Living with stage 4 cancer: a father and daughter’s story
By Clara How, Jun 20, 2019
Nadya Ang grew up with a father who was battling cancer. Her father, Ang Kok Huan, was an officer with the Singapore Armed Forces when he was diagnosed with stage four nose cancer, which would relapse nine times over eight years. He was 29.
During these years, Kok Huan channelled his focus on his wife and his baby daughter. As cancer took its toll, he eventually quit his job and became Nadya’s primary caregiver. The two looked after each other: Nadya gave Kok Huan a sense of purpose, and in turn, she gave him emotional support even as a young child. Throughout the interview, he repeatedly mentioned that it was Nadya who gave him strength.
Mr Ang is now cancer-free and the CEO of JCG Investment Holdings. He and Nadya remain exceptionally close, and though she is currently overseas for her studies, the pair speak frequently on the phone. This isn’t just a story about surviving cancer: it’s a story about the love between a father and daughter.
My name is Nadya and I’m a second year student reading medicine at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry.
My dad had cancer even before I could remember, and he had multiple relapses until I was eight years old. No one had to tell me that he was sick, or told me explicitly that he had cancer – I always knew I had a dad who wasn’t like other dads. He had no hair and he was really skinny. At the beginning I was too young to fully understand, but I figured it out on my own when I was six or seven. I Googled my dad’s symptoms, and that’s when I realised that he had cancer.
Going into healthcare was something that just felt natural to me. When I was a child, my dad was the one who took care of me. After he quit his job, it meant we had a lot of time at home together. A lot of my childhood was spent in the hospital, watching him go through chemotherapy.
When people ask me why I want to become a doctor, I do mention my dad’s medical condition. Otherwise, it’s not something that I go around telling my friends. I know it’s a sensitive and difficult topic, and I don’t want them to see me differently, or feel sorry for me.
My dad and I have always been close. When it comes to caregiving, it’s a two-way relationship between us. He took care of me as a child, but I also had to take care of him, and be independent. When he was struggling through his health issues, he needed emotional support. Even though I was only a seven-year-old, I knew I had to give that support, and keep him company. I recall giving him a lot of hugs, and telling him, “It’s all going to be okay!”
I guess Dads aren’t very vocal, even when they are sad. They don’t always run to others with their troubles. But it’s enough to know that there’s someone there for them.
Because of my dad’s battle with cancer, we learnt to rely on one another as a family. I’m close enough to my parents to call them my friends. We have a mutual respect: I don’t see them as people who shouted at me, or told me to do things. They have always explained things to me as an equal, and taught me to do things with reason.
Living with my dad’s cancer was the only reality I knew, so I never took pity on myself or the situation. I always knew that I wasn’t the one who was suffering – my dad was the one in pain, so he came first. I knew I had to stay strong for everyone.
But my dad is also a very jovial person, and remained that way even throughout chemotherapy. He would joke about his condition and lighten the mood, just to stay sane. Even if he was struggling inside, he tried hard not to show it to others and affect the people around him.
I remember being really young and pretending to play the guitar on my dad’s ribs, because he was so skinny. And he just went along with the joke. There were other times when he would be weak and faint because of the chemo, but he would mess around by stumbling around very dramatically to try and make us laugh. He never tried to show that he was struggling because he didn’t want to affect the people around him, and this attitude was something that became natural to me as well.
I remember when I was 13, I had a pretty bad injury during judo training. At the hospital, the doctors told me that my clavicle had fractured into two. It really upset me, because I couldn’t train for the competition that I had been working towards, but miraculously my body healed in time and within two months, I was back at training.
Throughout that time, my dad was really supportive. He never told me that I shouldn’t go back to judo – and that’s his approach to parenting. He’s never made any decisions for me. He said, “Which world champion has never broken a bone before?” My coach and teammates were surprised: many people quit after an injury after their parents made them pull out.
But the thing is, if my dad quit from a setback, he’d be dead by now.
