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Restarting life: A true story of a 27-year-old cancer survivor

​Feelings of disruptive transition and challenges can occur when cancer strikes. Plans and dreams are often put on hold and relegated to the back of the mind as one embarks on a pursuit of survival. When one finally reaches the end of the complicated treatment maze, another chapter begins. A new day dawns and life can look very different.

In this story, we snapshot the life of a young individual who has bravely restarted their life after cancer.

A zest for life

Leonard is an active young man who loves nothing more than being out in the sunshine. He canoes, dives and paddles. Throughout his time as a student at Republic Polytechnic, he was a member of the canoe sprint team, spending every free moment practising this rigorous sport with his teammates.

After completing his polytechnic course Leonard was due for his National Service enlistment. With his love for fitness and adventure, he was particularly keen to sign on as a pilot with the Republic of Singapore Air Force.

Life, however, had other plans for him. Just before enlistment, he developed a cough, and itchy bumps started to appear on his body.

Life on pause

Enlistment plans were put on hold while Leonard underwent a battery of tests to identify the cause of the symptoms.

“A mass was found between my heart and my lungs. I felt very depressed and sad when I found out. With each test, my dream of enlisting and leading a normal life seemed further and further away. Eventually, I resigned myself to fate and mentally prepared for the test results,” said Leonard, of what he described as a period of disruption and confusion.

In September 2017, Leonard was diagnosed with blood cancer – Stage 1 Hodgkin lymphoma.

Battling cancer as well as body image issues

Within the span of a month, Leonard had to switch his focus from landing his dream vocation in the forces to going through life-saving medical treatment.

He spent the next eight months undergoing an intensive regime of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. While he experienced physical side effects such as nausea, body image issues got to him the most. 

“My fitness levels deteriorated, and I experienced extreme weight gain due to the medication I was on. It was so frustrating as I used to love staying active, diving and kayaking.”

“The hair loss also affected me,” Leonard recalled.

Leonard eventually reached out for psychosocial support at National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) to tackle his challenges with weight gain, hair loss and depression. His experiences serve as a reminder that the mental and emotional turmoil that individuals with cancer experience is no less challenging than the physical challenges.

Life resumed

Leonard applied for a place in university while undergoing radiation therapy. He was determined to keep moving forward no matter what obstacles life presented. 

 “I figured that since National Service was no longer on the cards, I should further my studies to pursue a career in technology, an industry that I have a keen interest in.”

When he started university, he joined the dragon boat team in an effort to resume the active lifestyle he used to lead.  

“Restarting my fitness from ground zero was tough. I no longer had the stamina and strength that I used to have, and it was very frustrating,” recounted Leonard.

“A year after my treatment, I participated in my first overseas competition with the university dragon boat team, and felt that I did not do my best as I was not fit enough.”

One year after his treatment: Leonard (far left) preparing to head overseas to compete at the Penang International Dragon Boat Festival (IDBF) 2019.

 

Leonard (centre) with his teammates after racing at the Penang IDBF.

Nevertheless, he set his mind on training hard and regaining strength, with encouragement from his teammates. He has since gone on to compete in many more competitions, both locally and abroad.

Next stop: Adulting

It’s now been three years since his diagnosis, and Leonard has graduated from university and is working full-time in a tech firm.

A cancer survivor at the age of 27, Leonard has restarted his life and looks forward to pursuing his dreams.

This story was written as part of NCCS’ CanSurvive campaign, an annual event to mark National Cancer Survivors Day as communities worldwide celebrate cancer survivorship and inspire those newly diagnosed and undergoing treatment. Over 300 patients, survivors, caregivers, healthcare professionals and members of the public gathered virtually for a webinar on 5 June 2021 to celebrate life after cancer.