He was 30, both he and his wife were doing well in their careers in finance, and they had just become new parents to a baby girl. Life was looking good for Lee Wei Sheng.
“My life mainly revolved around work, family and keeping myself physically and mentally fit. I exercised several times a week, didn’t smoke, seldom drank and was never a night owl. In my free time, I’d indulge in hobbies like playing soccer and singing,” he shares.
Then in December 2020, Wei Sheng began experiencing blurriness in his vision. “My GP and I thought it was merely an eye infection as I’d occasionally swim without wearing goggles,” he recalls.
However, the condition persisted for more than a month. “Driving, especially at night, became challenging and I’d have to strain my eyes. I also needed to be more careful as I went about my daily activities because I didn’t want to hurt myself or my loved ones physically, for instance, when I was carrying my daughter.”
When Wei Sheng’s eyesight showed signs of deterioration, the GP referred him to a hospital accident and emergency department. An eye examination was also scheduled for him.
“After rounds of tests and checks, the eye specialist said that my eyes were fine. He suspected that something else was affecting my vision and advised me to do an emergency brain CT scan,” he says.
The shock of discovering a brain tumour
Days later, Wei Sheng was back at the hospital for the results. His doctor broke the news: he had a brain tumour.
“I was devastated, and my mind was a complete blank when I heard those words,” he recalls.
Questions raced through his mind as he left the hospital. “I kept asking, ‘How could this be happening to me when I’m only 30 years old and I don’t lead an unhealthy lifestyle?’ Moreover, my daughter was only a year old at that time. What would happen to my young family and elderly parents if I couldn’t get through this?” he says.
Wei Sheng was diagnosed with pituitary tumour. The pituitary is a bean-sized gland at the base of the brain which plays a crucial role in secreting its own hormones and telling other glands to produce different types of hormones. A tumour in the pituitary gland can put pressure on other important parts of the body. In Wei Sheng’s case, as the tumour grew, it exerted pressure on the optic nerve, causing him to gradually lose his side vision. This loss of peripheral vision is also known as tunnel vision, where the individual can’t see an object unless it’s in front of them. Left untreated, it can lead to blindness.
As the brain tumour had grown to a significant size of 3cm, or about the size of a strawberry, the only treatment option was to surgically remove it together with the pituitary gland.
“The doctor said that removing the pituitary gland could mean that I’d have to take pills or jabs to maintain my hormonal balance for the rest of my life,” he shares.
The surgery and aftercare
Within seven days of his diagnosis, Wei Sheng was in an operating theatre to have the brain tumour removed. He recalls the day clearly: “A few of my concerned clients messaged me before the operation, and one of them even called me at 6am and prayed for me. I wasn’t in a state of fear, though. At that point, I was just looking forward to the moment after the surgery when I could open my eyes again and see my family.”
The three-hour pituitary tumour surgery went smoothly. More than 50% of Wei Sheng’s peripheral vision was restored immediately, but he couldn’t leave the hospital just yet.
“I was transferred to a high dependency ward, and I was in pain from all the tubes running through my body, including my mouth and urinary tract. I had limited movement and fully reliant on the nurses for my toileting needs as there were no toilets in the ward. I’m ever-grateful to the medical staff for all the attentive care they gave me, and I have even greater respect for the profession now,” he reflects.
During his time under close observation at the hospital, Wei Sheng would often think about being transferred to a normal ward and returning home to celebrate Chinese New Year with his family. After three long weeks, his eyesight was fully restored and he was finally cleared for discharge. Even then, he could not get back to life as usual immediately. “My doctor advised me not to exercise for two months and said that I would have to wait for a month before slowly returning to work.”
Cancer during the working years
Among the many changes that can come with a cancer diagnosis is job loss. Of the 74,536 people diagnosed with cancer in Singapore from 2014 to 2018, 33% were aged between 30 and 591. This means that more than one-third of cancer patients diagnosed were of working age.
While some cancer patients are able to go back to work, others won’t. As a result of this income disruption, they’d need a source of funds not just for their ongoing medical expenses but also their daily living costs which could include things like transportation, food and their children’s childcare fees. As a guide, the Life Insurance Association recommends that working individuals have critical illness coverage that’s equivalent to about 3.9 times their annual income2.
Pillars of support during the cancer fighting journey
It takes a village to help someone pull through a health ordeal, especially during an ongoing pandemic. In Wei Sheng’s case, moral support from his family and friends kept him strong during the treatment process.
As the hospital’s primary point of contact, his wife Emerlyn Yeo suddenly had a lot more to deal with: “She had to travel to and from hospital daily to speak to the doctors. Then, she would update my parents back home about my condition and give them assurance. On top of that, she had to ensure our daughter Jovie’s wellbeing during the pandemic and attend to clients who needed her help.”
Meanwhile, his family members helped to take care of Jovie, and his parents-in-law supported his wife in any way they could. Friends stepped forward, too. “They offered to keep my wife company during my surgery and visited me at the hospital.”
Thankfully, Wei Sheng didn’t have to worry about finances and could focus on his health. “My hospitalisation bill for those three weeks came up to around S$109,000, and it was fully covered by insurance,” he shares.
However, his medical expenses didn’t end there. He also had to factor long-term medication, regular magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans and follow-up optical tests, which could easily come up to several thousand dollars each year.
“Fortunately, I had critical illness insurance which gives a payout for early-stage critical illness. I’ll be able to use this cash to cover my medical expenses over the long term. So, my family and I are free of financial worries.”
In his job as a Senior Wealth Manager in the financial advisory sector, Wei Sheng has encountered many people who were diagnosed with illnesses like cancer and stroke, and he’s seen how their critical illness insurance payouts have helped them tide through difficult times.
“I’ve always believed in the importance of critical illness protection, but never expected to make a claim on my early critical illness plan as there is no evidence of family history. Critical illness can happen regardless of health status, age or family history. We shouldn’t be complacent about getting ourselves well covered.”
The road ahead
Wei Sheng expected to take three months to fully recover and return to work, but he was in for another surprise – this time, a welcome one.
“Thankfully, I recovered well after the surgery and was back at work a month later,” he shares. “I was also mentally prepared to take lifetime medication but, fortunately, my latest test results show acceptable hormone levels, so I can stop taking medication for the time being. My hormone levels will continue to be monitored regularly.”
Reflecting on his health scare, Wei Sheng feels he was given a second chance to live – and he wants to make every moment he has count.
“I now treasure life even more and I’ve become a bigger advocate for financial protection against unexpected situations like severe illness and accidents. Sharing my story will help to raise awareness about pituitary tumour, which most people aren’t familiar with. Age isn’t a barrier to being diagnosed with a serious health condition. We shouldn’t take our health for granted when life is fragile and unpredictable.
“I also constantly remind myself to be thankful, especially for my wife, family and friends. I now see challenges ahead as opportunities, and I’m thankful that I made it through the greatest challenge in my life.”
1. Source: Singapore Cancer Registry Annual Report 2018, Distribution of age at diagnosis (%) of all cancers in males and females, 1968-2018, retrieved on 19 October 2021.
2. Source: The Straits Times© Singapore Press Holdings. Extracted with permission. “Working adults have inadequate cover if critical illness strikes, says study”, 26 April 2018.