My own “cancer story” began in 1998 while I was living in New York City. My then 62-year-old mother
was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer so I decided to return home to Malaysia to spend what I
thought would be her last months. To everyone’s relief, she gradually recovered after her surgery and
chemotherapy, although she would go on to have 2 more surgeries to remove more tumours in 2001
and 2004. We discovered that she had an increased risk of familial bowel cancer as her own mother (my
maternal grandmother) had previously succumbed to the same cancer. After every cancer treatment was completed, she had regular follow-ups with her oncologist, took her various tests, and cheerfully got her colonoscopy done annually. At every opportunity I would ask her oncologist what we should do to lower her risk of cancer recurrence and the answer was always the same – eat well, exercise and be happy, without offering any specific care plan, which is quite typical advice from many conventional medicine practitioners even to this day.
By 2002 I had started working for a clinical research organisation in Singapore that specialised in running global clinical trials. So I was able to do the research that I could take to her oncologist, discussed her treatments options, and which tests she should be getting and wasn’t. While I value the scientific research process in the development of a drug or a medical intervention, western medicine is strongly driven by reductive specialisations at the expense of treating the whole person. The period after cancer treatment is when the healing should begin, but this is the weakest link in the western medicine treatment paradigm when each patient is left on her own until the next specialist follow-up visits and tests.
Gradually I began to explore other avenues beyond conventional cancer care that eventually led me to study Chinese Medicine in Melbourne, Australia. So after her third colon cancer surgery in 2004, I introduced mom to Chinese Medicine and acupuncture to help her cope with her surgery and to restore her strength from the long term effects of her multiple cancer surgeries and treatments. I also prescribed targeted supplements to revitalise her energy, amended her diet specifically to lower her risk of colon cancer recurrence, and got her walking and doing simple qigong exercises. For the last 16 years she had really thrived, becoming engaged in her own healthcare by eating better, moving better, embracing her life with her family and within her community.
In Feb 2020, she found a lump in her right breast which was later diagnosed as a hormone-sensitive (ER/PR-positive) breast cancer, unrelated to her previous colon cancer. A mastectomy was performed two weeks later, and thankfully she was discharged for home just before Malaysia went into its nation-wide COVID-19 lockdown. Now in her mid-80s, she was supercharged at being an active part of her own recovery, sitting up the day after her surgery, joking with her surgeon and eager to start her rehab exercise as soon as possible.
Her recovery this time had been more challenging not just because of her age, a heart condition exacerbated by her recent cancer surgery and treatment but also due to COVID-19 restrictions. Except for her cardiologist and cancer specialist follow-ups, for 18 months she rarely left the house and missed out on her rehab physiotherapy, walks in her favourite park, and there was very little social interaction with her own circle of friends who are all in their 80's and are vulnerable to COVID19. Yet she is one of the “lucky” ones, as she has family living under the same roof to look after her. By early 2022, almost 2 years after her breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy, my mother is confident once again and gone back to resuming most of her previous daily routine, albeit at a slower pace.
My mother’s 24-year cancer journey has taught me many things over the years, as I chart on my own path as an integrative cancer coach and advocate. No doubt she is one tough cookie (she’s outlived her first cancer surgeon), and has shown remarkable grace and resilience in her handling of a persistent
adversary within her body. She has inspired me to do better every day to help my own patients, knowing what it means to them and their family to have a passionate advocate on their team throughout the journey. To trust science to target the cancer but just as importantly, to harness the powers of natural medicine to nourish the body and mind. Most of all, she has taught me EMPOWERMENT – she has transformed from being a patient who was once fearful of her cancer diagnosis to a woman who feels empowered with the knowledge that healing is always possible, even when sometimes curing is not.