For many people, there is nothing worse than being diagnosed with a chronic illness such as cancer. They see it as the beginning of a terrible end, the moment when their lives begin to unravel along with all their hopes and dreams for the future. However, Susanna Wong strongly disagrees. The 53-year-old retiree says, “Yes, I was shocked when my doctor informed me that I had cancer. Yes, living with cancer is no easy feat. But cancer is not a death sentence.”
A sudden blow
“I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer when I was 45 years old. At that time, I was working as a purchaser at a private company. My life then only revolved around work, my then 15-year-old daughter and my ill husband. Aside than work and family, I didn’t have time for anything else,” Susanna remembers clearly.
Allowing us a glimpse into her family’s medical history, she says, “My father had prostate cancer. So, do two of my cousins. They have cancers of the breast and the uterus.” Despite the warning signs, she never expected she would one day share a similar fate. “Prior to my diagnosis, I would work for 10 hours every day. I slept late, had unhealthy dietary habits, led a sedentary lifestyle… Basically, I wasn’t living healthy.”
All this went on until one day when she felt pins and needles in one of her breasts. “At that point, I had often been feeling weak and tired for no particular reason but it was the pins and needles which prompted me to see my GP. He said there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with me but he did advise me to go for a mammogram as I was already above 40 years of age. So, I went.” And it was a good thing that she did.
“The mammogram showed an abnormal growth in my breast. I wanted to be sure so I sought a second opinion, which confirmed my worst fears. I had metastatic breast cancer,” she says. Recalling that fateful day, she says, “I was a mixture of emotions. I was shocked, sad and anxious. I was also very worried for my 15-year-old daughter.” But being the tough person she was, she did not wallow in worry for long. “I wanted to know how much chance I had of recovering so I fervently tried to find out as much as I could about breast cancer and my available treatment options.”
Determined to live
Not too long after her diagnosis, Susanna was started on treatment. “I underwent many treatments – surgery, radiotherapy, six cycles of chemotherapy, trastuzumab (for every three weeks for two years), tamoxifen, lapatinib, letrozole – you name it. I also took bisphosphonates to treat the high levels of calcium in my blood – an effect of the cancer.” To further compound matters, doctors found a tumour at the neck of her spine late last year. An operation soon followed the discovery. But an operation and numerous drugs later, Susanna remains undeterred.
“Cancer was a rude interruption in my life, but it made me stop and reflect on my life. It was time for me to prioritize and focus on myself. When it comes to meals, I now cook my own food, avoid deep-fried and spicy foods and moderate my meal portions. I also spend more time with my family, friends and of course, my new-found breast cancer survivor friends. I participate in various physical and therapeutic activities such as choir groups made up of my fellow survivors.” All this has no doubt done her a lot of good. “I’m more energetic. I feel alive again! I now look forward to each new day,” she enthuses.
While her cancer survivor ‘buddies’ (as she fondly calls them) have undoubtedly enriched her life, she couldn’t have endured as long as she has if it weren’t for her daughter and husband. “They are my main pillars. They motivate me, support me and give me the determination to continue with life-extending treatment. I live for them. My intrinsic motivation has always been to see my daughter succeed in academics and in life.”
‘Cancer isn’t a death sentence’
As Susanna has been so encouraged by the support she received from family and friends (both old and new), she now strives to offer her support to others. An example is her work with Together Against Cancer Association Malaysia (TAC).
“I first heard about TAC from my exercise support group. Then, I was invited for the launch of their book Elevating the Voice of Cancer Patients. I was impressed that TAC was voicing out the rights of people with cancer. That was what motivated me to be a part of TAC so I can too help by sharing with others how I try to gain access to life-extending cancer treatment in government hospitals. I hope that our voices will be heard and that more budget will be allocated for treatment for metastatic cancer patients like myself.”
When asked if she had any messages for fellow cancer patients like herself, she concludes, “I would like to tell those with advanced cancer that cancer isn’t a death sentence. There is life-extending treatment which can help you live longer – thereby, allowing you more time with your loved ones and granting you the opportunity to do the things you wish to do. For me, I want to live life. There’s so much that I want to do, see and experience.”