You crept your way into my life so sneakily. Your presence startled me and yet, it took me more than a fortnight to come to accept that this is a reality. I was careless, to begin with. You made your presence felt all this time but I did not take much notice and brushed you off as one of those aches and strains from the routines I did at the gym. How did I even get your attention and allowed you into my life?
A sneeze or a cough would send me crouching in pain. I had seen the doctor and each time, I was given some medication – codipront and prednisolone to treat the cough. I was told that it’s asthma was prescribed the nebulizer and an inhaler. With these medications, the cough would ease a little before coming back again. However, the pain that struck like bolts of lightning from the back down to my legs remained. For four months, the sensation on the soles of my foot felt weird. It was as if I was walking on a layer of foam. Numbing yet painful. “Could it be a slipped disc? Did I pull a muscle?” I asked myself. I had been doing some work-out at the gym every morning before heading to work and continued to do so despite the pain, thinking that it would go away with more stretches.
I finally decided to check out this back pain with Dr. Terence Tan from the Pain Relief Clinic. He had seen D on several occasions previously due to his bad shoulder. D fixed an appointment for me. I described the pain as grueling and he suggested that I might have a slipped disc in my lower spine, affecting my nerves, resulting in the pain and numbness in my legs. He ordered an MRI. It was my first MRI. He told me that I would experience loud noises but I would be given earplugs so that the process is more bearable. It was indeed very noisy in the MRI room. Cold and noisy. Halfway through, I was pushed out of the machine. “Finally, it’s done!”, I thought. Instead, the nurse told me that they needed to inject a colored solution so that the doctor could read the MRI more clearly.
Fifteen minutes later, I was out and D was walking towards me. I was about to check if Dr. Tan had informed him about the injection. I noticed that he looked somewhat off. He explained that Dr. Tan had ordered the injection and wanted to refer me to an oncologist immediately. For that brief moment, I could not recall what an oncologist does. “For what?” I asked. “He saw something on your spine,” D said. Then I remembered, an oncologist treat cancer patients.
“There is a mass on your sacrum bone. It is pressing on your nerves and that caused the pain and numbness on your back and legs,” Dr. Tan said. “I cannot tell what it is, but I will refer you to one of my classmates. He is one of the top oncologists and he will be able to give you better advice… it might be tuberculosis,” he tried to reassure D and I. For the first time in our many years together, D looked very worried. I was given an appointment to see Dr. Daniel Chan the next morning. I went to work as usual and applied for time off. I was at Dr. Chan’s clinic at 9 am and he arranged for a PET scan immediately. He told me that the MRI did not look good, but he did not rule out it might be tuberculosis. I went for my PET scan as scheduled and was done by 3 pm. I was hopeful that it is definitely a case of tuberculosis. I was more worried thinking about the repercussions – how tuberculosis will affect the people whom I worked with. As D and I were on our way to pick up the little one for her piano lessons, Dr. Chan called. He instructed me to head to Gleneagles Medical immediately to see a thoracic and cardiovascular specialist, Dr. Su Jang Wen. He warned that my heart was being compressed by quite a large volume of liquid and that it could fail anytime. So D dropped me off at Gleneagles and sent the little one for her piano lessons before coming back for me.
I went up to Dr. Su’s clinic. The doctors are good friends and had shared the MRI images via texts. Dr. Su looked at the images and then turned to me. “Is anyone with you?” he asked. I told him I came on my own and I am alright. “You have hundreds of nodules in your lungs and windpipe,” he said. “This is cancer. You have lung cancer,” he said. I was officially diagnosed with cancer – Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer on 7 July 2016. Cancer did not mean anything to me at that time. I was not scared. I listened to the different treatment possibilities. Dr. Su arranged for a surgery to drain the liquid around my heart and performed a biopsy. Reality only sank in when the pain from the surgery overwhelmed me. Every breath felt like a dagger piercing into my heart. Morphine was my best friend.
I was discharged and rested at home. The thing about resting at home was that it gave me time to think …. and google. I started googling about lung cancer and the survival rates – 4% survived past 5 years. “How much time do I have left?” I asked myself. Dr. Chan had refused to answer this question. I wish he would. Then I could at least plan what I want to do the rest of my remaining time. I could tick off my bucket list. These thoughts saddened me. I thought about not being around for my children’s graduation. Not around when they face BGR issues and needed to talk with me. Not being around when they feel unwell. Some days, these emotions cripple me and I will not be able to function. Some nights, I cry to myself while watching the children sleep. I missed the old me. This goes on, but the cycle becomes less frequent. I’ve learned to manage these negative emotions and have also come to realize that it is easier to find joy in this new me when I stop missing my old self.
Today is 30 Sept 2017. I just had my second PET scan. Iressa has done its job well. The tumors have shrunk. The back pain has become much more manageable. There’s no more numbness in my legs. It feels as though I have recovered. I am able to run and swim. The median efficacy period for Iressa is about 10 months before it stops working. It’s been 14 months for me. I am thankful for the past 14 months. Despite the periods of down, I am glad that I did not allow cancer to stop me from living the now. I continue to go to work, I continue to plan my travels – striking off some from the bucket list. I caught the northern lights in Tromso, rode a sled with the Huskies, hugged a koala bear, patted a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch, cycled in the countryside of Matsumoto. There is still so much more to do! My children and I are now planning for our year-end trip to Hokkaido again, as promised. Looking forward!