Colorectal cancer survivor working his way back to fitness after 'horrendous' period

Mr Arun Rosiah is not just a physical exercise specialist by profession. He also walks the talk, taking part in marathons, and is able to do hundreds of push-ups a day.

So it came as a rude shock when he discovered he had third-stage colorectal cancer at the age of 51.

He first noticed something was wrong in March last year. He needed to go to the toilet more frequently and there was blood in his stools, which were pencil thin.

But he felt no pain so he did not go to a doctor till the end of October. In fact, if not for his vertigo spells, he probably would have put it off even longer. The primary school teacher waited for a school break before going to the Woodlands Polyclinic, where the doctor referred him to specialists at National University Hospital.

The vertigo turned out to be minor - but not his other problem. The specialist said it looked "nasty" and that Mr Arun needed a colonoscopy as soon as possible.

Mr Arun with the stoma bag which collects his faeces while his body recovers from his treatment for colorectal cancer, which involved surgery to remove a tumour and 20cm of his large intestine and rectum. The bag is a temporary measure. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

"I immediately thought I had cancer and that I was going to be dead soon," he recalled.

But he kept the ominous possibility from his wife, also a teacher, even while she went with him to the hospital. She said: "He looked calm when he came out, so I didn't think it was anything serious."

They had lunch, and were going for "retail therapy" when she asked him: "So, what did the doctor say?"

That was when she found out. She broke down completely and was furious that he had kept his problem a secret from her till then.

That night, they told their children, now aged 14, 18 and 20.

But he did not start his treatment immediately, against his doctor's advice. His older children were still studying at the polytechnic, but it was the year-end holidays for his youngest son.

He and his wife decided to take him for a short holiday in Penang.

Mr Arun recalled: "I was afraid this might be the last time we could go on holiday together."

The price for the hotel room was high, since it was a last-minute booking. While they were checking in, the staff at G Hotel Kelawai asked why they had not booked earlier for a cheaper rate. They upgraded the family to a suite when they found out.

It was the best holiday they had ever had, said his wife, whose name is also Rosiah. He began treatment this January. His doctors decided to try to shrink the tumour, which was in the rectum, with chemotherapy and radiation, before they removed it through surgery.

The first few sessions were fine, but then the radiation took its toll. Moving his bowels felt like "there were more than 1,000 needles poking me. On a pain scale of 1-10, this was a 12", said Mr Arun.

His doctor gave him painkillers, which worked but made him constipated. That then caused bloatedness and pain. That period was "horrendous", he said.

But there was good news to come. Following surgery to remove the tumour and 20cm of his large intestine and rectum, doctors found he was clear of cancer.

By October, he was back at work.

He still has a stoma bag to collect his faeces while his body recovers but this is temporary. It will be removed next month and he will be "normal" again.

But life is anything but normal now. After his close brush with death, he is closer to his family, his faith and to the friends who stuck by him. What has not changed is that he is training for next year's StanChart marathon.

Colorectal cancer stats

Source: Singapore Cancer Registry

Stage Number of cases Per cent of total 5-year survival (%)
1 1,301 15.6 84.4
2 2,193 26.2 69.3
3 2,772 33.2 55.7
4 2,091 25.0 10.2
Total 8,537 - 50.7

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2016, with the headline Colorectal cancer survivor: Working his way back to fitness after 'horrendous' period. Subscribe