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Cancer Information

Issue 15 - Voice of Hope

Issue 15 - Voice of Hope

63 year old Sylvia Khoh, who was diagnosed with Stage 1 Nasopharyngeal Cancer (NPC) in 2010 

In the flesh, Sylvia is immaculately dressed, her hair unfurling in soft coils, her face radiating a rosy glow. Looking a little over 50 years of age, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Sylvia turns 63 this year, as she chuckled and said that she gets this response from strangers all the time. Her secret to looking young? A positive mindset, and always remembering to smile. 

Sylvia's positive energy is infectious indeed. While most people her age look forward to enjoying their retirement, Sylvia proudly tells us that she loves her job; the empowerment it gives and the satisfaction it brings. A financial manager, Sylvia is presently into her sixteenth year at her job and has no plans of retirement in the near future. 

As Sylvia goes about her five-day work week, she also juggles her time between her hobby – singing, a passion she has had since she was young, and which she continued to grow after her friend encouraged her to pick-up pop music back in 2010. After enrolling into the class, her vocal coach discovered the unique tonality in her voice and propelled her towards opera instead. A Teochew, Sylvia had to learn the Cantonese dialect from scratch in order to master the trade. It was a challenge, but Sylvia dedicated herself to perfecting the enunciation of the dialect.

Sylvia performing opera

Sylvia's hard work and effort paid off and seven months into classes, she gave her first stage performance. Today, she is a seasoned opera singer who regularly performs at the China Cultural Centre, NAFA, Lee Foundation, Kreta Ayer People's Theatre and community centres. 

It would seem that Sylvia has it all – good looks, an established career, a raw talent and a close-knitted family. But there was a time when Sylvia thought she would lose her soprano and no longer be able to perform opera, and this is her story.

It was during the Chinese New Year of 2010, and festivities were running high. Sylvia had scheduled a line-up of performances but to her dismay, found herself unwell in between performances to the point that she was no longer able to reach the high notes. This affected Sylvia greatly, as singing was her life's passion. Suspecting nodules in her throat, she headed down to the ENT Department for a check.

Sylvia with her fellow volunteers at one of their volunteer events

The check proved her suspicions right, as soft nodules were discovered in her throat. But to her relief, her vocal chords were not affected. Thinking that her worst fears were allayed, Sylvia was in for a rude shock as her Doctor discovered two grained sized cancerous lumps at the back of her nose and diagnosed her with Stage 1 Nasopharyngeal Cancer (NPC). Sylvia's first thoughts were "why me?" and "how did this happen?", but she later accepted her diagnosis with calm and peace with the belief that her cancer was a sign from a higher calling for her to ruminate on her life. 

Sylvia and her close-knitted family. She has one son, and two daughters.

Sylvia took comfort in the fact that the disease was discovered early and the cancer was contained in her nose. Upon her Doctor’s advice, she started on radiation therapy. Sylvia underwent a total of 35 radiation sessions over a period of seven weeks. During this seven-week period, Sylvia went about her daily life, undergoing treatment in the morning, and heading back to work right after treatment. 

Her boss was exceptionally understanding during this period, constantly checking in on her well-being and granting her permission to take the day off if she felt unwell. And of course, Sylvia did not give up on singing. She continued with her biweekly singing classes and continued training her vocal chords. To Sylvia, all these served as a good distraction and busied her mind from worrying about the cancer.

Voice of Hope

Not long later, the side effects of treatment started kicking in – sore throats, loss of appetite, drastic weight loss. Sylvia, who is naturally petite, lost a total of 13kg, from her initial weight of 62kg to 49kg at her lowest. Her friends jokingly teased her by saying that she looked like a little girl from behind. Despite these, Sylvia took everything in her stride and kept her spirits up.

Sylvia, before the side effects of treatment kicked-in

She joined the NPC oneHeart Support Group and actively participated in talks and support group activities. Sylvia found the talks, conducted by professionals, especially useful in coping and managing with her condition and side effects. Through the support group, Sylvia also forged close bonds and friendships with the support group members whom she still meets up with regularly for social outings. An active person, Sylvia also kick started a monthly walk at the Botanic Gardens for the group to bond while keeping a healthy lifestyle. To keep the group in positive spirits, Sylvia makes it a point to prepare homecooked fare the day before to spur them on on the day of the walk. 

Sylvia and the members of the NPC oneHeart Support Group, at a Chinese New Year gathering at her house

After one year of treatment, Sylvia's scans turned up clear and the cancer was gone. Today, Sylvia has achieved remission and is a proud survivor of NPC. 

The cancer may be gone, but it has changed Sylvia's life in more ways than one. Before she was diagnosed, Sylvia focused her time and energy on herself and her family. But her cancer journey has taught her that there is more to life, and it includes caring for other people as well. Now, Sylvia gives back to the community by doing voluntary work such as coordinating haircut sessions for the old folk as well as cooking for them.

Sylvia at one of the community events

She feels her cancer journey has changed her for the better, and her vocal coach has encouraged fellow students to “learn from her spirit”. And what lies ahead? Sylvia hopes to continue doing more volunteer work, pursue her passion in opera, stay beautiful, and most importantly, stay happy. 

To fellow cancer patients and survivors, this is what Sylvia has to say: 

"Be positive, never submit yourself to the disease. Know there is always hope somewhere. Make sure you mix with the right people who can help you, but never wallow in self-pity. I find that sharing my experience with others in the support group has helped me learn from their experiences as well. 

Keep a healthy diet and lifestyle. For me, I make it a point to drink nourishing double-boiled soups every day. Root-based soups are particularly helpful for my recovery process as it helps build up my immune system to promote self-healing.  I try to abstain from red meat and heaty food, but consume more fish, vegetables and manuka honey to soothe my throat. Today, I have gained back half the weight I lost during treatment. 

I also meditate and practice qigong regularly, as this helps calm me down and increase my mindfulness. 

The journey after cancer is more important than the treatment itself. Always remember to fight the disease and defend against it or it will be easier for it to beat you." 


To learn more about NPC Cancer, click here.