A Journey of Hope

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[ Article from AlumNUS – Dr William Tan’s Diary, 15 August 2009 ]

My favourite fish for lunch sat on the hospital’s tray table turning cold and untouched. I have not been able to tolerate any solid food for the last four days. The five days of immunotherapy and chemotherapy treatment have taken a toll on my body. I lay in bed, my whole body covered with Calamine lotion to relieve the itch. I have developed a delayed hypersensitivity reaction from an adverse reaction against Alemtuzumab – one of the monoclonal antibodies which target the CD52+ cancer cells in my body. I had adapted well during the first few cycles of treatment but not this time.

Piling works form the hospital’s nearby construction site together with the itch and the occasional feeling of nausea annoyed me immensely. Giving in, I reached out for the blue kidney dish desperately. For the next 10 minutes, I threw out whatever supplements I had taken earlier. The ondansetron, an anti-vomiting drug, was not helping.

I found comfort just lying curled up in bed. I had no desire for drinks, food or shower any more. This fourth cycle of therapy seems harder than the previous ones. Before all this, life outside the hospital enclosure was starting to feel pleasing and good. I was unwilling to be admitted this time. For the first time, my blood counts result indicated vast improvements. I was eating well and found laksa palatable, a variation from hospital food.

I negotiated with my oncologists, asking them if  I could be spared from the dreadful bone marrow transparent. There is no possible cure otherwise, they said. My bone marrow has turned cancerous and the improvement in my blood count is short-lived. Without the transplant, I will suffer a relapse and the cancer cells can become resistant to treatment.

It has been difficult coming to terms with transforming from a physician to a patient; from a Paralympic athlete, I have become so weak and vulnerable. I have come a long way: from the nose bleed at the Paris Marathon in April to the diagnosis of stage 4 leukaemia to the many cycles of treatment which I have finished. The race had become tougher. My fighting spirit seems to be waning. What has happened to the promising start during the first cycle ?

It is like ” hitting the wall ” along Mile 20 at Heartbreak Hill during the Boston marathons. I had conquered Heartbreak Hill seven times. I can overcome this one too. Some of the medical students are coming to see me in the evening ot discuss our Ride for Hope event on 29 August to raise funds for needy patients at six hospitals and for the National Cancer Centre. I need to stay hydrated even though I have no appetite. Memories of three days of constipation and five hours of manual evacuation of my bowels remain so clear in my mind.

I have to get stronger to tow the child carrier for the Cycle of Hope event to raise money for the Straits Times School Pocket money Fund in November. I am looking forward to this meaningful event. The children give me a sense of hope and purpose.

I must not forget that my family, classmates and friends at NUS, Raffles Institution, the wider school and corporate community are all rooting for me. My oncologists and the nurses have been most caring. I will never forget all their support, prayers and love. Jonathan, one of the medical students, came forward and whispered to me : ” LIVE STRONG, Dr Tan!”

Yes, I will.

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