Youth fights brain cancer, returns to school, scores even better grade

There are many education heroes like Tay Wei Ren.

But to sum up his story that way would grossly oversimplify the challenges he faced.

On May 27, the 21-year-old graduated from the electronics course in Temasek Polytechnic. Just two years ago, it was not clear if he would be able to go back to school again.

He had found out in December 2011 that he had had brain cancer.

Once a basketball player, the then-Holy Innocents' High School student had played the sport up to thrice a week and took part in school competitions.

In polytechnic, he helped his team win gold at an intra-course competition.

Today, the slim young man struggles to scale staircases.

Wei Ren is a cancer hero. And like him, there are other young cancer survivors who have decided to inspire others.

Wei Ren was diagnosed with brain cancer while on internship in the second year of his course.

He was hit by intense, "drilling" headaches daily.

After self-administered treatment did not ease his pain, his mother, Madam Chua Siew Cheng, 49, took him to Mount Alvernia Hospital, where the doctor suggested an MRI scan.

The scan revealed a malignant brain tumour in the centre of his brain.

"I felt like I was in a drama," said Wei Ren. "These kind of things only happen in a drama."


The same day, Wei Ren was transferred to Gleneagles Hospital for an intensive shunt surgery, which drained the excess fluid from his brain. Fluid had collected in his brain because of the tumour, causing the headaches.

Intensive daily radiotherapy treatment was done in the weeks that followed, causing side effects such as vomiting and fainting spells.

Said his sister, Miss Tay Yun Xia, 24: "My mother and I had to be by him in the toilet at home for fear of him fainting,"

An infection from the shunt complicated his condition, giving him a high fever for three weeks. This meant that his medical deferment from school was extended from one semester to two.

Wei Ren finally returned to school about a year later, in October 2012.

To his dismay, he learnt that his preferred aerospace option track was no longer offered.

But he still worked hard. With the help of his friend Abdul Fatah Kamarudin, 20, Wei Ren achieved a Grade Point Average of 3.95 out of 4 in his first semester back in school, surprising even himself. Previously, he had had a cumulative score of 3.24.

He has a place to read sustainable infrastructure at the Singapore Institute of Technology after national service.

Wei Ren's lecturer, Ms Chen Yoke Yeng, said: "I could not recognise him at first (when he returned to school) because he used to be quite muscular. I remember him as a very outdoor person.

"There was this day he came after his basketball game, still perspiring, and went straight to represent his course in running. He was a very active person.

"Now, he gets breathless climbing up stairs to move from class to class. But we're just happy he's back."

Madam Chua's biggest concern for her son is his future.

"There is only $3,000 left in his insurance for the rest of his life. This is a great burden. I really hope his cancer does not come back," she sighed.

They seek to give hope

They survived cancer and now want to help others like them fight the disease.

A group of 12 young people, with ages ranging from 13 to 27, formed Youth Comm in 2010.

One of its founders, Mr Divesh Singaraju, 21, said: "It is just 'Youth Comm', plain and simple. It does not stand for any long word. We are just good friends who want to help each other and others."

Mr Divesh himself was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes when he was 10 and he suffered a relapse when he was 17.

He had to delay his entry into Singapore Polytechnic's Aeronautical Engineering course for a year as he fought the cancer.

But the delay did not prevent him from doing well in school. He won a Lee Kuan Yew award for being one of the top graduates.

Mr Divesh also did well enough to get a place at the National University of Singapore to read mechanical engineering. He was exempted from national service.

He and his friends first seriously considered this idea of a cancer survivors' support group in 2007, when a social worker from the Children's Cancer Foundation (CCF) suggested it.

The group had met each other at hospital check-ups and CCF camps.


They were initially apprehensive about setting it up, figuring they were too young then. But in 2010, they felt they were ready and formed the group.

"It really is just a welfare-based movement and we seek to empower fellow cancer patients, especially children. We seek to empower them with hope and strength," said Mr Divesh.

Besides visits to welfare organisations and hospitals, the group also encourages others by putting up dance events.

They have performed in charity fundraising events for organisations such as Make-A-Wish Foundation (Singapore).

Dance, Mr Divesh believes, is a way to show young cancer sufferers that the cancer survivors from Youth Comm have truly overcome their illness.

"We believe that our dance performances can give young cancer sufferers the faith that they can overcome their illness," he said.

At the end of the day, Youth Comm is just a group of friends who understand what the others have gone through.

Mr Divesh explained: "Even if parents of young cancer patients are well-meaning, they sometimes do not understand what their children are going through."

"We know what it is like to be bullied because of rapid weight gain or hair loss. And we sometimes joke about such things.

"It's something you can only do among fellow cancer survivors."

This article was first published on June 9, 2014.
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