What my dad taught me is that your mindset towards life is very important. It’s not about surviving - it’s about living. Even though you have a terminal illness, you don’t just wait for death to come. You have to fight it. You have to be optimistic, and look towards the best possible outcome. It might not change what happens eventually, but it can help you to be stronger.
I am considering specialising in oncology (a branch of medicine that treats cancer). I know that it’s a difficult job, and most of the patients do not get better. But because of my childhood, and the values of resilience and independence that my parents instilled in me, I feel like I can approach the job with understanding. Someone has to do this job, and I believe I can be that person.
In the process of writing this story, we met Nadya’s father, Mr Ang, twice. He was keen on sharing his story in hopes that it would inspire and motivate others with similar experiences.
My name is Kok Huan. I was diagnosed with stage four nose cancer when I was 29, at a time where I felt I had the whole world at my feet.
I was working for the Singapore Armed Forces after receiving a scholarship at 18. I was married to a beautiful wife. There was an opportunity for me to go to Indonesia for a course.
So I wasn’t very bothered when I was first told that I had cancer. At the time, I was an obnoxious young man who was full of himself, and cancer was just one thing that needed to be handled so I could carry on with my life and career. When the consultant said, “Young man, the situation is not good,” I was offended. I exclaimed, “Don’t call me young man. I’m an SAF officer. I protect you.”
I look back now and I see that cancer truly humbled me over the years. Over the course of eight years, the cancer came back nine times.
After I was diagnosed, I asked my doctor to give me a couple of days off to enjoy Chinese New Year. I remember that we started the treatment on the third day of Chinese New Year, 1999. I was young and fit, so the doctor elected the most aggressive form of treatment: 40 sessions of radiotherapy over eight weeks, interspersed with chemotherapy. But within a month, I felt a pain in my lower back.
The cancer had moved beyond my nose to my back. It spread to my spinal column and my bones, and tumours appeared on my right buttock.
I went from someone who imagined himself as a general, to someone who would break down and cry at home.
During my cancer journey, my daughter Nadya played a crucial role. As most of our attention was focused on her, it took away the pain and gave me a reason to fight, to nurture her.
I channelled all my energy to this little girl. I told myself: “I have to fight, because I am a father, a husband and a son. I need to be there for my family.”
It was my wife who dragged me to multiple doctors for different opinions, before we chose one. He was a private doctor and the bills were expensive – at one point, I needed 12 treatments over 12 weeks, and each treatment was $3,000. That was way more than my monthly take-home pay of $5,000, and of course, there were additional medical fees and I had a young daughter to look after.
I wrote down a list of names of who I could borrow money from to get by – the important thing was to survive first. It was a dark period, but we said okay, let’s work it out. When there is life, there is hope!
By my third relapse, I grew to accept the situation. I thought, whatever comes, just do it. I need to fight, because I need to be around for my family. There are so many things I want to do. I always joked, my daughter is so young and my wife is so pretty, and she worked so hard to chase me. I can’t leave them both so easily. It helped to look at the lighter side of things.
My wife has always been my pillar. I was mesmerised when I first met her through a mutual friend, and within three months we went to apply for a HDB flat. We have been married for the last 23 years. During my cancer journey, she was the one who would drag me to see the doctor when I was stumped and didn’t know what to do.
At the beginning of my cancer-fighting journey, I changed my diet from 90 per cent meat to 100 per cent organic vegetables. My wife didn’t usually cook, but she cooked a meal of vegetables for me. I remember sitting at the dining table looking at all the bowls of green, green, green… and I just couldn’t stop staring. When I told my wife I couldn’t bring myself to eat, she was devastated.
Today, when I help others with cancer counselling, I tell families that any change in lifestyle cannot be 100 per cent immediately. It needs to be gradual, and the whole family must participate. You can’t be the poor cancer patient with vegetables while everyone else feasts.
My wife has always worked in a bank, but the only time she took extended leave was when I relapsed again when our daughter was eight. I remember we were on holiday, and I experienced an intense pain. When Nadya was sleeping, I told my wife, “I think the cancer is back.”
