Embracing Life Despite Cancer

loading Alicia is pictured here with her sister: “I’m immensely grateful for what my family has done for me because not only am I putting my life on hold, I’m pressing pause on theirs as well.”

At 17, Alicia Ong was excitedly on the precipice of adulthood when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), or in her words “the good sort of cancer”.

She had recently moved to KL on scholarship to pursue an IB diploma programme, and was savouring every bit of her independence. “I was ‘adulting’ – doing my own laundry, going to the bank. I even had my first date planned!”

Four months in, however, her health took a scary turn. Ong started waking up with chronic nosebleeds and excruciating body aches. “I couldn’t carry my schoolbag and I’d faint in school on the way to class.”

Trips to the nurse’s office were made even more distressing. “I was accused of feigning my symptoms to get out of classes, and that I was doing this for ‘attention’.” Matters soon went from bad to worse when Ong’s parents were called in and informed of her ‘antics’.

But her health continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate, and after a visit back to Penang during the Merdeka holidays last August 2018, she was rushed to the hospital. “I was running an extremely high temperature. I remember clutching at my grandmother, begging for her to make it stop. I felt so cold, like somebody had just poured a bucket of ice-cold water over me,” Ong recalls.

The first of many test results soon came in. “The first diagnosis was that I may be anaemic, which I thought made sense since anaemia runs in the family. But they started doing more and more tests… then the doctor told me I have suspected cancer.”

“I didn’t believe him initially; I’ve been suspected with dengue many times before, but they were always misdiagnoses. For all I knew, it probably wasn’t even cancer. I was so healthy and you know, when you come across pictures of cancer-stricken patients, don’t they always look pallid and weak? I didn’t look anything like that! Even when I was rushed into the ambulance to Gleneagles, and even after having met with my oncologist, I was still adamant that it was only ‘suspected’.”

A definitive diagnosis arrived in the form of a letter to be given to Ong’s parents. “No one said I couldn’t open the envelope, so I did. It read: Alicia Ong needs to stop going to school because she needs to get immediate cancer treatment. I was diagnosed with ALL – the ‘good’ cancer because I wouldn’t have to get my limbs chopped off. I’d just have to undergo chemo and maybe, radiotherapy.”

She began chemotherapy shortly after, which goes in cycles of threes. Each cycle has its own set of brutal side effects to contend with. “It wasn’t that bad the first time around; it was just this yellow liquid going into my veins – that was it. But I felt the effects come full force once I reached home.” Ong lost about 10kg of weight then. “I was unable to stomach the smell of cooked food, and of course, there was the vomiting. Imagine not being able to consume anything, but vomiting all the same.”

But it was also during that difficult period in her life that she discovered her hidden reserve of inner strength to continue powering through.

On the Path to Acceptance and Self-love

In conjunction with World Cancer Day last March at Straits Quay, Ong used the platform as a cancer survivor to speak candidly about coming to terms and living with cancer.

She provided in detail the days when her hair started to fall off: “I didn’t give it much thought at first; my hair was already falling off even before the cancer, but it got to the point where it was falling off so much. I used to wake up in the morning not wanting to see my reflection in the mirror. I had such nice long hair and having to cut it so short – and after cutting it short, having to shave it all off – was extremely difficult.

Alicia penned a short comic illustrating her fight with depression. It won the myHarapan national competition in 2018.

“Going through cancer, I can personally say that we tend to get a lot of eyes on us, and that’s fine if our appearance makes you curious. But when you come up and make unnecessarily hurtful comments about me having cancer because I’m not vegan or that I’m not taking proper care of myself, I just think that’s horrible to beat someone when they’re already down. I’ve even had strangers tell me that I’ve got the best kind of cancer, and I’d say ‘No, the best kind of cancer is NO cancer.’”

To cope, Ong explains that she started thinking about her best self instead. “The girl who goes through chemo every week, that is me and I should be proud of myself because the ‘me’ I was yesterday, and the ‘me’ of today and tomorrow – they are all Alicia and it’s the best version of myself I can ever hope for.

“I went through clinical depression before the cancer,” she discloses, adding that it inspired her to pen a short comic illustrating her fight with depression as a young woman – it won the myHarapan national competition in 2018 which aims to support young people in various artistic and academic endeavours.

“And I was getting better actually; the day before I was hospitalised I remembered feeling at peace with myself. I was ready to accept my flaws and all; then the oncologist confirmed my diagnosis the very next day. It was a huge blow – it was another thing on top of what I’ve to already go through. It aggravated my depression.

“I told my sister that if I were to relapse again – and this was when I hit a really low point in my life – I would not want to continue with chemo. There were many times at the hospital when I’d be thinking about jumping out the window and just make everything stop. It was too much for one person to go through.”

“Going through cancer has taught me a lot, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that cancer does not stop you from being your best self.”

There was also the fact that Ong had to put her studies on hold indefinitely, and the guilt she felt about burdening her family. “I was really enjoying myself in KL – it was the most fun I’d had and I made so many new friends. It honestly felt as if my life had just begun, then it got snatched away from me. I was going to have to go back to square one, except this time it’s much worse than before I left home – I was still independent then.

“Now, I’d have to be heavily reliant on my family – my grandmother is caring for me and I feel really bad about it because I’m the youngest child. I’m a teenager about to become an adult – I should be taking care of her instead. And my sister, she had planned on continuing her studies in the UK, but on the day of her graduation, she found out about my cancer. So, instead of staying on there, she came back to Malaysia for me. I’m immensely grateful for what my family has done for me because not only am I putting my life on hold, I’m pressing pause on theirs as well.

“Going through cancer has taught me a lot, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that cancer does not stop you from being your best self.”

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.

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