For most 17-year-olds, life revolves around school, friends, hobbies and generally enjoying their carefree youth. Others would be excited about the possibilities that lie ahead as they create a roadmap to their dream job and the life they’ve always envisioned for themselves.
Fong Jia Min was no different. As a young aspiring nurse, she wanted to make a career of treating and caring for the sick and injured. However, just weeks short of her 18th birthday, even before she could graduate and start saving lives, she found out her own life was at risk.
She shares, “In my second year of a nursing diploma course, I was told I had stage 1 ovarian cancer. I just stared blankly for a while before the information sank in, then I broke down crying. My mother comforted me and told me not to cry but I remember the doctor saying that it was normal and okay for me to react that way.
“I was in shock. In my mind, cancer meant death and it was a scary thing. My impression of ovarian cancer was that it only affected older women. I kept wondering whether I was going to die early. I was only 17 and there were many things I didn’t know or understand at the time.”
Rising up against the odds
She did know this, however: she was going to do everything to stay alive. She started by researching her condition, prognosis, and treatment options.
Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in Singapore, with some 343 cases diagnosed yearly1. While it typically affects older women, younger women can be afflicted with the disease, too. Like many other types of cancer, early-stage ovarian cancer has shown to have high cure rates compared to later stages of the disease.
Fortunately, as Jia Min’s cancer was confined to her right ovary, she didn’t have to remove both her ovaries. The doctor advised removing only her right ovary – so she’d still have a chance to conceive. She also had to undergo five months of chemotherapy as part of her cancer treatment.
Finding freedom to focus on things that matter
Friends and family rallied around Jia Min when she was at her lowest.
“My polytechnic mentor who’s an oncology-trained nurse and used to work at NCC (National Cancer Centre) constantly advised me and gave me reassurance,” she shares.
Meanwhile, her parents would often take leave from work to accompany her for chemotherapy sessions and check-ups. Relatives stepped forward to help the family too. During Jia Min’s recovery period, she stayed with her aunt so that there would always be someone looking after her while her parents were out working.
Among the immediate expenses incurred by the family for Jia Min’s health condition were consultations with various specialists from different hospitals, x-rays, scans, lab tests, medication and chemotherapy sessions which could cost thousands of dollars each time. Aside from that, her parents also spent more on special diets and natural supplements to help speed up her recovery, as well as cab fare for her check-ups post-chemotherapy. But instead of worrying about the financial stress of cancer, the family was able to focus on Jia Min’s recovery.
“My dad got me a life insurance plan with critical illness rider when I was younger so there was a full payout after I completed my cancer treatment. Part of my medical bills was also covered by my parents’ employee insurance plans,” she shares.
“My knowledge about insurance or critical illness protection before cancer was limited. But looking back, I’d say it’s definitely important because cancer treatment is very costly,” she says.
Finding freedom to focus on things that matter
“My knowledge about insurance or critical illness protection before cancer was limited. But looking back, I’d say it’s definitely important because cancer treatment is very costly."
Using her experience to help others
Ten years on, Jia Min, now 28, is a staff nurse at the National Cancer Institute of Singapore at NUH (National University Hospital). She says, “I’ve always wanted a job that lets me interact with people. My own brush with the illness enables me to better empathise with and help cancer patients today.”
Her health journey has also made her more resilient. “Sometimes when I face difficult times, I tell myself that I have passed the most difficult of times and that I can always overcome it again. I have also found my love for dance fitness and other workouts so I am just keeping myself really active which makes me happy and relieves stress,” she says.
Beneath her chirpy exterior, somewhere at the back of her mind however, thoughts about the cancer recurring linger. “During my last consultation, my oncologist said that chances of the cancer returning were very low. However, I don’t think a person diagnosed with cancer can forever be cancer-free. It’ll always be in remission, but doctors will tell you how high the chances of recurrence are as the years of survival extend.”
Her message to others: “Cancer doesn’t discriminate. My experience is proof that even someone young and with no family history of the illness can get it. However, cancer screening helps with early detection which in turn improves chances of survival.”
1. Source: Ovarian Cancer: Risks And Symptoms, SingHealth