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Art transforms into compassion
Contributed by cancer survivor, Ms Sharon Lim living in Singapore.

The youngest patient my doctor had

I have been a colorectal cancer survivor since 5 years ago. I was diagnosed with cancer when I was only 23 years of age.

This illness struck me so suddenly, in fact I was planning to go on a trip to visit a friend in Perth at that time. I remembered it happened on my 23rd birthday. I was out partying with my friends, indulging in great food and drinks. I went back home to take a bath, and then suddenly I felt a sudden gush of blood coming out from my anus. I was shocked, in fact, I didn't know what to do. I was so scared, but I told myself to keep calm, thinking it could just be piles, or due to "heatiness".

I went to see the GP the next day before going to work, after which I was referred, by my specialist, to go and take some tests. A few days after, the results came out. I was diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 23 years old, the youngest patient my doctor had ever had.

Of course I was very concerned about whether I was going to die, as I was still in my years of prime. I had lots of unfulfilled wishes and I was full of ambitions at that age. I had just started out on my career.

Luckily, I had this group of friends, family and most importantly, my doctor, who was there to support me . I think the greatest credit should go to my doctor for being there for me all these years. He consoled me and told me about life, doing more than what a doctor is expected of giving me. I admit that I might have been his worst patient he had come across during his years of practice. I am a difficult person, and have had the nastiest mood swings under my condition. I demanded a lot of things and behaved very stubbornly, refusing to go for certain treatment, and will only give in and go for it if I was able to comprehend the whole procedure. My doctor actually took time from his busy schedule to explain to me the procedures in depth, and in additional, he also took time to console me when I was feeling down at a few stages.

Until today, I have trust in him because he had assured me not to worry about fighting the illness alone, and that he would be with me to walk through this ordeal, as long as I agreed to work well with him. Since then, I had given him my trust. I got better physically, and the way I think about life has changed tremendously. I used to push myself extensively, bent on attaining a lot of things in life, sometimes even setting unrealistic goals for myself. Now that I have come this far, I have learnt to take things easy. I must have been leading a very stressful life in the past, not being able to enjoy what I do, and causing myself to be stressed by life itself... Life is beautiful, but only if you take time to look and understand it.

I have faced this illness for 5 years, and now, I no longer need to go for the routine checks every 6 months, although I still need to go for colonoscopy to ensure that there will be no relapses.

Having a doctor who cares, does help a patient in the process of recovery. - Ms Sharon Lim

Indeed Sharon has been richly blessed to be treated by a warm-hearted and kind colorectal surgeon as most cancer patients do not have the "opportunity" and "luck" to meet such kind doctor who goes the extra mile to support patients.

Quotes From The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine

"A good healer cannot depend on skill alone. He must also have the correct attitude, sincerity, compassion and a sense of responsibility. The patient must also be aware of his or her body in order to recognize signs and symptoms and imbalances. That patient can then seek remedies at the earliest possible moment. When doctor and patient are in a state of harmony, the illness will not linger or become terminal."

"A physician needs to possess a moral conscience, ethical conduct, and a compassionate attitude toward those in need of attention. In all interactions with patients, the physician is always composed, takes the necessary time, remains objective, and performs every procedure with the utmost care and precision."

Through CancerStory.com, The Straits Times reporter got in touch with Sharon to share her story with their readers in a Christmas write-up, "One Life to Live", published on 25 December 2005 in The Sunday Times.

The Write-up :

Cancer survivor Sharon Lim's 23rd birthday was one that she will remember for all the wrong reason.

After a night out celebrating with her friends, she went home and took a routine shower.

"Suddenly, I could feel something gushing out of my anus, "recalls Lim, 30, a human resource executive with an IT firm.

"I looked down and saw brown liquid. I didn't know whether is was blood or faeces."

Thinking she was suffering from piles or "heatiness", she visited a general practitioner the next day. He, in turn, referred her to Dr Yang Ching Yu, a colorectal surgeon at Raffles Hospital.

When she went to collect the results of her colonoscopy, she was the first in the clinic but the last to see the doctor. The wait, she recalls, was excruciating.

"I knew then that mine was probably the most serious case."

True to her suspicious, the doctor laid bare the shocking news. His face was dark and he said plainly : "You have colorectal cancer, you need to go for an operation."

She was the youngest patient he had ever seen.

"I thought colorectal cancer only happened to men above 40," says Ms Lim, a no-nonsense woman, over a cup of tea at Raffles City last week.

Dressed in a grey suit and looking well, she readily shares her story of survival, even whipping out photos of a recent colonoscopy which show a healthy colon.

It took a five-year roller-coaster ride of twists and turns and the patience of a dedicated doctor.

At 23, her fear of dying brought out her ugly side. Already stubborn and hot-tempered by nature, she became a difficult and uncooperative patient.

Perhaps in denial, one of the first things that came to her mind was whether she could still continue with a holiday to Perth that she had planned months ago. When Dr Yang objected, she turned on him.

"I said things like 'I don't believe you' or "Why should I listen to you?""

She resisted tests, demanding an explanation for every ounce of blood that was drawn from her. Then working as a sales executive in a travel planning company, it took many tearful telephone conversations with Dr Yang sometimes in the middle of the workday for her to come to her senses.

"I just kept saying 'No, no, no' to him when he asked me to come for tests. Then he would have to explain to me why all that was necessary."

True enough, Dr Yang remembers her as being "squeamish about needles and clinical examinations."

"I needed more time to persuade her and at times coerce her to undergo tests and examinations," he says.

He had to nag her to comply with the treatments and to change her diet and lifestyle. But he concedes that the "real risk of losing her anus, the possibility of wearing a colostomy bag and being told there was a 50 per cent statistical chance of dying from such a disease was probably too much for her to bear."

At times, Ms Lim would page Dr Yang late at night, simply to ask the question : "Am I going to die?"

A week after being diagnosed with colorectal cancer, she underwent a lower anterior resection where the infected part of her colon was cut away and the remaining ends stitched together.

At that time, the operation was considered a success, though it left her a 15 to 20cm scar around her abdominal area that she still complains about today.

Two years later, she experienced slight complications when she had to be admitted again for clotting of blood in her colon. But the problems were quickly fixed. She got a clean bill of health after five years.

Ironically, t was probably her stubborn streak that got her back on her feet after the operation.

Less than a month after, she defied her exasperated mother and left the house to resume her guitar lessons. "I couldn't even walk straight because of the scar." So I walked with my body slanted. When I couldn't walk anymore, I took a cab."

The same year, she even attended the New Year's Eve countdown party in Orchard Road. But she admits : "It was so crowded. I was so afraid of falling down and bursting my stitches."

The brush with mortality changed her perspective on life. She took up a mass communications degree course at the Management Development Institute of Singapore, not because it would add value to her career but because it was something she was interested in.

She shared her experience on cancer support website CancerStory, writing : "Now that I have come this far, I have learnt to take things easy. I must have been leading a very stressful life in the past, not being able to enjoy what I do, and causing myself to be stressed by life itself."

"Life is beautiful, but only if you take time to look and understand it."

Career plans that she had sketched in her early 20s are now on hold. "By now I should have been a manager in a multinational company, making big bucks. Everything was disrupted, but money is not everything."

Soon, Ms Lim, who is single, will leave her current job to take a hiatus from work. "I want to decide what I really want to do with my life."

But despite triumphing over the condition, the possibility of a relapse stares at her every day.

She lives five years at a time, the interval between each colonoscopy. "It's like I have a time bomb in me."

But having been to hell and back, she philosophizes : "But if you keep telling yourself you're going to die, then you probably will."

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