“I underwent heart surgery in 2009, after a medical check-up which was made mandatory for students at my school. I remember feeling easily tired back then, and the doctor discovered that one of the four valves in my heart was in a bad condition.
The doctor had to get it replaced with a mechanical one. For regular people, their heartbeat sounds normal when their valves open and close to let blood enter, but mine sounds like a ticking clock. I was so shocked when I first heard it, but the doctor says it’s perfectly normal.
Everything seemed fine after the surgery. I just needed to take blood-thinning medication and avoid foods high in Vitamin K because they thicken my blood. But six months after my heart operation, I woke up with a very swollen face. I thought it was just water retention.
The doctor did a scan and found a growth along my respiratory tract. It pushed against my thyroid gland, stopping oxygen from going up and making my face swell up. He wanted to remove the growth surgically, but after taking a sample, he discovered that it was cancerous.
I was still in the ward feeling very drowsy after the scan. When the doctor came in to tell me that I had cancer, my whole world just went quiet. I was dumbfounded. I was only 23 at the time and it didn’t feel real to me.
I cried, of course, but my family told me to be strong. The doctor said that I could get better with chemotherapy, so I listened to him and went through six rounds of intense treatment. I even left this new job in construction to focus on getting better.
I remember how everyone was bald and wearing a mask in the cancer ward. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Will I be like them too?’ I had long hair at the time, and when it started to fall off, I’d grab a tuft from my head and stare at it quietly. I didn’t know what to say; I was just sad.
The medication? It was horrible. It made me vomit whenever I ate. My weight went down from 45 to 30kg and I was skinny to the bone. The only thing that stopped me from feeling down was the thought of mum. My dad had already passed away and she was all I had.
I had to fight for my life and be strong for her. I knew a patient who was always sad. When the doctor advised her to undergo chemo, she postponed the treatment until the cancer had spread and it was too late. I didn’t want to be like her, so I did everything I was told.
But even after the chemotherapy, the growth had only shrunk by half, and the doctor said that he might have to do a transplant. I needed my sisters to donate their blood for the transfusion because they were most the compatible, but even then nothing was guaranteed.
My thoughts started to spiral out of control. I was only 24 and I was already thinking about death. I cried because it got too overwhelming, but the doctor suggested that we try radiotherapy first. We did that 30 times daily for five minutes each time.
Fortunately, the radiotherapy worked. The cancer cells shrunk even further, and I was told there was no need for a transplant. It was only then that I felt relieved, and I was officially discharged from the clinic at the end of 2017. I’ve been cancer-free ever since.
Today, I’m working in the construction industry again but for a different company. I’m also running a part-time bakery business on the weekends; it’s called Afiqah’s Bakery. Some of my favourite things to make are red velvet cupcakes, brownies, carrot cake and bomboloni.
Baking is something I’m very passionate about. When I was sick, I would actually sell cakes at the bazaar from morning to evening. It was the only time I was happy and didn’t think about my cancer. My dream is to have my own shop and do this full-time one day.
I also got married in 2017 to a man whom I’ve known for 9 years now. We first met in school back in 2010, and he’s been there for me even when I was sick. I remember how he waited outside from the time I entered the operating theatre to the moment I finished my surgery.
Before we tied the knot, we actually had a sit-down with the doctor to discuss the risks involved with a pregnancy if we wanted to start a family. Even after hearing everything that the doctor had to say, he still wanted to proceed with the wedding.
I do know of friends who were abandoned by their partners after learning that they had cancer. They were not willing to accept the situation, so I’m very happy and grateful to have met someone who accepted me for me.
If there’s any message of hope I have, it’s that cancer is not a death sentence. You have to stay strong and fight. Through overcoming heart surgery and cancer, I grew stronger than ever. You have to believe that there is life after cancer.” – Afiqah, 28
Interview: Arman Shah
Translation: Nazeera Khamaruldin