Generation Grit

Generation Grit: Through cancer's long shadow, she saw survival as a second chance at life

Nur Diyana Abdul Aziz was stricken by ovarian cancer in 2013, just five years after her mother, Noraidah Amin, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
Nur Diyana Abdul Aziz was stricken by ovarian cancer in 2013, just five years after her mother, Noraidah Amin, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

As a teenager, Nur Diyana Abdul Aziz, watched her mother battle cancer. Five years later, the 21-year-old had her own battle to fight. It taught her to conquer fear, she told The Straits Times, in a series about inspiring millennials.

SINGAPORE - When her mother fell ill with breast cancer in 2008, Ms 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 and her younger siblings, 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 wasn't surprised when her grades for the first year of polytechnic suffered.

"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 Ms Nur Diyana, now 26.

She contemplated quitting school to work, 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," she said. In 2011, she graduated with a diploma in Interactive Media Design.

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.

But another blow was to come when Ms Nur Diyana developed troubling symptoms in 2013.

She was just four days into a new job as a barista at a coffeehouse, when she was bent double by severe abdominal pains one morning at home.

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

After a series of checks and scans, doctors found a 20-by-20 cm 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."

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. For about 30 minutes they had sat there and wept. "They didn't want me to see them cry," said Ms Nur Diyana. She was only 21 years old.

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 witnessed her mother's experience.

"I thought I was ready for it.But I realised that she had made it look easy. It was hell on earth."

The treatment made her lose her hair, and caused her tongue and finger and toe nails 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 at her daughter's diagnosis, she tried to be positive for her. "I survived cancer. But it's different when your child goes through it."

Madam Noraidah said 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, Ms 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.


Nur Diyana Abdul Aziz was stricken by ovarian cancer in 2013, just five years after her mother, Noraidah Amin, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

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."

Hardest of all, the man who had stuck with her through the illness, 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 that 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, and 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, so why would I give up?"

 
 

Though she tried to withdraw from family and friends, they never stopped reaching outand 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 wanted to live also to debunk a common perception of cancer survivors. Family members would ask her siblings about school or work, but when it came to her, they would advise her not to do too much.

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

"I set my goals to forge a career in customer service. Before, I had no goals or dreams," said Ms 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."

GENERATION GRIT: Know of a Singaporean aged 35 or below who has shown grit amid life's adversities? E-mail us at stnewsdesk@sph.com.sg