Rising above cancer: 5 distinctions despite year in hospital

SINGAPORE - For a year, her second home was the hospital where she was being treated for cancer.

When Nur Amirah Amir, 16, returned to school in the middle of 2012, it was with a wig and a renewed determination to catch up on her studies.

The Pasir Ris Secondary School student had five distinctions for her N levels this year.

The results were announced last Thursday.

"I was so worried. I've been studying hard for the past 1½ years," she said.

In Secondary 1 and 2, she barely passed English and never did well in Science.

But the cancer changed her.

She began to read more and studied even if no test was coming up.

"Before I was sick, I played music, danced, watched television... I didn't really study," she said.

Nur Amirah said the new Polytechnic Foundation Programme (PFP), which allows direct entry to a diploma course, was a source of motivation.

Her aggregate of seven points is well below the cut-off of 11 to qualify for the programme, which she hopes to take for an eventual course in business accounting.

"I'd like to be an accountant or auditor. I love calculations," she said.

Falling ill

Sickness struck in the middle of Secondary 3, when Nur Amirah had chest pains for a few weeks.

A general practitioner said he could hear wheezing near her heart. Doctors found a tumour and a first biopsy showed a normal growth.

But a second biopsy showed she had a second-stage Malignant Rhabdoid Tumour.

A 10-hour open heart surgery followed, as well as nine cycles of chemotherapy and 25 sessions of radiotherapy.

The operation, during which a 500g tumour pressing on her heart was removed, was the only time she feared death, Nur Amirah said.

"The doctors said there was a 10 per cent chance of death. I was really afraid," she said.

After surgery, she was in intensive care for four days. In less than a week, she started on chemotherapy.

"It was tiring. I had all the side effects - vomiting, nausea, bitterness in throat, ulcer in the mouth.

"Sometimes, it was painful all over and my hands were numb." Each chemotherapy cycle took at least three to four days in the hospital.

She would be hospitalised extra days for checks and ended up spending most of the year there.

Withdrawing from friends

"When I started on chemotherapy, I pushed my friends away and didn't let them see me.

"I didn't want people to see me in that condition," she said.

"I was frustrated, but I had to go through it. Sometimes I was in denial, but I kept on thinking God will always be there, my parents are there."

Family members stayed in the hospital with her so she was never lonely, said Nur Amirah, who has a sister, 18, and two brothers aged 3 and 13.

Her father, Mr Amir Ramat, a 46-year old cargo coordinator, said: "We thought, why must she be the one? We felt it's not fair and she deserves a better life. As parents, we wanted to see her succeed and have a family."

The comeback

Nur Amirah said going back with a wig was daunting.

She said: "I was scared people would talk about it because I looked different.

But I was welcomed on my first day. Everyone was so kind."

She flourished in school, receiving an award for good character last year and the Eagles award for good leadership and service this year.

She was also a student councillor and the vice-chairman of the Malay Dance troupe.

Her physics and form teacher, Madam Siti Mariam, 42, praised her resilience. "She was able to adapt and contribute," Madam Siti said.

"They could see this and nominated her as class chairman. She earned the respect of her peers. When she speaks, they listen."

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