Fighting leukaemia with hope

SINGAPORE - When George Wiza Widyabahkti arrived in Singapore in June 2010, he had been given four weeks to live. But thanks to swift aggressive treatment and a fierce will to live, George emerged victorious.

It started with nausea and a headache that would not go away. Eventually, George, then 18, checked in to a hospital in Jakarta to see what was wrong. However, the hospital there kept giving him conflicting information and finally, in desperation, his parents decided to send him to Singapore.

By that time, George was so weak that he could not walk and his mother had to push him in a wheelchair.

When Dr Freddy Teo, Senior Consultant, Haematology, at Parkway Cancer Centre (PCC), saw George, he immediately ordered a test of his bone marrow which confirmed that he was suffering from advanced acute lymphocytic leukaemia. According to Dr Teo, George was between two and four weeks away from death.

The next day, just three days after arriving in Singapore, George began an intensive form of chemotherapy regime which involved five chemotherapeutic agents. The chemotherapy drugs were administered almost continuously over a four-week period. This is a very intensive schedule and the treatment, according to Dr Teo, has a mortality risk of 5 to 10 per cent.

Dr Freddy Teo Cheng Peng
Senior Consultant, Haematology

Because of the advanced nature of the cancer and the aggressive treatment, it was not smooth sailing for George. After the first round of chemotherapy, the damage to his nervous system left him unable to walk and this affected his treatment.

Normally, patients like George would have chemotherapy administered into the cerebral spinal fluid to prevent the leukaemia from spreading to the brain. However, because George's nervous system was already damaged, he had to undergo radiotherapy instead of chemotherapy.

The damage to his nervous system was a blow but George did not give up. He had a strong will to live and went on to complete the five rounds of chemotherapy. He attributed this to "semangat", the Indonesian word for spirit. "We must have the fighting spirit to fight against cancer," said George.

Over time, he became stronger, and eventually, George no longer needed his wheelchair and was able to fly back to Indonesia in-between treatments.


One step at a time

Nonetheless, he still had to spend quite a lot of time in Singapore. As he got better, George became restless staying in the apartment. Itching to do something more useful than watching television, he decided to do something with his hands.

George had a hobby of building scale models of cars. As soon as he felt well enough, he decided to continue this hobby in Singapore as well. One such model, a remote-controlled Mini Cooper now sits proudly in Dr Teo's office. Apart from buying the kit to assemble, George also printed out the PCC logo and stuck it to the side of the Mini Cooper to personalise the car (pictured below).

George completed his last course of chemotherapy in April this year, and things are now looking up.

"He responded well and his leukaemia is in complete remission," said Dr Teo. "He is as well as he can be. There is no evidence of any recurrence."

However, George is not out of the woods yet. "He has a good chance of a cure but it is not guaranteed," said Dr Teo. "It will take between two to three years of being free of the disease before he can be pronounced cured."

Dr Teo's advice to others in George's position is to take treatment one step at a time. "It is difficult to plan too far ahead, as complications and side effects may upset the treatment plans.

George and Dr Freddy Teo

"Last but not least, stay positive and follow the advice of your doctors. The patient needs to help the doctors to help him."

As for George, he is determined to make the most of his new lease of life. "In order to live the life that God has given to me to the fullest, I hope to inspire those who are on the same journey as me," he said.

And his advice to others is to keep fighting. "Through our prayers and perseverance, I believe that we will emerge as winners one day."

This patient's story was first published on Parkway Cancer Centre's website.