Fighting the disease with a strong spirit

Cancer survivor Peter Gwee Choon Huat, 65, and his wife Lilian Kee Geok Tee, 60.
Cancer survivor Peter Gwee Choon Huat, 65, and his wife Lilian Kee Geok Tee, 60.ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

For Mr Peter Gwee, the worst part of getting cancer was the chemotherapy.

He would cry out in pain if his wife touched his back - the skin there had become very sensitive - and it would take him nearly an hour to go down one flight of stairs because of fatigue.

"I believe it was the lowest point in my life... my independence was taken away," said the sprightly 65-year-old, who was an active sportsman before being diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

"It seems that the disease just cripples you; your mind and body totally give up on you."

Mr Gwee's battle with cancer started in May last year, when he felt a weakness in his left leg.

  • Four main types of leukaemia

  • They can be distinguished in terms of how fast the cancer develops and the type of white blood cells that make up the leukaemia.

    Leukaemia can be either acute, developing rapidly within days or weeks, or chronic and developing slowly over months or years. The disease is further subdivided into myeloid or lymphocytic leukaemia, corresponding to the myeloid or lymphoid white blood cells in the bone marrow, says Dr Charles Chuah, senior consultant haematologist at SGH.

    ACUTE MYELOID LEUKAEMIA

    The most common type of leukaemia, with about 100 cases diagnosed in Singapore every year. It is normally treated with chemotherapy. A stem cell transplant may also be required.

    ACUTE LYMPHOCYTIC LEUKAEMIA (ALL)

    This is the most common type of leukaemia seen in children and can also affect adults. It is treated with chemotherapy. A stem cell transplant may also be required.

    CHRONIC MYELOID LEUKAEMIA

    Almost all patients are treated with targeted therapies such as imatinib, which is administered orally. It occurs in 30 to 40 patients here each year.

    CHRONIC LYMPHOCYTIC LEUKAEMIA

    About 30 patients here get it every year. Patients in the low or intermediate stages do not require treatment if they have no significant leukaemia-related signs and symptoms but are still monitored. High-risk patients are usually treated with a combination of chemotherapy and biological therapy.

    Lester Wong

But what he thought was an exercise-related injury did not improve with rest, and in fact got worse. Several weeks and a series of tests later, he received the bad news.

"Initially I was in a state of denial, and I couldn't accept it," he recalled. "I never thought that I would be a cancer patient."

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells in the blood, which usually fight infections but can go rogue.

Even getting into a taxi to go to the National University Hospital for his twice-weekly chemotherapy sessions was a struggle. "For me at that time, to go out in a taxi was nearly impossible," Mr Gwee recalled. "Once I sat down, I couldn't get up."

When doctors gave him the option of treatment at home, it was a godsend. Yet that was not the end of his ordeal.

He had to undergo a stem cell transplant late last year, which meant a long stay in hospital because they had to remove his bone marrow and administer a last, high dose of chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.

He quickly lost the little strength he had gained after his first round of chemotherapy. But even during that dark time, Mr Gwee recalled, there was support and kindness from others.

His doctor at the National University Hospital asked what he wanted their team to sing for his "second birthday" - the day of his stem cell infusion - and sing they did, with a junior doctor strumming Heal Me O Lord on the guitar beside him.

"We captured it on video - I was sitting up, and they were singing songs next to me," Mr Gwee recalled. He was finally discharged on Christmas Eve.

During the weeks of his recovery, he learnt to play the ukulele from YouTube and also picked up painting with his wife.

WAGING A MENTAL BATTLE

Initially I was in a state of denial, and I couldn't accept it... I never thought that I would be a cancer patient... Don't ask why; just accept it and move on. That's where I am today - mentally stronger.

MR PETER GWEE, offering some advice to those who have been newly diagnosed.

"Don't ask why; just accept it and move on," he advised those who have been newly diagnosed with cancer. "That's where I am today - mentally stronger."

Linette Lai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'Fighting the disease with a strong spirit'. Print Edition | Subscribe