What is it like to be at the prime of your life and told you only have one year to live?
52 year old Stephen Giam knows the answer to that question, and this is his story.
Most of us are familiar with that cliché television drama series plot that sets its backdrop against a single-parent child who goes astray while growing up, drops out of school, before reaching a turning point that snaps him out of his delinquency and changes him into a better man who later leads the life he once thought he could only dream of, eventually living happily ever after.
Cliché as it may sound, this is no television drama. This is Stephen's life story and this is how it starts. Growing up in a single-parent family with only his mother to care for him, Stephen's path strayed and he ended up dropping out of school at age 15, a year before completing his 'O' Levels. To earn his own keep, Stephen started working at a fast food restaurant where he excelled at his job, earning himself the title of the youngest crew trainer who quickly climbed to the ranks of Supervisor.
Three years later, like every other 18 year old Singaporean boy who has come of age, the time came for Stephen to do his national duty and he went on to serve his country for two years under the police force. Stephen would go on to enjoy his two-year stint at the police force where he developed a profound passion and respect for our men in blue as he found the job very relatable with lots of learning opportunities, which gave him deep insight into the reality of life as well as developed his interpersonal skills.
It was then that Stephen decided that this was a job he wanted for life. He decided to sign-on to the police force but to his dismay, was turned down due to his lack of qualifications. This marked the turning point in Stephen's life and spurred him to continue pursuing his education. He went on a fast-track course to complete his 'O' levels, then a Diploma in Marketing, before getting his Degree and pursuing his Masters in Business Administration at the University of Leicester at the young age of 28, all while juggling various part-time jobs.
Stephen's determination and hard work paid off, and upon completing his studies, progressed swiftly in his career, dabbling in management, digital recruitment and project planning before establishing his own start-up – Step Up International, a retail and trade marketing consultancy firm in 2004.
Stephen's career required him to travel often, but the father of four teenage children tried his best to ensure that he stayed close to his kids via constant calls and gifts from his overseas trips. It seemed as though Stephen was living the dream – he was now a high-flyer with a supportive family, living the life he never dreamed he could have.
Dealt with a bad Hand of Cards
But life is like a game of cards, and sometimes, it may deal us with a bad hand. In Stephen's case, his good luck seemed to have run out when he started experiencing some abnormalities in his body. It was December 2015 when Stephen noticed that his skin and eye whites were turning a tinge of yellow. His urine was an unusual shade of copper and he started experiencing severe gastric pain.
At first, Stephen did not think much of these symptoms. After all, he had generally been in good health despite being a heavy smoker and drinker, which he compensated via his active lifestyle which included playing squash, scuba diving and swimming. Stephen tried to brush the symptoms off by adopting a healthier diet. Unfortunately, the gastric pains became unbearable and he finally decided to get them checked by a Doctor.
Stephen underwent a scope and a scan, and some constriction was found in his bile duct. Further tests were conducted, including a stent procedure, which eventually found Stephen diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, a rare type of cancer which is diagnosed in less than hundred Singaporeans each year. When Stephen heard the news, he was taken aback, but still remained composed and immediately decided to proceed with the next line of treatment –surgery.
"One Year to Live"
During the surgery, Stephen's fears were confirmed. It was found that the cancer had spread and he was suffering from Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer with a prognosis of one year to live. His gall bladder had also been removed during surgery to ensure Stephen would be able to continue with chemotherapy.
When Stephen heard the news, his world came crashing down. He was overwhelmed with fear and worry of the physical pain that was to come with the disease and he was forced to come to terms with his biggest fear – the impending close of his life. It was only through counselling and support that Stephen calmed down and accepted his fate with the comfort that the physical pain can be managed with the help of medication, and that he could still continue to live life normally.
However, knowing that the Chinese New Year was just around the corner, Stephen kept the news from his family so they could all enjoy their reunion dinner together. It was only one month later that Stephen decided to break the news to them. His family was shocked but accepted the news calmly.
Living With Cancer
During the first few months after he was diagnosed, Stephen spent most of his time warded in the hospital as he did not wish to burden his family with caring for him or his pain. It was only within the walls of the hospital that Stephen was not afraid to cry when he felt pain, and it was his source of release. His wife and children visited him regularly at the hospital, bringing him food and spending time with him.
Master of His Fate
Despite living with a ticking time bomb, Stephen remains optimistic and happy-go-lucky about his situation. He considers himself luckier than so many other people, especially those who die from sudden death. Stephen takes comfort in the fact that he still has the time to plan out the rest of his life properly, and bring closure to unsettled matters.
For now, Stephen's priority is his family and he hopes to bond his family closer together, and to furnish the house for them nicely while he is still around. Stephen also hopes to publish a book on his personal journey with cancer, to share tips on how to cope with the close of life such as coping mechanisms, insurance, will and financial planning.
Today, Stephen continues to live positively with cancer and his treatment regime includes chemotherapy and a cocktail of oral medication. The side effects are minor, fatigue and heightened body sensitivity to temperature changes, and he is happy he still has his crop of hair. On days that he feels better, he goes out for walks and even meets up with his friends occasionally for movies.
Stephen says the experience has made him realign his priorities. Once focused on his career, Stephen has learnt to put his family first, and this has drawn him closer to his faith. An avid traveller, Stephen hopes to be able to see the Northern Lights, visit rural China and even take a cruise to Alaska while he still can. He also hopes to give back to the community by visiting orphanages in Thailand.
It is hard to believe the positivity of someone who has been slapped with the harsh reality of a mere 365 days to live, but Stephen is testament to that, and this is his advice to those who are in the same situation as him:
"The rule of the 3 Be(s)":
#1 – Be Responsible- Always look at the bright side of things, regardless of our circumstance, there is still a lot we can do to make this world a better place. Don't just work on bettering your own relationships, but also, help to improve the lives and relationships of others.
#2 – Be Your Own Chef – We bear the consequences of our actions. In my case, I have given up smoking and drinking, and have included more vegetables in my diet. It may be hard initially, but it gets easier with time. Our body's ability to adapt is amazing! Eat what you think is good for your body and don't get too influenced by what others say. If you're not sure what is good for you, be sure to check with your medical team.
#3 – Be Your Own Doctor – Follow your doctors' advice when it comes to medication. Don't listen too much to what others advise especially if they are not healthcare professionals and be wary of "miracle cures" from strange or unknown sources.
Finally, cherish the time you have. If you still have mobility, make time to out with your friends. It's your choice to enjoy or waste the time you have.
There comes a time when we all must say goodbye to life, so live a life worth living for and become the master of your own fate!"