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Josephine Fong, now 46, is a two time cancer survivor

“I was only 42 when my doctor told me I had cancer… again. I’d been struck with the disease a decade before and I couldn’t believe I’d be unlucky enough to get it a second time.

A million whys went through my mind – why me? Why again? No one else in my family had cancer.

It was a low period in my life. And yet, what surprises most people today is how death never once crossed my mind throughout my ordeal – even though I did, at one point, come dangerously close to dying.

Perhaps it’s because I’m optimistic. I refused to let the thought of dying enter my mind and I willed myself to live. Even at my weakest, I never quite believed that my time was up. 

The first time

My first brush with cancer was in 2001. I went to my GP after discovering a painless fist-sized bump on my left thigh, weeks before my wedding. I thought it was a bruise, but when it didn’t go away, I saw a specialist to get a biopsy done.

I still remember getting a call two weeks later confirming that I had sarcoma, a rare cancer of the soft tissue. It’s a condition that can develop into bone cancer if untreated. The mysterious lump I had? A second-stage tumour.

The call came just a day after my wedding – the celebrations had pushed my health woes out of my mind – and it hit me hard. Like me, my husband was shocked and wept over the news.

Everything happened so fast. The day after that call, I was warded. Four days later, I underwent an operation to remove the tumour, and 25cm of flesh and muscle around it.

Over the next few months, I had radiation treatment. I was also hobbling around on crutches and had to wear a leg support (similar to a brace). I couldn’t even bend my knee without feeling excruciating pain. It was hard not to feel frustrated when even the simplest tasks eluded me – for instance, I had to sit on a chair when showering so I wouldn’t slip. Once, climbing onto a stool to get something on a shelf, I fell and fractured my kneecap.

It took four to five months of physiotherapy before I was able to walk normally again. Life went back to normal. I’d beaten cancer… or so I thought.

A mysterious pain

Nine years later, in 2010, I had just resigned from my job and was about to start a new accounting job. While I was at home enjoying my short break between jobs, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my lower back, like knives stabbing me repeatedly. I couldn’t even sit down, so I curled up in bed, unable to move.

My husband rushed me to the hospital. There, a spine specialist thought it might be a slipped disc and sent me home. The medication I was given reduced the agony to a dull ache, but, within two days, the piercing pain was back.

This time, I saw an oncologist, who ran some tests, including a bone scan. The second bombshell dropped soon after – he told me I might have cancer again.

I was so stunned that my mind blanked out. In a strange way, this helped me keep calm. What devastated me more than the news itself was having to be warded again – it meant saying goodbye to my only child Ryan, who was then six. I told him that mummy had to go away for a while. He was too young to understand exactly what was going on, but he knew I was sick. I gave him a tight hug and a kiss before we parted.

I underwent a bone marrow extraction and tests showed that I had acute leukaemia. I would need a bone marrow transplant as soon as possible and begin chemotherapy immediately. The doctors gave me a 50-50 chance of survival.

For days, I was in a daze, alternating between tears and numbness. My husband broke down at the devastating news.

Oddly enough, having had cancer before gave me a strength of sorts. Quickly, my optimistic side surfaced and I told myself that I was going to get through this.

I comforted my husband and told him not to worry. I was going to be fine.

My battle

My first two nights on the chemotherapy programme were unbearable. The steroids I was taking to make the treatment more eff ective and to reduce the chances of an allergic reaction kept me awake. I was on the brink of exhaustion – I was too weak even to get out of bed – and yet I couldn’t sleep. After two days, I begged to be taken off the steroids; thankfully, the doctor agreed.

After three weeks, I could finally go home. I was looking forward to seeing my son. He wasn’t allowed to visit me during chemotherapy, so our only contact had been through phone or video chats. But, when I saw him at the door, my heart sank because he looked scared and confused by my appearance – I was bald and haggard from the chemo. But it only lasted a moment. After I called out to him, he came over to hug and kiss me, then started chattering about his day.

A week later, I was readmitted for another round of chemotherapy. This cycle – three weeks in the hospital, one week at home – continued for about six months. During that time, my weight went from 75kg to 64kg. I had no desire for food, but I forced myself to eat. The more I ate, the faster I would recover and then I could go home to see Ryan, I told myself.

In December 2010, five months after I was first admitted, I contracted a bacterial and viral infection during chemotherapy and was sent to the Intensive Care Unit. It was especially dangerous because my immune system was already down – a simple infection could kill me. My blood pressure plummeted. I had a very high fever and fainted once. I couldn’t eat or get out of bed, and I felt cold all the time. I wasn’t allowed any visitors. I could only smile and wave at my family members through the little window in the door of my hospital room. Doctors later told me that I almost died.

I slept all the time, waking up only to eat. I felt alone. I was tired of fighting. It was the lowest point in my journey, but I steeled myself – I had to be home for Christmas.

During these harrowing six months, my family were the angels in my life. My husband, who was working in product marketing at the time, ran the household. My mother brought me home-cooked soup and vegetables – I couldn’t stand the bland hospital food anymore – and kept me company during the day. My mother-in-law had just recovered from a kidney operation herself, yet she helped to look after Ryan while my husband was at work.

False hopes and risks

During the course of my chemotherapy, the doctors found three matches in the bone marrow donor registry. I was ecstatic – the odds of finding a match are one in 20,000. Unfortunately, all of them declined to donate. [Editor’s note: We understand that there are cases in which registered donors choose not to donate for personal reasons – for instance, they prefer to donate only to friends or family.]

I was crestfallen, but I told myself that moping wasn’t going to help. But, the truth was, I was running out of time. According to the doctors, it would be ideal to have a transplant after five rounds of chemotherapy. After that, my body would get weaker and my chances of survival would be slimmer.

Thankfully, the doctors found a willing donor in Taiwan. I was overjoyed. He wasn’t a complete match and doctors put the success rate of the transplant at 45 per cent – not fantastic, but good enough for me. I couldn’t wait any longer.

I consider April 28, 2011, the date of the transplant, my second birthday. The operation went smoothly. I was finally well.

Closing the chapter

Because my immune system was still weak after the transplant, I avoided crowded places and eating out for several months. I stayed home most of the time and cooked my own meals.

But I got better. Last September, I was able to make a trip to Taiwan to meet my donor at an event organised by the bone marrow donor registry over there. I burst into tears when I met the man who had given me a new lease of life. He was in his early 30s and was also a parent. I took his hand and, in a choked voice, thanked him for saving my life. To show my appreciation, I gave him a watch – after all, he had given me the precious gift of time.

It was a brief meeting, but he told me he was really touched by what my son had written in a card I’d sent him prior to the transplant. In it, Ryan had written “Thank you for saving my mummy” in Mandarin.

Life has gone back to normal now and I’ve returned to my job after nine months of unpaid leave. I’m more grateful these days. Each morning, when I wake up, I whisper a thank you for being alive. And if I get cancer again? I’ll roll with it. After all, I know that I have fought it twice… and survived.”

Photography: Zaphs Zhang, Art direction & Styling: Alice Chua; Outfit and Necklace: Topshop, Hair and makeup: Lolent Lee, using Dior

This story was first published in HerWorld Magazine October 2014.

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