept my fate and I felt less of a woman after the mastectomy. But I pulled myself together eventually. It’s all about adapting and making life adjustments. Having strong support from family and friends helped me pull through,” says Aimi, who works as a bank executive.
Since the diagnosis, Aimi has to juggle her time between work, family and treatments.
“My schedule is hectic and I don’t have a maid to assist me with household chores. So I try to adjust my time accordingly and make the best of the situation.
As for treatments, she’s lucky that the timings are flexible and the hospital is near her office so she usually schedules her treatments during lunch break. Aimi had spent about RM300,000 so far. Her cancer-related expenses amount to almost RM8,000 monthly and mainly goes to supplements and specially-prepared organic meals.
She also spends about RM2,000 a year to buy post-mastectomy bras.
“I still have car and housing loans to pay off on top of my medical expenses. To top up my income, I used to work as a part-time personal shopper. Now I work part-time as a talent for commercials,” she says.
Aimi says her last treatment in August last year was not effective and her cancer has progressed to stage 4. She is scheduled for another round of treatments this month.
“I’m prepared for anything at this stage. What matters most is my own happiness,” says Aimi, who is active in advocating breast cancer awareness.
“I want to continue with my treatments and help other cancer patients get through their ordeal by sharing my experience. Most importantly, I just want to be happy with my husband and three boys and make every moment counts,” she adds.
RISING NUMBER OF CASES
THE increase in population and longer life span is contributing to the rise of cancer. In 2016, the Health Ministry reported that about 19,000 out of 100,000 Malaysians were suffering from cancer, with an estimate of one in four Malaysians developing cancer by 75.
The National Cancer Registry of Malaysia reported 103,507 new cancer cases in the country between 2007 and 2011.
Women are at a higher risk of cancer, with a ratio of male to female at 1:1.2. The five most common cancers among males are colorectal, lung, nasopharynx, lymphoma and prostate. Among females, the five most common cancers are breast, colorectal, cervix uteri, ovary and lung.
In some cancers, early detection and treatment can increase survival rates. However, the financial cost of treating the disease is significant and can be a burden not only to patients, but also their families and caretakers.
A 2012 study by the George Institute for Global Health called Asean Costs in Oncology highlighted that 45 per cent of cancer patients suffered from financial catastrophe a year after diagnosis.
THE Cancer Information Service of the National Cancer Society Malaysia is a national and multilingual free helpline that provides information about cancer to patients, their family and friends as well as the public and healthcare professionals.
Call 1-800-08-1000 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org