Issue 12 - Soaring Above Cancer

Deshi (pictured), a flight stewardess who was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) at 32 years old and now on the road to recovery

 

“During a flight to Yangon, one of the passengers told me I have the most amazing smile. This comment imprinted on me deeply and it’s the reason why I smile more these days.”


32 year old Deshi’s life was just taking flight. After five years, she had risen to the ranks of a leading stewardess at one of the top global Asian airlines and wedding plans were underway to the love of her life.

 

At 1.69m tall, Deshi is a head-turner. Slim, slender, sporting a pixie crop with Bambi doe-eyes, Deshi is strikingly beautiful. Unlike most girls who are drawn to the allure of a stewardess’ job, Deshi’s love for flying stems from her love of wanderlust, a passion she found instilled in her since she was a young girl.

 

It did not take long for Deshi to satisfy her hunger to travel the world. While studying for her Diploma, she took up a job as a travel agent familiarising herself with the traits of the travel industry before joining Qatar Airways as a stewardess after her graduation. During her tenure at Qatar Airways, Deshi fell in love and immersed herself in the rich and diverse culture of the Middle East, even picking up the Arabic language.

 

Two years later, in hopes of globetrotting other parts of the world, Deshi left to join a leading Asian airline and her eyes sparkled as she proudly exclaimed that she had already turned her wish into reality and  covered pretty much every destination on the globe.

 

But life as a stewardess is not all that glamourous, and as with any other job, Deshi shared that there were peaks and troughs, but her love for travel and meeting new people spurred her on. But alas, in an unfortunate twist of fate, Deshi plummeted to the lowest trough of her life last January, and this is her story.


Distress Call

The date was 25 January 2015, Deshi remembers clearly. She was on flight duty back from India and looking forward to a relaxed staycation with her boyfriend. But it was not meant to be. Upon seeing her, Deshi’s boyfriend noticed large bruises on her arms and insisted to get them checked at a hospital.

 

Deshi before she was diagnosed with AML

At first, Deshi did not think much of it. After all, the bruises did not cause her any pain and knocks and knacks were part of her job hazard, so she just went along with her boyfriend’s wishes. At the hospital, the initial prognosis was a suspected infection and Deshi was admitted for further tests.

 

After a series of blood tests, the Doctor delivered the final prognosis – Deshi had Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML). Deshi found herself in a state of shock and confusion. All she could muster was “huh?” when she heard the news. She was not sure what just hit her. She had just had her dinner, a McChicken meal from McDonald’s (which she did not expect would be her last fast food meal for a long time) and now she was told she had a form of blood cancer.

 

A Will to Live

The news hit her like a tsunami. A small wave of shock ran through her body as she smiled and hugged her boyfriend before hitting her hard, wave after wave, and she found herself breaking down in frenzied tears. Her mother was equally distraught, and collapsed after she heard the news.

 

Deshi was inconsolable. All she could think of was “what is this disease all about” and “how long do I have to live”. Her poor prognosis was of no comfort as she was told chemotherapy would not be enough to treat her disease and she would have to undergo a bone marrow transplant.

 

Despite her emotional trauma, Deshi’s will to live was strong. She told her Doctor, “Do whatever you need to do. I want to live. I don’t want to die”. Soon after, Deshi embarked on her treatment process and what followed next were a series of scans and needle insertions.


Deshi with her younger brother who was her pillar of support when she was hospitalised

Turbulent Times

In February, Deshi embarked on her chemotherapy treatments. During the first cycle, Deshi underwent chemotherapy about five times a week. Then the side effects kicked in – hair on her head and eyebrows started falling out, she experienced fevers, nausea, diarrhoea and even developed a tooth infection. But it all seemed worth it, as her cancer cells responded well to chemotherapy.


In March, she began her second cycle of chemotherapy. However, this time, the side effects hit her harder. Apart from the previous side effects Deshi experienced, she developed new side effects such as large ulcers, facial and lymph node swelling. It was a very trying time, as the second cycle lasted for 56 days, almost three times longer than the first cycle.

 

Deshi was at the lowest point of her life. Her self-esteem hit rock bottom. Usually image-conscious, Deshi found her loss of hair, skin darkening and facial swelling hard to accept. She also lost 10kg during this period, bringing her weight down to a mere 45kg. Her physical appearance took a toll on her mentally, triggering constant mood swings and bouts of frustration, which she took out on her boyfriend and nurses.


During treatment, Deshi lost 10kg and her weight dropped to a mere 45kg

It was a turbulent time for Deshi. She found herself breaking down into tears for the slightest reasons and she experienced pendulant mood swings ever so often. Despite bearing the brunt of her tantrums, her boyfriend continued to stick by her side, feeding her with three-square meals and constantly reassuring her that she looks beautiful, an act that really moved Deshi.

 

Deshi’s family was also her pillar of support; her parents and her brothers prayed and visited her daily, and her mother who works in a restaurant, brought her fresh food prepared by the chef every day.


As Deshi’s physical condition deteriorated brought about by a severe multi-drug resistant bacterial infection, she went under seven days’ worth of granulocyte infusion, a rare white cell infusion procedure, with white cells donated by her family and friends.

 

Deshi experienced facial swelling as part of the treatment side effects

A Miraculous Turn of Events

needed to undergo an emergency transplant with a survival rate of 40%. Despite the odds, Deshi was determined to beat it. She prepared herself mentally and emotionally for the transplant, clinging on to her hope and will to survive.

 

However, on the day that Deshi was due to sign on the documentations for the transplant, a miracle happened. Her blood count started increasing and she was allowed discharge to recuperate at home before her stem cell transplant. During this period, Deshi took it easy, started on a nutritional diet of homecooked food and researched thoroughly on her upcoming transplant process.


Deshi with a fellow Leukaemia cancer warrior

She found hope in likeminded cancer warriors who underwent similar transplants and went on to lead long healthy lives. In May, Deshi underwent her bone marrow transplant and today, she is currently into her sixth month of remission, free from the side-effects of the transplant and ready to return to work.


Soaring Above Cancer

This ordeal has opened Deshi’s eyes and she now appreciates her life more than ever. “I used to wake up every day feeling grumpy,” said Deshi, “but now I’ve learnt to treasure every day I’m alive”. Deshi’s newfound zeal for life is heartening, and she excitedly proclaimed that she cannot wait to get back to work.

 

Deshi, currently into her sixth month of remission, and her Doctor during her follow-up appointment on 13 January 2016

Deshi’s Manager told her to “come back and fly higher this time” and Deshi strongly clings on to these words, and is determined to soar above cancer, and live her life better than before.

 

To fellow cancer warriors, this is what Deshi has to say:


Deshi (in blue) with fellow young Leukaemia patients and survivors during a support group session

 

“Most importantly, know that cancer is definitely not a death sentence. It’s okay to reflect but you have to move forward and never look back. Leukaemia is a silent killer, and if you spot anything unusual in your body, do get it checked soonest. The Doctor told me that if I had sought treatment any later, my chances of survival would have been very low, and my life would have been a ticking time bomb.

 

I used to have a very toxic lifestyle; I partied once a week and was a heavy smoker and drinker. Looking back, perhaps this could have contributed to the disease so I urge everyone to lead a healthy lifestyle, and do things in moderation.

 

Don’t neglect the people around you and isolate yourself. It’s not going to help in your recovery. Be around people you love, speak to them and don’t bottle up your feelings or it will lower your morale. Always stay positive knowing that cancer is curable and is not the end.”


*Update on 5 August 2016


Deshi recently underwent a bone marrow transplant and her story has been featured in the local news. Read about it here: