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Darkest before the dawn: A young woman overcomes cancer and emerges strong

Four years ago, Gayathri was an active 29-year-old young woman who enjoyed socialising with friends and family. She rarely fell sick and on the rare occasion she felt under the weather she avoided taking any medicine.

So, it was unusual when she experienced chest pain and a high fever in June 2017, which prompted her to seek medical attention at a polyclinic. She was subsequently referred to hospital for a CT scan. The scan showed that Gayathri’s left lung had collapsed because of a growth in her chest. At that point, the uncertain diagnosis added to her confusion. Two biopsies confirmed that Gayathri had cancer and she felt very helpless.

From left to right, Gayathri before her diagnosis, after her first cycle of chemotherapy and last year, three years after her cancer diagnosis.

Learning more and feeling guilty

Things became clearer when she was referred to Dr Esther Chang, a Consultant in the Department of Lymphoma and Sarcoma, Division of Medical Oncology at the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS). At Gayathri’s first clinic consultation, Dr Chang explained in detail about her diagnosis of stage 2 angioimmunoblastic T-Cell lymphoma diagnosis, a rare type of blood cancer, and proposed a treatment plan. It was also then that the reality of the situation hit Gayathri and she broke down crying. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to stay strong for her mother in the wake of an uncertain future.

“I felt so much guilt, because I thought I must have done something wrong to cause this to happen,” she recounted. “I also felt bad for putting my mother through the pain.”

Gayathri was referred to Sabrina Yeo, a NCCS medical social worker, for emotional support and for help to understand the financial schemes available to help defray some of the treatment costs.

Questioning one’s identity

Gayathri underwent six cycles of chemotherapy. She experienced side effects such as lethargy, body and bone ache, loss of appetite and hair loss. She felt tired and didn’t have the strength to get out of the house.

“During this time, there was a lot of anger because I felt so much fear,” shared Gayathri. “I was angry at myself and angry at the world, because I felt betrayed by my own body.”

She also recounted that the hair loss affected her self-esteem.

“I didn’t have eyebrows or eyelashes! When I saw myself in the mirror, I didn’t recognise myself.”

The hardest part

The physical side effects of Gayathri’s treatment hit her hard, but the biggest challenge was the loss of freedom that she felt.

“I hated being stuck at home and only leaving the house to go for treatment. I realised then that what I missed most was having the freedom to do whatever I wanted.”

“It was a very dark period of my life,” Gayathri’s voice faltered. “I was ready to give up.”

When Gayathri completed chemotherapy successfully in 2019, she felt elated but was constantly worried that her cancer would come back.

Slowly but surely, she tried to focus on rebuilding her life and meeting friends who had been her constant pillars of support.

Rebuilding and introspection

The second year after her diagnosis, Gayathri worked to regain control of her life. She started exercising to build strength, began a self-development journey and engaged in mindfulness practice to better understand herself.

Her journey led to a new job working with children.

“As I worked with the children, I felt that just as I needed a voice to encourage and support me when I was going through when I was going through treatment, I wanted to be that encouraging voice to support them,” said Gayathri.

Gayathri found purpose in her new role.

A new woman

Gayathri now goes back to NCCS for regular follow-up checks every six months. While she is generally positive, the fear isn’t entirely absent.

“Do I still have fear? Yes. Is it as scary as it was before? No.”

Gayathri says that her cancer journey showed her the value of life and made her understand her purpose. It also forced her to define who she is and helped her realise that she’s an individual with her own unique voice.

“I came by this quote that keeps me going, ‘It’s always darkest before the dawn,’” shared Gayathri.

Finally, when asked about what advice she would give someone young who is unprepared to face life’s challenges, she said, “It is brave to ask for help and there is always someone out there who can help.”