Promising netballer dies of cancer at 14

FINAL GOODBYE: Kristie Teo (second from left) succumbed to bone cancer on Tuesday, with her father, mother and older brother around her.

Kristie Teo thought she was a step closer to her dream of becoming a national netball player when she was accepted into the Singapore Sports School in 2013.

But fate played a cruel trick on the 12-year-old girl.

On the same day she got the good news about the sports school, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.

She made the painful decision to have her left leg amputated to save her life, then bade farewell to her athlete dreams.

After two years of fighting valiantly against the cancer, Kristie died on Tuesday in the presence of her parents and older brother.

She was just 14.

Speaking to The New Paper at her wake yesterday, her mother, who wanted to be known only as Mrs Teo, 49, said quietly: "She's a fighter."

Kristie's flair for sports was obvious from a tender age.

At Primary 3, she was picked to join the school's netball team for training. At Primary 5, she represented her school at zonal and national level.

About a year later, Kristie started limping after a race at a school sports meet. Her worried mother took her for a medical check-up.

The results were shocking: She had advanced stage bone cancer.

"The doctor said straightaway that because of the severity and location, she had to have an amputation," said Mrs Teo, who quit her job as a pre-school principal so she could take care of Kristie.

"As parents, we were shocked. My daughter was right there so she was even more shocked.

"But the doctor's point was, 'I have to save your life first. So I can't save the limb'."

The parents convinced Kristie to go for the surgery, in which her entire left leg was removed at the pelvis.

Mrs Teo said: "Although she said yes, it was a different story when she woke up after the surgery.

"The first month was very, very tough for her. Every day, she woke up crying - not out of pain but out of the loss (of her leg).

"I knew she would go through this grief period, but it's tough. Every day, she kept crying, 'I want my leg back', 'I want to play netball again'. That's the hard part."

Kristie managed to pick herself up, something her parents consider a feat for someone her age.

Said Mrs Teo: "She got over the amputation within a month with the support of hospital staff. She just wanted to move on.

"We also wanted to help her to move on, normalise her life. We took her out whenever possible."

Initially, Kristie was uncomfortable with the curious stares from strangers.

"We explained to her that some people are just curious and for her to let it be and move on."

Gradually, the teenager grew more confident and started going out without feeling the need to hide her amputation. Sometimes, she even wore dresses.

BRAVE AND CONSIDERATE

Besides bravely confronting her illness, Kristie never failed to be considerate, a trait that Mrs Teo constantly mentioned during the interview.

When Kristie was studying at Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School, she would hide her pain with a smile so as not to worry her teachers.

Her loving nature also shone through in the way she placed her family's welfare before hers. For instance, knowing that her mum suffers from backaches, Kristie would offer to massage her.

On the last stage of her journey in life, when she became breathless and knew her time was running out, Kristie made it a point to tell her parents and brother: "I love all of you."

Said Mrs Teo: "We took turns to tell her about our love for her, hug her and tell her we're very proud of her, and she's very brave... She tried her very best to stay awake all the way, looking at us (as we spoke)."

Mr and Mrs Teo conceded that they have difficulty grappling with the loss of their only daughter.

"We are learning to let go. God has taught me in the last few months how to let go and knowing that by letting go, she's in a better place and there's no more pain for her," Mrs Teo said.

The couple are grateful to the Children's Cancer Foundation not just for helping their daughter but also for providing emotional support to them as caregivers.

Mr Teo, who works in the petrochemical industry, said: "They had been coming regularly to visit her. On top of that, I think hospice care came to guide us along the way. Even in the early stage of treatment, they engaged us and helped us along."

Asked what his daughter was like, the 47-year-old, who was silent for most of this interview, said simply: "I think she's courageous, she's beautiful. She's like an athlete who finished the race well, and played the game well."

DOC: RARE BUT AGGRESSIVE CANCER

In cases of osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, the tumour usually grows in the long bones close to the joints, typically around the knee or elbow, said oncologist Wong Seng Weng.

Tumours located at the pelvis, as in Kristie Teo's case, are uncommon.

The central location creates a big problem as it is difficult to remove the tumours surgically, said Dr Wong, who is the medical director of The Cancer Centre.

In most osteosarcoma cases, doctors try not to sacrifice the patient's affected limb.

"We try to salvage the limb by giving chemotherapy, doing surgery (to remove the tumour) and replace the bone, and doing reconstruction of the muscle tendons in stages to restore the limb's function," Dr Wong said.

Osteosarcoma belongs to a group of cancer type called sarcoma, which is known for its rare but aggressive nature.

According to the National Cancer Centre Singapore, sarcoma makes up 1 per cent of all malignancies.

While considered a rare cancer overall, it joins the ranks of leukaemia and lymphoma as a relatively more common cancer among the young.

Dr Wong said the symptoms include swelling at the joint.

"There will always be pain because there's something growing in the bone. Such cancers tend to cause pain fairly early, whereas other cancers that do not grow in the bone can grow to a huge size before causing symptoms," he said.

What differentiates this type of pain from regular muscle pain or strain is that rest does not alleviate the pain in bone cancer.

"With osteosarcoma, the patient actually feels the pain more in the silence of the night, when there's no distraction from the pain. It's not something that resting will improve," he said.


This article was first published on July 31, 2015.
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