GenerationGrit

Caregiver to mum, and now cancer survivor

As a teenager, Miss Nur Diyana Abdul Aziz watched her mother battle cancer. Five years later, she had to contend with her own cancer. From aggressive chemotherapy to the death of her best friend, she tells the story of how she fought to stay alive.
Miss Nur Diyana Abdul Aziz, who battled ovarian cancer as a 21-year-old, with her mother, Madam Noraidah Amin, a breast cancer survivor. Miss Nur Diyana, now 26, says cancer taught her to look beyond herself. She set a goal to forge a career in custo
Miss Nur Diyana Abdul Aziz, who battled ovarian cancer as a 21-year-old, with her mother, Madam Noraidah Amin, a breast cancer survivor. Miss Nur Diyana, now 26, says cancer taught her to look beyond herself. She set a goal to forge a career in customer service, and is now training to be an assistant manager at a food and beverage chain.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Miss Nur Diyana Abdul Aziz, who as a teenager helped her mother fight cancer, was struck by the disease at age 21. She persevered through treatment, overcame self-esteem issues and is determined not to live in fear. This is her story, told to The Straits Times in a series about inspiring millennials.

As a teenager, she watched her mother battle cancer.

Five years later, she had her own fight with the disease as a 21-year-old. It taught her to conquer fear, she told The Straits Times.

When her mother fell ill with breast cancer in 2008, Miss Nur Diyana Abdul Aziz, then 17, thought it was the toughest hand life could deal her family.

"I was really scared. I couldn't bear the thought of losing my mum," said the eldest of four children.

The teenager became a caregiver to her mother - a housewife - as well as her younger siblings, who were then aged 16, 10, and six.

"It was a mess. I had to make sure they did their homework, even though I myself was not doing mine." She was in her first year of polytechnic at the time, and her grades suffered.

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"What made it more stressful was people telling me that if my mother left us, I would have to fill her shoes. As a 17-year-old, I wasn't ready for that," said Miss Nur Diyana, now 26.

She contemplated quitting school as the family was struggling to survive on her father's $3,000 monthly income as a driver.

"But my mother told me that if she died, her last wish would be to see me graduate, so I stayed in school," said Miss Nur Diyana, who received her diploma in interactive media design in 2011.

To get by, the family depended on financial assistance from the Association of Muslim Professionals.

Fortunately, Madam Noraidah Amin's treatment was successful, and celebrations were in order five years later, when the housewife, who is now 53, was officially in remission.

FILLED WITH FEAR

I was really scared. I couldn't bear the thought of losing my mum... What made it more stressful was people telling me that if my mother left us, I would have to fill her shoes. As a 17-year-old, I wasn't ready for that. ''

MISS NUR DIYANA ABDUL AZIZ, on her struggles after her mother fell ill with breast cancer in 2008.

But another blow was to come. Miss Nur Diyana developed troubling symptoms in 2013 at 21. She was just four days into a new job as a barista at a coffee house when she was hit by severe abdominal pains one morning at home.

"It felt like someone had stabbed me multiple times. My mother had to call an ambulance."

After a series of checks and scans, doctors found a 20cm-by-20cm lump on her ovary.

She was rushed into emergency surgery to remove it, as well as her left ovary and fallopian tube.

The diagnosis of Stage 1A ovarian cancer came a week later.

She remembers the day vividly. She was home alone with her father when the phone call came from the hospital.

"I remember it was raining. After I broke the news to my dad, he left the flat and didn't come back for a while," she recalled. Her sister later told her that her father had gone to a nearby bus stop to wait for her mother, who had gone out to buy food, and they had sat there and wept for about 30 minutes.

"They didn't want me to see them cry," said Miss Nur Diyana.

It was a blow for someone who had always been healthy and enjoyed playing street soccer.

She went through three cycles of chemotherapy, which she thought would "not be too bad", having seen her mother go through it.

"I thought I was ready for it.But it was hell on earth."

The treatment made her lose her hair, and caused her tongue, fingernails and toenails to turn black.

"Everything I ate or drank tasted like bitter cough medicine. Every day, I would cry. I wanted to give up because it was so painful."

She missed being able to go out and do ordinary things. "I couldn't leave my home. My body was not that of a 21-year-old. It was weak and fragile."

Recalling that period, Madam Noraidah said despite the shock and sadness over her daughter's diagnosis, she tried to be positive for her. "I survived cancer. But it's different when your child goes through it," she said.

Madam Noraidah said that the family's savings had been depleted by her own cancer treatment, but fortunately, insurance covered part of her daughter's medical bills.

They also received help from the Ain Society, which provides cancer patients and their families with financial help and counselling.

For a year after her surgery, Miss Nur Diyana struggled to find a job.

"Some companies couldn't look past my status as a cancer survivor. I applied for many jobs and didn't get them. My morale started to slide."

Eventually, she was hired as an executive assistant at the Ain Society but picking herself up was still a struggle.

Her bones were dangerously fragile because of the chemotherapy, and she had also gained 15kg as a result of steroid treatment. It affected her self-esteem. "My dream was to have a job in customer service, but I would look at myself in the mirror and feel ashamed."

The hardest of all? The man who had stuck with her through the illness, and who she thought she would marry, broke up with her.

She turned to cutting her wrists and legs for relief. "The penknife was my best friend," she said wryly, adding that there were at least three instances when she sat on her bedroom window ledge contemplating suicide. "But I knew I wasn't ready to leave my family."

The death of a close school friend in 2016, from pancreatic cancer, made her snap out of her depressive state.

"She was a fighter, she was much stronger than I. The only time I saw her weak was on her death bed. It made me realise I had survived cancer - why should I give up?"

Though she tried to withdraw from her family and friends, they never stopped reaching out to her and encouraging her.

One day, she realised: "They were all fighting for me to live. Why couldn't I fight for myself to live?"

She realised she also wanted to debunk a common perception of cancer survivors. Family members would ask her siblings about their work, but when it came to her, they would tell her not to do too much.

Though they meant well, she felt she needed to prove that she was not limited by her cancer.

"I set my goals to forge a career in customer service. Before that, I had no goals or dreams," said Miss Nur Diyana, who is now training to be an assistant manager at a food and beverage chain.

Cancer taught her to look beyond herself, she said. "And it's also important to keep the right people around you to keep you going," said Ms Nur, who is entering remission this year. One of them, who picked her up when she was at her lowest, is now her fiance. They plan to get married this year.

Thinking back on the last few years, she said fear and self-pity ruled her life for a long time.

"I'm still afraid sometimes," she admitted, "of not being able to have children, and that cancer will come back. But I don't want to live in fear. It's exhausting."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2018, with the headline 'Caregiver to mum, and now cancer survivor'. Print Edition | Subscribe