Bone Cancer Survivor to Challenge Mt Fuji
A Fighter, Down to His Very Bones
At age 21, the doctors wanted to cut his leg off. At the prime of his youth, James had just graduated from a local polytechnic, travelled to Hong Kong on a graduation trip, and was ready to pursue his dreams. His world came crumbling down with an unexpected diagnosis of stage 2 osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, for which he was confronted with the possibility of a leg amputation. The now 28-year-old YMCA Strong Ambassador shares his story.
“Nobody knows how it happened”
The doctors did not have an explanation. Shortly after James returned from a week-long trip to Hong Kong with his friends celebrating his graduation, he experienced sharp pains in his knee. While waiting to enlist into the army, James was working as a rooftop bar waiter. The pain was so unbearable he collapsed one day, hitting his leg against some stairs.
“My boss insisted that I went home, and my mother brought me to a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner. There was swelling, and I was experiencing cold sweats and sharp pains. It felt like someone was stabbing into my leg with needles, making it hard to sleep at night,” he shares.
After unsuccessful attempts to rectify the problem through acupuncture, he was referred to the emergency department at a local hospital. After a range of tests and eventually a biopsy, they determined that he had stage 2 bone cancer.
“I kept asking why this happened to me. I wanted to die, I felt so depressed, low… and angry”
James was once an active boy that described himself as “rebellious and adventurous”, often engaging in activities like night cycling and hiking, and abashedly admitting to “clubbing”, with his friends. Out of the blue, he was confined to the hospital and sentenced to 24 cycles of chemotherapy.
His mother, previously a salesperson, quit her job to commit to caregiving. His father took on the role of sole breadwinner as a taxi driver and struggled with the high medical costs while continuing to provide for his younger sister, who was still schooling at the time.
“I don’t know how many times my mother cried at home. They were stressed and probably had meltdowns. They were very upset and quarrelled more often, even touching on the topic of divorce when things got heated. I kept having bad thoughts, like wondering if I was going to die, what would happen to my family, and what would happen after my death,” shared James.
“They wanted to cut my leg off”
After several rounds of chemotherapy, the doctors’ announcement was a nightmare come true – they recommended an amputation. James had contracted a differentiated form of osteosarcoma that doctors here were unfamiliar with. They consulted with specialists from Japan, but they, too, offered him few alternatives.
“The doctor said I had a manic episode. Once, I took the chemotherapy pump machine with me and tried to leave the hospital, insisting that I just wanted to get out of there,” said James.
During his brief period of distress, the doctors had to isolate him in a separate room and ensure he stayed calm. His friends and family rendered him great support during this difficult time, including visiting him, bringing him food he enjoyed, and “dealing with his panic attacks”. His friends from secondary school even slept over at the hospital just to keep him company.
“Staying in the hospital makes you very paranoid. You just keep hearing bad news after bad news, like ‘Hey! You’ve got cancer!’ and then ‘Hey! We’re going to amputate your leg!’. It was all very harsh news and very mentally draining to cope with,” he said.
Refusing the drastic measure of an amputation, James’ father decided to seek a second opinion from other medical professionals. Eventually, he found a surgeon experienced in re-sectioning, reconstructing and preserving joints, who performed a surgery to remove the tumorous bone from James’ leg.
“I wanted to pay it forward”
James’ leg never completely healed from the surgery, and after a period of being wheelchair-dependent, he now uses a crutch to walk. It has caused physical implications to his lifestyle, such as losing the ability to run, but he wishes to keep living as meaningfully as he can.
“I wasn’t positive all the time. When there are people around me, I feel loved. I have people to talk to, share my struggles with… You can see a light, and you feel less alone. When there is nobody around, that’s when it feels overwhelming, the suffering is more obvious, and I would sometimes feel depressed,” he said.
Having lived through such an ordeal with support from the people around him, including family members, friends, and religious acquaintances, he realises how essential it is for people who are struggling with difficulties not to feel alone. He wishes to become a pillar of support for people in need, just as his loved ones were for him, and now leads various YMCA Community Service Programmes that serve a myriad of clients, including people with special needs, the elderly, and international communities.
“It changed my perspectives on life”
James, during a trip to Cambodia under a YMCA of Singapore International Service Programme.
“I used to be like, ‘YOLO!’, you only live once, right? I smoked, clubbed a lot, like three times a week on average, and did things I wouldn’t do now. We’d drink before clubbing so it’s cheaper, we’d feel super high so the music would feel good, and just have a fun time with my friends. Now, I don’t take life for granted anymore. I treasure it, and I want to do more with it,” said James.
The cancer has gone into remission, but James now faces fresh challenges. He shares how using a walking aid has caused people to look at him differently and caused great difficulties during his search for employment.
“I don’t think walking with a crutch causes me many difficulties, but people were worried about my abilities and productivity and were reluctant to hire me. I was jobless for seven months. The employment rate of people with disabilities in Singapore is so low, and I think that is because people still have trouble seeing beyond our special needs and recognising our potential,” he said.
“I want to show them what we can do, and inspire them to make a difference”
A rebel at heart, James will be participating in the YMCA Inclusive Climb 2019, where 10 special needs clients will be attempting to conquer Mt Fuji. He believes it is an extension of his advocacy and hopes to show that people with special needs can also achieve great heights.
“I hope to see people in leadership and authoritative positions take the initiative to create a more inclusive country, by welcoming people with special needs into workplaces and in their daily lives. We may be differently abled, but when there’s a will, there’s a way. We have plenty to contribute if given the opportunity,” he said.
“We see the world through a different set of lenses and can bring value to an organisation through characteristics we have cultivated through our battles, such as perseverance, endurance and patience,” he adds.
Find out more about the YMCA Inclusive Climb and how you can be a part of it here!
Contributed by Sim Yu Xiang.