Issue 24 - You Will Never Walk Alone

63-year-old Helen (right), survivor of Multiple Myeloma and volunteer cooking instructor at the Singapore Cancer Society

 

Life has thrown 63-year-old Helen Wong a fair amount of lemons - a mother to three kids, she was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a rare type of blood cancer. Just as she embarked on her journey to recovery, she lost both her mother and husband to cancer shortly after. All these tribulations would probably have been enough to break any other person in the same situation; but through sheer grit and positivity, Helen managed to make lemonade out of her lemons, and this is her story.


Helen actively volunteers in the SCS, and participates in their programmes and activities regularly

Formerly a real estate agent, Helen led a hectic work and social life at the expense of her family and personal time. It was in 2007 when she started to experience intense pain in her bones and lower back. The pain was excruciating to the extent that she could not sit and walk properly, and her body felt like dead weight all the time. Helen consulted multiple doctors, but none of them could find out the cause of her pain, until one day she consulted a pain specialist who advised her to take a cancer blood test.

 

When the day came to collect her test results, Helen was alone, filled with worry and dread. When news of her Multiple Myeloma diagnosis broke, Helen broke down on the spot. Fear and helplessness consumed her thoughts. She had no idea what Multiple Myeloma was, except that it was a form of blood cancer. Next came denial - Why her? Why now? Her children had transitioned into adulthood and just when she thought she could start taking life a little easier, cancer had to get in the way. Furthermore, she had absolutely no idea how to cope, or fund her treatment. The news was too overwhelming for her, and she called her husband, sister and children to break the news to them.


Despite all the lemons life has thrown at her, Helen managed to make lemonade out of the lemons and live her life positively

When acceptance finally set-in, Helen found comfort in the silver lining – her positive prognosis. Her next step was to embark on treatment immediately. After seven cycles of chemotherapy with each session lasting for at least seven hours, Helen underwent an autologous stem cell transplant in 2008. The entire treatment process was not an easy one for Helen as the side-effects took their toll on her. She was constantly in pain, which affected her movement, sleep and appetite. She also felt nauseous all the time, and had to rely on a swivel chair to get around from place to place in the house.

 

But Helen is thankful that she was not alone. She had her husband and mother, who were her primary caregivers. She also actively participated in support groups where she found solace and support in fellow cancer patients, and gained confidence and positivity through the various support group sharing sessions and activities.


To Helen, support is a key component in getting through her cancer journey

Helen’s last treatment ended in 2015, and just when she thought life would get better from there on, she was dealt with another blow. Her mother was diagnosed with Lymphoma, another type of blood cancer. This time, Helen had to play the role of primary caregiver and support her mother through her journey. It was a difficult period, and Helen was fearful that the stress of caregiving would result in a relapse. Fortunately, she had the support of her husband, who helped relieve most of her stress. Unfortunately, two years later, Helen’s mother succumbed to the cancer. 

 

Helen took her mother’s death hard, as she considered her mother one of the closest people in her life. But even though she was at one of her lowest points, fate was not about to let up. In December 2015, Helen was dealt with yet another huge blow – her husband was diagnosed with terminal Lung Cancer. The news came as a complete shock to the couple as her husband had been healthy all along, and there were no signs or symptoms to suggest illness, much less terminal cancer.

 

Once again, Helen had to assume the role of primary caregiver and it felt like déjà vu, bringing back memories of caring for her late mother and her personal battle with the disease. Her husband’s prognosis was poor, but that did not stop them from giving treatment a shot. However, despite their efforts, Helen’s husband ultimately fell prey to the disease in June 2016, one month shy of his 70th birthday.

 

Helen with her close-knit support network

The back-to-back blows took their toll on Helen; she was emotionally and mentally traumatised to the extent of having to seek psychiatric treatment. The loss of both her closest family members felt worse than death itself, and she did not know how to carry on with life. Thankfully, she still had her three children, as well as her support group members, who kept her afloat during these difficult times, giving her hope and strength to face life bravely.

 

Helen spends most of her time engaging in activities with support group members, whom she refers to as her "family"

Like steel out of the furnace, Helen pulled herself up and emerged stronger than before. She found her purpose and calling – to provide support to fellow cancer patients so they too know that they are not alone in their journey, and will not despair. Having fought her own battles, nobody understands the importance of support better than Helen.


Knowing that there is a lack of awareness of Multiple Myeloma in Singapore, Helen started the Multiple Myeloma Support Group at the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore (NCIS). The support group conducts sharing sessions and educational talks frequently and connects with each other through Facebook. 



Helen has also been volunteering at the SCS as a cooking instructor for two years, teaching fellow cancer patients, survivors and caregivers how to prepare nutritional, fuss-free and affordable home-cooked meals

Helen is also actively involved in the Singapore Cancer Society (SCS), and is currently into her second year as a volunteer cooking instructor, conducting bi-weekly hands-on cooking classes to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers. She draws inspiration for the recipes from her daily home-cooked meals, making it a point to keep it nutritional, fuss-free and affordable. Her classes are mostly oversubscribed, and Helen finds joy and satisfaction knowing that she can offer some comfort to ease other patients’ journey with cancer.

 

Retired from her job three years ago, Helen has learnt to cherish the precious things in life – family. Sometimes, she sees her illness as a blessing as to her, as it has helped her reprioritise her life, and realise what is most important. Her condition is currently stable, and she comes back for follow-up consultations once every two months. Apart from spending her time volunteering at the SCS, Helen occupies herself by spending time with her new friends, the support group members, participating in Chinese tea appreciation and calligraphy classes, and preparing home-cooked meals.


Helen is indeed a true cancer warrior and fighter

 

To other cancer patients and survivors, Helen has this to say:

 

“Be positive. That is the first step to beating the disease. Join a support group, as only then will your cancer journey grow emotionally and nutritionally, followed by your health in general. Support is important as you know that you are not the only one going through this journey, and you will learn how to cope better in terms of diet and lifestyle.  Every person you know has something to share that is valuable.


Rather than stay at home and feel paranoid and upset about your condition, get out more and distract yourself with programmes and activities. Personally, I have developed numb legs (a side-effect from treatment), but I distract myself with activities every day so as not to mope about it at home. Cancer may change your lifestyle, but embrace your new lifestyle and cherish every day that you are alive.”



For more information about Multiple Myeloma, click here.