He helped when she had cancer, now she helps him

PHOTO: He helped when she had cancer, now she helps him

During her 10-year fight against breast cancer, her husband was her caregiver, her nurse, her pillar of strength.

The disease required that she remove both her breasts and ovaries.

It was one of the hardest things she had to do, but Ms Irene Chui, 46, got through it with the support of her husband and family.

She opted to have both breasts reconstructed, and that was the last of it, she thought. Her family would finally have some respite from the fight against cancer.

But it wasn't to be for long. Within a month of her last operation, cancer hit the family again.

In September, her husband, 55, was diagnosed with cancer of the lip. He underwent surgery to remove the tumour in October.

This Christmas will be a quiet one for the family, said Ms Chui.

"Usually we have my nieces and nephews over at my place, but this year, we're thinking of just a cosy foursome - my husband and I with the kids, since he is still undergoing cancer treatment," said Ms Chui, an employee engagement specialist, who has a daughter, 21, and a son, 19. Both are studying.

Cancer is one of Singapore's top killers - one in four deaths here is due to the disease and it claims 12 lives each day.

And as Ms Chui can attest, coping is hard on both the cancer patient and the caregiver, a role she finds herself in right now.

She recalled how her husband stood by her unflinchingly throughout her own cancer journey and declared that she would do the same for him.

"My husband was always by my side - changing my dressing after the different operations I had to go through, accompanying me to all the medical appointments, and even massaging me when I needed.

"When I had to remove my breasts, he assured me time and time again that I should just do what I needed to do, and he would love me - one breast or no breast," she said candidly, with a laugh.

Now, its about rallying the strength and spirit of the family around him. "I stayed in at the hospital with him for two weeks while he was recovering from surgery," she said. "I set up a mini-office and worked from there."

Husband undergoing treatment

Her husband declined to speak with The New Paper as he is still undergoing treatment.

Now that he is recovering at home, she accompanies him to doctors' appointments at thehospital.

Ms Chui, who has been married for 21 years, said that juggling the roles of a caregiver, mother and employee can be difficult.

"But I'm managing it with support from family and an understanding employer. We'll take it one step at atime."

Dr Gilbert Fan, a social worker and psychotherapist at the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), said: "When cancer strikes, the attention is often on its victim and his pain, when in fact, the main caregiver can be as vulnerable, upset, and angry as the patient.

"Sometimes, people forget that even caregivers need a pat on the back." Dr Fan is also the head of the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and the deputy chairman of the patient support programmes at NCCS.

Dr Toh Han Chong, head and senior consultant at the NCCS department of medical oncology, said that while there are stories as touching as Ms Chui's, there are others for whom it works out very differently.

"There are stories of family and friends selflessly rallying around the patient during the difficult time, but there are also cases where relationships break down, and people die alone - that's the hardest thing," he said.

He recently wrote about his experiences in a local paper, charting how a man asked him why his wife was taking so long to die.

Dr Toh wrote about a patient named Mei, who had been diagnosed with advanced liver cancer. She continued hanging on for two weeks after he broke the news to her husband that she did not have long to live.

The husband complained about the mounting medical bills, and said he had been rushing to make funeral arrangements for her, which included a large collection of customary paper offerings.

Unfortunately his wife was within earshot during the whole conversation. She died that night.

Dr Toh said: "Oncologists often focus on treating the cancer itself, but the emotional, spiritual, and financial aspects dealing with the illness - which are borne by both patient and family - need the input of counsellors, social workers and so on."

Dr Ang Peng Tiam, the medical director of Parkway Cancer Centre, said it's much easier if you have family and friends to help when you are hit with cancer.

"But we all have an inner strength within us, and it's up

This article was first published in The New Paper.