“It all started with the coughs, which was thought to be nothing more than just a throat infection,” Hari recalls, “but my condition worsened and soon, I was coughing up blood, vomiting whenever I ate, and my weight plummeted from 66kg to 47kg in 4 months. That was when it became obvious something was wrong with me.” After 7 months, following visits to several doctors and a few misdiagnoses, Hari was introduced to a doctor who believed a biopsy should be in order.
When the medical procedure was brought up, Hari had already done his own research and was mentally prepared for the worst. Alas, Hari’s biopsy report showed that there were tumours affecting 65% of his lungs – he had lymphoma cancer. The disease was not caused by lifestyle factors or family history, but was attributed to excessive radiation exposure while he worked night shifts as an auxiliary police at a power plant for 6 months, after finishing his secondary school studies. Moreover, by the time he was diagnosed, the cancer had advanced to stage 4.
Journey towards Recovery
Despite the devastating news, Hari was not ready to give up. “I told the doctor I was absolutely ready to consider whatever options we have,” he recounts. Although Hari’s optimism did not waver, his family’s modest finances presented a big hurdle. “We exhausted all our savings in the 7-month period, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. By the time it was confirmed that I had cancer, we didn’t have much left,” says Hari. “The doctor decided that I needed both chemotherapy and radiotherapy. We needed at least RM80,000 just to start the chemo. So, we were at loss as to what to do.”
Fortunately, some of Hari’s friends are in contact with the media, and they offered to get the word out to people who will be able to aid him. On top of that, since he was a student leader at the university, many students took to social media to share the news of his illness.
Eventually, financial and moral support began pouring in. “It made me realise there are many good people out there. You just need to reach out and let them help,” Hari remembers. But monetary aid wasn’t the only blessing that came his way. “I was contacted by people who introduced me to a lot of alternative healing approaches that could supplement the doctor’s advice and conventional treatment. I kept an open mind and was willing to try anything. I was also fortunate to be donated some organic vegetables, which I would consume raw by blending them into juices.”
To make the most of the time he had while undergoing treatment, Hari devoted himself to learning all he could about health and well-being. “I learnt many practices like yoga, breathing exercises, juicing, and making dietary changes,” he says.
Those disciplines he had adopted, according to Hari, armed him with the resilience to cope with the treatment process. “For me, chemotherapy was very harsh to go through. My athletic background gave me a good start, but I wasn’t able to do much exercise at that time, so yoga kept me fit enough to go through each session. I was on a 21-day cycle for my chemo, and was put on the highest dose. So, in between each treatment, I would meditate, do yoga, go for walks, learn to breathe deeply, and eat raw vegetables every day,” he says.
One and a half years later, after six rounds of chemotherapy and 22 radiotherapy sessions – also having graduated from university in the midst of it – Hari’s doctor declared that he was cancer-free.
A Fresh Start
During his recovery, Hari began sharing his knowledge with other patients and their families who approached him through social media for advice. He was also researching various cancer support organisations in the country and abroad, “I feel obligated to the people who helped. I can’t pay them back the money they donated for my treatment, but I have valuable experience to share. It made me think about what I can do to better educate the public about cancer.” Hari further explained that he was compelled to talk about his recovery journey, not to brand himself an expert, but to serve as a source of motivation, “I tell my story as an example, because I want cancer patients to believe that they can overcome cancer.”
His research eventually led him to become a volunteer for the National Cancer Council Malaysia (MAKNA) after he recovered. With guidance from MAKNA, Hari began fine-tuning his knowledge and tips, so that he can present them in a professional manner. He then went on to get himself certified as a corporate trainer and public speaker, and started giving presentations at various places where his experience with cancer was required.
Meanwhile, Hari was also getting himself ready to enter the workforce. However, job hunting proved to be challenging, as having survived a terminal illness often marks one as a potential liability to an employer. “From a productivity standpoint, I don’t blame the corporate world. I am fortunate to be free of any adverse effects from my treatment. Some patients do continue to suffer from the side effects of chemotherapy where their kidneys are affected and they have to go for weekly dialysis,” he explains.
In October 2015, after sending out a number of applications and attending interviews, Hari was invited to attend the #AirAsiaMAKNA cheque presentation event. During the Q&A session, he raised a question to Aireen Omar, CEO of AirAsia Berhad, asking about the company’s role in setting an example in the corporate world for hiring cancer patients without prejudice. He says, “I was asking on behalf of all young cancer survivors struggling to find work in the competitive job market. That was when Aireen said a candidate’s medical history is not a problem in her organization. What matters is they are willing to work hard, be competitive and perform, despite all their baggage.”
Hari was then invited to apply like any other candidates, and was shortlisted for an interview based entirely on his qualifications, not out of sympathy. He managed to prove himself and landed a job as an executive at the corporate quality and assurance department of AirAsia X Berhad. It was an achievement he recounted with pride, “It was very satisfying because I was hired based entirely on merit and that was what I needed – to be acknowledged for my capabilities.”
A Period of Self-Realization
Even with a corporate job, Hari makes no excuse to lead a health-conscious lifestyle, with a daily routine that still incorporates meditation, yoga, vigorous exercise, a balanced diet and juicing. Every 2 months, he meets his doctor for a check up. He also continues to make time for volunteer work with MAKNA, giving talks to raise awareness about the importance of good health, and meeting cancer patients to motivate them on the road to recovery.
Looking back at his journey, Hari prefers to think of his brush with cancer as an experience that led to a fresh outlook on life, instead of an ordeal not to be spoken of again. “I was given the privilege of time to understand many things,” Hari reminisces, “If not, I would still be the same person who lives life on the fast lane while seeking instant gratification.” Furthermore, it changed his perspective about what it means to be healthy. ”You can’t really consider yourself healthy just because you workout every day to build a muscular body. Good health must start inwards. I now believe in focusing on strengthening the mind through exercise, and a good physique will take shape to compliment what’s inside,” he elaborates.
Like most cancer survivors, Hari is well aware of a possible relapse in the future, but refuses to let the risk factor put him in a state of fear. “I believe in resuming a normal life and going back to the activities I enjoy. Stressing about getting sick again would only serve as a precursor to actual diseases. Life is meant to be lived, but we should always take a step back to observe and reflect on ourselves,” he says.