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A four-year battle with rare and aggressive skin cancer

Getting diagnosed and treated

In June 2015, 54-year-old Madam Ong* felt a lump in her genital area and went to see a gynaecologist. After checks, her doctor recommended that she have surgery to remove the lump as soon as possible. The post-procedure biopsy report of the lump confirmed that she had stage 4 mucosal melanoma ­– a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer.

Mucosal melanoma is a type of melanoma that can be found in genital, respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. Compared to melanomas affecting sun-exposed skin, mucosal melanomas tend to be more aggressive, respond poorly to treatment, and, consequently, have lower survival rates.

Despite the grim prognosis, Madam Ong was calm and focused on receiving treatment. Madam Ong explained, "I am a very positive person by nature. Everyone has to die one day and I knew that it would not help to have negative thoughts and feelings. Also, I have faith in our healthcare system and felt that I had access to the best available treatment."

When a follow-up CT scan in January 2016 showed that the cancer had spread to her lungs, she was immediately started on immunotherapy at NCCS. Immunotherapy works by activating the patient's own immune system to fight the disease.

Nine months later, another scan revealed that the cancer had spread to her liver and spine. Her NCCS doctors started her on a more intense treatment regimen and Madam Ong began to receive double immunotherapy. Over the course of four years, she received 49 immunotherapy injections.

Thankfully, this more rigorous treatment worked well. Madam Ong finally completed treatment in April 2019, and is now in complete remission.

The after effects

Madam Ong's treatment journey was full of challenges but she never gave up. She experienced a number of temporary side effects during treatment such as body aches, lethargy and rashes on her arms and legs. She has also developed a permanent side effect known as vitiligo, where pale white patches develop on the skin due to the lack of melanin. This also turned all her hair white. Madam Ong is also on life-long hormone replacement therapy as her body is no longer able to produce two hormones – cortisol and thyroxine.

"Some of the side effects are permanent but it is a small price to pay! I count myself lucky to be alive and am thankful that I did not have any pain throughout the treatment," said Madam Ong.

Support is key

Looking back at her cancer journey, Madam Ong reflects that her family and loved ones kept her going through the difficult and stressful periods. Madam Ong retired from running a business in 2019, and has been spending her time baking and cooking, watching dramas, reading and spending quality time with her family.

"By sharing my story, I want to encourage others to go for regular health check-ups, not to be fearful of undergoing tests or scans, and to seek treatment early," said Madam Ong, who adds that her advice is also to have good healthcare insurance. "Most importantly, I hope my story can give other cancer patients the strength to never give up and stay positive!"

*Name has been changed at request of patient to maintain her privacy.