S'pore couple diagnosed with cancer 10 days apart

PHOTO: S'pore couple diagnosed with cancer 10 days apart

SINGAPORE - It took just 10 days for their world to be turned upside down by cancer.

First, local hotelier Noel Hawkes found out, by chance, that he had stage four non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. Just over a week later, his Singaporean wife Nancy was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer.

This was two years ago, when their only son, Brian, was 12.

Mr Hawkes, vice-president for partnership and engagement at Resorts World Sentosa, recalled his son's reaction: "He said he was 'overwhelmed with fear'.

"Not only did his dad get cancer, but his mum as well. It was very stressful for him."

Now, Mr Hawkes, 62, is in remission while his wife, who is in her 50s and the senior group division head at property consultancy firm JLL Residential, has been cured.

Their ordeal has inspired their good friend of 16 years, Mr Patrick Fiat, to do his bit after having seen the impact of the disease.

The general manager of Royal Plaza on Scotts ran in Sunday's Race Against Cancer, organised by the Singapore Cancer Society. Mr Fiat has already raised more than $15,600 for the charity.

Said the 62-year-old Frenchman: "You read so much about cancer... but the anguish doesn't hit you until cancer hits someone close to you. I was aware, but not concerned."

In February 2012, cancer was also the furthest thing from Mr Hawkes' mind when he got in a minor accident while skiing in Switzerland.

His ski pole had hit the ice, injuring his thumb.

The pain from the "bad sprain" that a doctor in Switzerland said would heal in six weeks was still there after two months. Tests done in Singapore showed there was a tumour in his thumb.

He was later found to have non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but doctors said it was curable, and he had a 70 per cent chance of survival. Mrs Hawkes could hardly believe that her husband, who went to the gym three times a week and had full-body medical check-ups every year, would fall victim to cancer.

"I thought, if he's so healthy and he got cancer, what are the chances for other people?'" she said.

So during his 10-day stay in Mount Elizabeth Hospital, she took a blood test just in case, even though she went for regular check-ups. Everything ticked off right except for one marker - CA 125.

The day after getting her test results, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her prognosis was not as good.

Said Mr Hawkes, a Singapore permanent resident from Ireland who has lived here for almost three decades: "When we went to see the doctor, he told me, 'Yours is curable. Nancy's is dangerous.'

"Her survival rate was less than 25 per cent.

"Of course we didn't tell her that then."

Unaware of the severity of her condition, she initially refused to undergo chemotherapy.

"I thought I should be able to survive for the next 10 years without chemo as I didn't feel sick," she said. "But the doctor said, 'It's in your blood. In six weeks, (the cancer cells) could swim to your breasts or kidneys.'"

So every three weeks for the next six months, the couple went to the hospital together to complete six rounds of chemotherapy. They spent their 20th wedding anniversary, which fell on July 18, 2012, there. Their oncologist even bought them a bottle of champagne.

The treatment took its toll.

The steroids put their emotions in a tailspin. It was especially hard for Mrs Hawkes. She felt nauseous and had no appetite. Her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes fell off. She recalls her doctor's advice then - do not fall into depression.

"It's easy to say that, but when it hits you, you ask yourself, 'Why me? Why can't I eat?'

"You get angry," she said.

"Mentally, I couldn't avoid (such thoughts), so I went for walks to try to take my mind off it."

It was "a positive spirit, a good doctor, good friends and divine intervention" that brought them through their ordeal, said Mr Hawkes, in an hour-long interview filled with jokes and laughter.

The couple are Catholics.

Mr Fiat visited Mr Hawkes in hospital twice a day bearing steaks and scrambled eggs, which had protein that Mr Hawkes needed to strengthen himself for chemotherapy.

Mr Fiat also started exercising regularly himself.

Mrs Hawkes was "100 per cent" cleared of cancer earlier this year, while her husband continues to see the doctor every six weeks for antibody therapy.

These days, the Hawkes, who live in Sentosa Cove, are taking life a little easier, travelling more often and being less calculative about their spending.

"In the past, I would fight every battle that came along," said Mr Hawkes. "Now, if I can't influence the outcome of something, I walk away.

"I choose my battles."

Mrs Hawkes had this advice to share with other cancer sufferers.

"Have a positive mindset, don't fall into depression and don't be resigned to it."

mellinjm@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on August 3, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.