Jim Valvano was only 47 years old when he passed away after a year-long battle against metastatic adenocarcinoma, a cancer so virulent that it had ravaged his hips, legs and back. The former North Carolina State University basketball coach may not have lived for very long but what he lacked in time, he definitely made up for it in impact. Twenty two years have passed since his death but still many remember and continue to be inspired by his courage, perseverance and ever-positive outlook on life.
Many people the world over can relate to Jim’s story. Debbie Wong is one of them. Like Jim, she has cancer. And like Jim, she is not one to back down in the face of adversity – even if said adversity sees her having to deal with the harsh side effects of cancer treatment. Asked about how she copes with the side effects, she says, “I take every day as it comes and accept whatever problems that come my way – be it body aches, sore fingers, diarrhoea, ulcers or surgical scars. I always remind myself to not allow these complications to affect my daily life. I strive to live my life as fully as I can.”
The calm before the storm
For Debbie, life before her breast cancer diagnosis was pretty normal. “Like many women, I juggled between work (as a financial advisor) and family life. It was about meeting deadlines, ferrying my son, Lucas around for his school and extra-curricular activities, cooking family dinners – you know, the hectic life of a typical working mum.” But as busy as her life already was, Debbie would always make time for exercise. “I love the outdoors so I’m always up for activities like traveling and cycling.” In fact, it was during one of her cycling trips when she had a fall – an incident which eventually led to her discovering that she had breast cancer.
“After the fall, I sustained a number of wounds and bruises so I had to constantly monitor them. One day when I was checking on my bruises, I found a lump in my left breast. Initially, I thought it was a haematoma (a form of blood clot).” But it wasn’t. “It was a tumour – and it was malignant.”
A mother’s courage
“I was disappointed and shocked by the diagnosis. Never in my life did I think this would happen to me, especially since my family had no previous record of cancer,” Debbie recounts. “For weeks, I cried because I couldn’t accept the fact. However, I’d always put up a brave front because I didn’t want my loved ones – particularly, Lucas – to worry. I told him about my diagnosis but he didn’t respond to the news well so I didn’t want to scare him any further.”
Gradually, Debbie came to terms with her diagnosis – Lucas being a huge deciding factor. “I want my son to accept the fact that I have cancer. But for him to do that, it struck me that I first needed to accept it myself.”
An uphill battle
As determined as Debbie was in facing her fears, she soon realized that her diagnosis was just the beginning of her obstacles. “I was started on chemotherapy soon after my diagnosis. Initially, things weren’t so bad. I tried focusing on my work and daily activities in order not to have to think about my treatment and its side effects. On some days, I’d experience body aches but I did my best to bear the pain.” However, the side effects soon took a turn for the worse.
“I began losing my hair after my third week of chemo. When my hair loss became increasingly severe, I was overwhelmed by depression. Each time I cleaned my bed, I’d break down in tears when I saw clumps of my own hair on the sheets. I then tried not touching my hair for a while with hopes that my hair would cease to fall,” she divulges. But her efforts were to no avail. “Two weeks later, I gave up and decided to shave all my hair off.” That turned out to be one of the best choices of her life.
Facing up to cancer
Looking back, the shave was a turning point of sorts for Debbie. “I felt much better after shaving my head. I began accepting the fact that I was a cancer patient. I also accepted that I was undergoing treatment and that it had affected – and would continue to affect – my body.”
“The first week after shaving my hair off, my friends and I went shopping for wigs, hats, caps and bandannas so I could cover up my baldness. I managed to buy a few bandannas and a nice hat but after wearing them for several weeks, I came to the decision not to cover my head unless I was cold.” When asked what brought about her decision, she says, “I prefer to go around bald than covering my head up. I choose to face the fact that I am bald. I don’t want to hide or shy away from myself and others. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself anymore.”
Bold & beautiful
Debbie has come a long way from the woman she was before. Once depressed and unable to face her fears, she is now able to freely speak up about her condition – even to strangers. “I’ve started opening up to people. I tell them that I have breast cancer and that I’m bald. With that, actually came body confidence. I now feel good about how I look. I just tell myself not to mind what others think of me – even if they stare at me.” She also encourages fellow breast cancer patients not to give up. “Don’t hide your baldness or scars. You should be proud of all that you’ve gone through. Be confident and comfortable with how you look.”
Debbie has now resumed her daily activities despite still being on treatment. “I’m still undergoing chemo. Once I’m done with my six chemo sessions and if all goes well, I will take a one-month break before starting on radiotherapy. That should take up four to eight weeks, Mondays to Fridays. I hope to have these treatments done before Christmas this year. After radiotherapy, I will be started on medication for five to ten years depending on how my body reacts to the drugs,” she explains.
“There will be side effects for sure but I’m not going to sit at home and wait for them to appear. I’m going to be active every single day. I’ll continue to work and do sports. I won’t restrict myself from hanging out with my friends and family. I want to show Lucas that I am alright and I will recover from cancer. I want to battle cancer gracefully. Life goes on and I’ll not let cancer take over my life.”