Blood cancer sufferer fights back, organises charity event

Retiree Chan Li Leng, 60, credits her husband, Paul, for being her companion during her fight against multiple myeloma. She is behind a charity walk-and-cycle event to raise awareness and research funds for the condition here.
Retiree Chan Li Leng, 60, credits her husband, Paul, for being her companion during her fight against multiple myeloma. She is behind a charity walk-and-cycle event to raise awareness and research funds for the condition here.ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH

Retiree hopes to raise $500,000 for multiple myeloma research here

RETIREE Chan Li Leng remembers vividly the day she started to walk again.

Eight years ago, on a cool, breezy morning at Changi Beach Park, she stepped out of the wheelchair she had spent six months in as she battled multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer.

It had been an unbearable period for the spritely woman, who loved playing tennis, taking walks with her husband and cycling.

Now 60, Mrs Chan has the cancer under control but she is also continuing to fight it in a different way. She is organising a charity walk-and-cycle event on May 16 to raise awareness of multiple myeloma here.

All 200 places for the event have been taken.

Mrs Chan, who used to work in a bank, also hopes to raise $500,000 for the National University Cancer Institute's multiple myeloma research efforts.She is more than halfway there, having raised almost $300,000 from friends and former colleagues since February.

"I want (other myeloma sufferers) to know that with medical advances, this illness is not a death sentence," said Mrs Chan.

Doctors say that with the right treatment, patients can live for another 10 years on average.

Mrs Chan was diagnosed with the cancer in 2007 after a series of debilitating backaches.

Checks revealed compression fractures on her spine. "The doctor was puzzled why I had compression fractures without any reason and ordered a blood test," recalled Mrs Chan.

A bone marrow biopsy confirmed her doctor's suspicions that she had multiple myeloma.

Mrs Chan recalled feeling confused and alone.

"I had never heard of multiple myeloma, and it puzzled me how a blood condition could cause damage to the bone," she said.

The cancer affects cells in the bone marrow and can cause bone damage, kidney failure and bone marrow failure.

Mrs Chan was put on a potent cocktail of drugs, but they made her weak, and carried side effects like diarrhoea and peripheral neuropathy, which affects nerve endings.

"I couldn't feel the floor when I was walking. It was so dangerous," said Mrs Chan.

Because of the risk of fractures, doctors advised her to use a wheelchair. During this time, she shuttled in and out of hospital, staying for up to a month at a time.

Her husband, Paul, was her constant companion. "Those times were scary, but there was always someone here with me," said Mrs Chan, who missed her two sons' graduation ceremonies.

Mr Chan, a former director of a technology company, and the couple's three children, who are between 27 and 33 now, would take turns to spend time with her in the hospital.

Meanwhile, Mr Chan read up about multiple myeloma and consulted doctors. Now, the 61-year-old retiree is an expert on the condition.

He keeps tabs on her medication and rattles off some of the drugs she has taken, including dexamethasone, velcade and thalidomide, which caused children in the 1950s and 1960s to be born with deformities after doctors prescribed it to pregnant women for morning sickness. Thalidomide has found new life in the fight against this cancer.

His wife now blogs about the disease and the couple are part of a multiple myeloma support group.

Hope plays a big part in this battle, Mrs Chan said, pointing out that when she was first diagnosed, the life expectancy for sufferers was five years. Newer drugs have doubled the life expectancy since then.

Although there is no cure, they have helped patients such as Mrs Chan, who is still trying to achieve remission, live as normal a life as possible.

"Every day is precious," she said. "We all can't live forever but while we're here, we must live life to the fullest."

dansonc@sph.com.sg