Despite cancer, he finds ways to soar

Recurring tumour halts his pilot dream, but B. Kanesh keeps love for aviation alive

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When he was 11, Mr B. Kanesh was diagnosed with cancer. After a year and a half of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, he recovered. A decade later, the cancer returned. Despite his illness, he never gave up on his dream of becoming an aerospace engineer.
Mr B. Kanesh at Pixel, an innovation space at one-north for infocomm and media companies. Mr Kanesh, who belonged to the first batch of students to do the Diploma in Aeronautical and Aerospace Technology at Nanyang Polytechnic in 2009, set up a stude
Mr B. Kanesh at Pixel, an innovation space at one-north for infocomm and media companies. Mr Kanesh, who belonged to the first batch of students to do the Diploma in Aeronautical and Aerospace Technology at Nanyang Polytechnic in 2009, set up a student interest group for those interested in aviation there, and it later inspired him to set up his own company, Arrowdynamic Laboratories, at the age of 17. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

When B. Kanesh was 11, doctors found a tumour in his nasal region. It was soft tissue sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that can occur in any part of the body.

He spent the next 1 1/2 years having chemotherapy and radiotherapy in between going to school. He had to take some of his PSLE papers while in hospital.

The cancer eventually went into remission but Mr Kanesh, now 27, said he was too young then to appreciate the gravity of his situation. "I just wanted to be able to play like any other kid," he said.

Eventually, he seemed to put the illness behind him. But, about two years ago, just as he was pursuing his passion for planes and space travel and close to earning a mechanical engineering degree, the cancer returned.

It was even more aggressive this time, and he fully understood what that meant.

He underwent two operations in 2017 and last year, only to have the tumour return each time. It was radiation-induced sarcoma, an unfortunate side effect of the therapy which he underwent as a young child.

During his first operation, doctors removed his right maxilla bone, which supports the eye socket and holds the teeth on the upper jaw, along with the tumour. They reconstructed his face with muscles from his abdomen, but he had to learn to chew with the left side of his mouth, and now needs more time to eat.

He cannot taste flavours, a side effect of the drugs that he had to take, and he is more sensitive to spicy food.

The second operation left him without control of his right eye, as one of the muscles holding the eye in place was removed with the tumour. While he can still see out of the eye, it is unable to sync with the focus of his left eye. He copes by closing his right eye most of the time.

"I was really devastated and disappointed. Just when I thought I was going to join the workforce and support myself, I got pushed back again," said Mr Kanesh.

"But through this journey, I've learnt to pick myself up from adversity. The longer I dwell on something, the harder it is to recover."

A few days after his second operation last July, he strode proudly across the stage at Nanyang Technological University's graduation ceremony to receive his certificate.

He is currently undergoing chemotherapy and radiation again. The tumour has returned a third time but doctors deem surgery too risky.

"Each operation and treatment is a new reminder that anything could happen, that things could turn south very quickly," said Mr Kanesh.

"I have come to terms knowing my time here could be long or short, so instead I think about what I can do in the time I have left."

He lives with a sense of purpose, taking a leap where others might hesitate.

In between treatment sessions, he works at his own start-up, Arrowdynamic Laboratories, where he is building a solar plane with support from the Infocomm Media Development Authority.

He also volunteers with various grassroots organisations, two of which he is the vice-chairman: Narpani Pearavai Youth (or Indian Activity Executive Committees Council's Youth section), and the Yew Tee Community Club's Indian Activity Executive Committee.

"I hope to come up with more meaningful programmes, especially for the Indian community, and encourage people to be more innovative and try new things," said Mr Kanesh.

While always raring to go, he admits there are times he is forced to take a break, when he is bedridden or exhausted from treatment.

He also admits that he worries about the financial burden on his family from his medical bills. His father, 58, is an educator, while his mother, 49, is a customer service officer. He has a younger brother who is 22.

But if there is anything that his childhood has taught him, it is how to be positive.

"I wanted to be a pilot," said Mr Kanesh. "But when I realised later that I couldn't because of my medical history, I switched to engineering, so I could design and test out aircraft."

In secondary school, he was bullied for being different, and shunned by others.

"I was the most different-looking guy in my school. I had a big burn mark on my face due to radiation (treatment), I was very weak and skinny, and I didn't have any hair," said Mr Kanesh.

To cope, he channelled his energy into learning more about planes.

Instead of fretting about not fitting in, he joined the Youth Flying Club, where he got to build model planes and fly them. He took part in many competitions, like the Singapore Amazing Flying Challenge, where he won Best Performance, and the Singapore Space Challenge, where he was the second runner-up.

Mr Kanesh later enrolled in Nanyang Polytechnic as part of the first batch of students for the Diploma in Aeronautical and Aerospace Technology in 2009, and set up a student interest group for those interested in aviation.

He realised that he had enough knowledge to teach others to fly drones or planes, which became the inspiration for him to set up his own company at age 17, though it had to be put on hold when he enlisted for national service.

Due to his medical history, he was given a physical employment standard (PES) grade of E, one above PES F given to those exempted from military service.

"I didn't want people to see me as a former cancer patient, but as one of the guys, so I really got into fitness," said Mr Kanesh. He attended more than 10 sporting events such as the Tri-Factor Triathlon and the New Moon KHCycle MetaSprint Series: Triathlon, and also achieved several awards while in NS, such as Best Soldier of the Month.


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"I was really just fighting my ego," said Mr Kanesh. In his head, he dismissed the PES grade, telling himself: "I'm a triathlete'."

Mr Lim Seng, founder of local technology firm In.Genius, which hopes to send the first Singaporean to space, can vouch for those traits in Mr Kanesh.

Mr Lim invited the young man to join his team of fewer than 10 people six years ago.

The 59-year-old described Mr Kanesh as one of his best engineers: "He is a person you can rely on to solve difficult problems without complaining.

"He dreams as if he will live forever, and lives as if each day is his last."

Mr Kanesh agreed: "It is important to live to the fullest every day.

"My situation is complicated, things can turn south very quickly. It's not like when you have the flu and you take medicine and you get better. I have to be ready for any scenario and I must accept it."

He added: "From a young age, I learnt to just go with the flow and be happy as much as I can, because if you don't do that, you're going to be really miserable."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2019, with the headline Despite cancer, he finds ways to soar. Subscribe