Care for cancer kids

PHOTO: Care for cancer kids

[Above: Children at the opening of Arc Children's Centre.]

By Maureen Koh

It is Singapore's only day-care centre that looks after children with cancer.

And the Arc Children's Centre (ACC) is proving to be a boon for parents like Madam Jayaletchumi Thevathasan, whose five-year-old son has leukaemia.

The 33-year-old business coordinator struggled with her emotions when she found out about Jaynesh Prabakar's illness last year.

She told The New Paper: "It was such a hard blow. As a mother, I just could not take it."

Besides her family, the ACC, which opened officially on Saturday, was a source of emotional help.

It took weeks for Madam Jaya to come to terms with the cold reality of her younger son's illness.

She and her 38-year-old sales executive husband, Mr Brian Prabakar, have another son, Sajit, eight.

For Jaynesh, it started with frequent bouts of high fever last year.

Madam Jaya said: "We went from doctor to doctor and each time, the test results indicated nothing wrong."

It wasn't until Thomson Medical Centre referred Jaynesh to KK Women's & Children's Hospital for a series of tests that they finally had an answer.

Madam Jaya said: "At first, I just kept crying... The tears were not only for me but my heart ached for my baby who would have to suffer all that pain."

But she found that Jaynesh was also affected by her moods.


Had to be strong

She said: "I realised that I had to keep strong in front of him. I couldn't afford to have him affected.

"It was important that I gave him my support because undergoing the various stages of treatment was not easy.

"Though I couldn't feel his pain physically, it was just as painful."

The support of her family made it easier for her to deal with her turmoil as she and her husband struggled with taking care of Jaynesh.

It also helps that she has "a strong boy", she said. "He's like, 'Mummy, I know I'm sick. But I will get better'."

Still, there were trying times, like when Jaynesh had mood swings and became temperamental.

And because he had to stop going to school - he was in Nursery 2 when he was diagnosed - Jaynesh also became restless.

Madam Jaya said: "There was nothing I could do...he's so young and he has to cope with all these (treatments)."

As parents, they could give Jaynesh all the love and support, but they also wanted to find a way to lift his spirits.

Through her son's doctor, Madam Jaya found out about ACC. Ten children who are receiving cancer treatment go to the centre, which opened in May.

Volunteers come to play with them, teach simple lessons, or just watch over them while they romp about.

Dr Rita Yeoh, the centre's co-founder and chairman, said: "The children are full of energy, especially in between their treatment sessions. Our centre offers them an outlet. Plus, they learn to play with each other and learn to socialise."

The centre also offers support for the children's siblings and parents.

Dr Yeoh said: "This is important because siblings often feel left out as their sick brother or sister receives a lot of attention.

"And parents need support in caring for their sick children in a way that will help the children to develop normally instead of being molly-coddled."

It's been only two months since Jaynesh started going to Arc, but Madam Jaya has seen positive changes.

She said: "I used to feed Jaynesh but he eats by himself now. He also didn't like taking vegetables; now he tells me, 'see Mummy, I'm eating my veggies'."

Even Jaynesh's doctor is impressed by the changes, said Madam Jaya.

"He's back to his usual self, the cheerful boy."


Safe place for the children

Set up in May, Arc Children's Centre was officially opened on Saturday by its patron, Mrs Goh Chok Tong.

As Singapore's only day-care centre for cancer-stricken children, it takes in children between three and 18 years old. Children outside this age group can be considered on a case-by-case basis.

To qualify for admission, the child is required to provide a letter of reference from a doctor, specialist or social worker.

The centre also takes in the siblings of those who are suffering from cancer.

Of the 19 children under its care, nine are siblings.

The centre, located at Kim Keat Road, provides a safe and friendly environment for the children.

Every weekday morning, they are picked by a centre vehicle, accompanied by a staff member or volunteer. The centre is closed on weekends and public holidays.

After a few of hours of studying, usually maths or English, lunch is served. The afternoon is devoted to fun activities before they are sent home.

Dr Rita Yeoh, the centre's co-founder and chairman, said: "Sometimes, a brain tumour or a brain operation can affect their behaviour.

"So we try to guide them to learn how to behave and to help the younger children. And they do learn well."

The fee - $10 a day per child, to cover meals and transport - is only for those who can afford to pay.

The fee is waived for families with financial difficulties, as recommended by their social worker. There is no enrolment fee.


All it took were a few friends to change him

After doctors found a tumour in the 12-year-old boy's brain, he had to undergo a series of chemotherapy and radiotherapy sessions.

Cheng Wei Jun stopped going to school because of his condition and was left in the care of his grandparents.

He rarely left home because of his low immunity.

The illness and the loss of freedom were hard for Wei Jun, now 14, to accept.

He turned increasingly restless, and became demanding and quick-tempered.

His mother, Madam Yip May Yoke, couldn't cope.

The 41-year-old finance executive, who's divorced, said: "I was really desperate. It really wasn't easy to manage him at home."

Thankfully, help came when she was introduced to Arc Children's Centre.

Instead of being isolated with little interaction with people, Wei Jun was given the opportunity to meet other children like him.

He made new friends he could play and study with.

In short, he had company and was not left to feel alone.

Such support is vital, said Dr Rita Yeoh, co-founder and chairman of the centre.

"We get about two enquiries a week from parents who need help.


"Some parents turn up desperate and crying for help for their children," she said.

To Madam Yip, the changes in Wei Jun are evident.

"I'm very happy because Wei Jun's behaviour has improved a lot.

"He still has some way to go but I can see his true personality emerging," she said.

"Now he even makes it a point to apologise when he misbehaves."

This article was first published in The New Paper.