A survivor shares: “How cancer in my teens helped me get more out of life”

She was only 17 when she had what many people think of as an “older woman’s cancer”. But that didn’t stop Fong Jia Min from realising her youthful dreams and doing what she’s always wanted

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. But just weeks short of her 18th birthday, before the aspiring nurse could graduate or go out to treat and care for the sick and injured, she found out her own life was at risk.

“In my second year of a nursing diploma course, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 ovarian cancer. When I heard the news, I just remember staring blankly for a while before the information sank in. Then I broke down crying.” says Jia Min.

“I was very shocked because I was only 17 years old. My impression of ovarian cancer was that it only affects older women. I kept wondering whether I was going to die early. I was still young and there were many things I didn’t know or understand at the time.”

Survival instinct kicks in

She did know this, however: she was going to do everything to stay alive.

She started 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, it occasionally afflicts younger women. Early stage ovarian cancer has shown to have high cure rates compared to later stages of the disease.

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.

Crucial support and freedom to focus on essential things

Friends and family rallied around during her fight against cancer.

“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. As they had to continue to work, Jia Min went to live with her aunt during her recovery, so there’d always be someone looking after her.

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.

“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.

On the rebound

Ten years on, Jia Min, now 28, is now 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.” 

She won’t describe herself as cancer-free, though. Somewhere at the back of her mind, she does worry about a recurrence. “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 the public is: “Cancer doesn’t discriminate. My experience is proof that even someone young and with no family history of the illness can get it. But cancer screening helps with early detection which in turn improves chances of survival.”

Ovarian Cancer: Risks And Symptoms, SingHealth

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