My mother, my hero.

She is the inspiration for my obsession with integrative cancer care and health advocacy.

My own 'cancer story' began in 1998 while I was living in New York City. At the time, my 62-year-old mother, who lived in Malaysia, was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. After hearing her diagnosis, I decided to return home to be with her, in 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 two more surgeries to remove more tumours in 2001 and 2004). It was revealed that she had an increased risk of familial bowel cancer, as her mother had previously passed from the same cancer. 

After every cancer treatment was completed, she was a model patient. She had her regular oncologist follow-ups, took the various tests required and cheerfully had a colonoscopy annually. At every opportunity, I would ask her oncologist what else we could or should be doing to lower her risk of reoccurrence. The answer was always the same - eat well, exercise and be happy. It was said without the offering of any specific care plan, which is quite typical advice from many conventional medicine practitioners, even to this day.

My mother, my hero. Happy to be home after her 2020 mastectomy surgery.
In 2002 I started working for a clinical research organisation located in Singapore that specialised in conducting global clinical trials. It was here that I was able to complete research that I could take to her oncologist, including research on treatment options, and which tests she should be getting but wasn’t. 

While I value and appreciate the scientific research processes for drug development and medical intervention, western medicine is strongly driven by reductive specialisations at the expense of treating the whole person. 

The period after cancer treatment is the most crucial - it is when the patient's healing should begin. This is often the weakest link in the western medicine treatment paradigm when each patient is left on their own until the next specialist follow-up visit or test.

I began exploring other avenues beyond conventional cancer care which eventually led me to study Chinese Medicine in Melbourne, Australia. After mum's third surgery in 2004, I introduced her to the practice of Chinese Medicine and acupuncture to help her cope post-surgery and restore her strength from the long-term effects of her disease. I also prescribed her targeted supplements to revitalise her energy levels, amended her diet to lower the risk of reoccurrence, and encouraged her to move her body with daily walks and simple qigong exercises. By adopting this integrated cancer care approach, she thrived. She became engaged in her healthcare by eating better, moving better and embracing her life with family, friends and her community.

In February 2020, she found a lump in her right breast, which was later diagnosed as a hormone-sensitive (ER/PR-positive) breast cancer. It was unrelated to her previous colon cancer. A mastectomy was performed two weeks later and thankfully she was discharged just before Malaysia went into its nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. 

She found her recovery to be more challenging this time. Not only was she in her mid-80s, but she also developed a heart condition that was exacerbated by recent surgery and treatment. And of course, navigating the challenges of pandemic restrictions. Except for her cardiologist and oncologist appointments, for 18 months she rarely left the house. She missed rehab physiotherapy, walks in her favourite park and limited social interaction. 

By early 2022, almost 2 years after her breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy, my mother is confident once again. She has resumed most of her previous daily routine, albeit at a slower pace.

My 85-year-old mum the day after her mastectomy, 2 March 2020.

My mother’s 24-year cancer journey has taught me many things, as I chart my path as an integrative oncology practitioner 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 patients, knowing what it means to them and their families to have a passionate advocate navigating the journey together. To trust science to target 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.

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