“Can I request that you don’t work, because I need you to take care of me and I don’t know how this round will turn out. At least, we can have this time together.”
She cried and said we shouldn’t rush into a decision, but ultimately she chose to stop working when it was confirmed that I had a relapse.
By that point of time, I was earning money as a day trader and no longer working for the SAF. I knew that with my medical condition, the army was not going to be a long-term career for me, so I resigned at 35, after 17 years of service.
After I left, I knew that no corporation or employer would want to hire me, and decided that since I was spending so much time at home, I would learn how to trade. I bought books, attended seminars, and learnt the ropes. I found some success, and it was because of this money, my wife’s income and our savings, it was possible for her to stop working for some time.
I look back, and I know that we have been blessed in spite of it all. If I had been healthy, I could have been a high-ranking officer, but I would have missed my daughter’s childhood. I was home so often, I saw her grow up. We are fortunate that she was such an easy baby who slept throughout the night – I think of her as an angel sent by God.
When she was four, there was a Meet-the-Parents session at her school. The teacher asked me about my medical condition, and I was surprised as I had never informed any of the staff that I was ill. The teacher told me that it was Nadya who told her class about me. She told them, “My papa has cancer. I cannot make him angry. When I am at home, I need to be quiet because my papa needs rest. I cannot disturb him.” At that age, she was already aware.
When she was still a toddler, I would bring her to the washroom and kneel down next to her to steady her.
One morning, she noticed that there was a needle in my chest because of my treatment. She stroked my head and said, “Papa, does it hurt? Don’t be scared, you will get better.” I remember crying and hugging her, and saying that yes, I will get better.
Today, I am so proud of what Nadya has accomplished. She’s part of the school’s lacrosse team, and was a member of her secondary school’s gold medal judo team. But I’m also proud of who she is as a person. Since she was a baby, my wife and I would remark on her maturity – even as a toddler, she has always been caring and independent. She is also fearless, steady, and cool-headed.
When she was taken to hospital after breaking her collarbone in a judo accident, the doctor showed me her X-rays and said it was a very bad sports injury. He told me, “I’m impressed that Nadya remained so calm and did not cry.”
I’ve always told her that she has to live her dream, and fly as far and as high as she can. When I was still working for the SAF, whenever I had a change in camp or unit, I would bring Nadya to my workplace. I told her, this is where papa works. When you don’t see me, this is where I am. Papa and mama are fighting the world for you. But when you’re in school, you need not fight for us – you do well and fight for yourself, for your future children.
I am very aware that not all cancer journeys turn out like mine. My story may sound like a happy, motivational tale, but I know that not all stories have a happy ending.
I have been cancer-free for the last 13 years, and have since done a lot of cancer counselling. I feel like I can understand firsthand the mental turmoil and the physical pain that cancer inflicts, and I want to help.
Previously, I would counsel a fellow cancer fighter (I choose this word as I prefer not to use patient, or survivor, as it connotes passivity) several times, and most of the time, they would pass on. It became a very heavy burden, where I would ask myself, why them? Some of them didn’t have as serious a condition as mine, or have any relapses.
Now, I choose to meet a fellow cancer fighter once, share my experience, and direct them to organisations to get information and help. When I do cancer counselling, I have to be very measured, because I don’t want to give too much high hope to the family members. I tell them to be realistic, that yes, the cancer can come back, but consider, “What can we do now?” We do what needs to be done today, and for that moment.
After three years of home-based day trading, I decided to become a stock broker. I reckon trading at home is a selfish endeavour in that you’re always alone. I wanted to share my story and help others, and I can’t do that if I’m always alone with the computer.
So I thought, if I can be a stock broker, I’ll be able to share both my trading knowledge and weave in my story about fighting cancer. So I got a job at Phillip Securities where I would work for 11 years, eventually becoming the Deputy Head of the Managed Accounts Department.
Last December, I was appointed Executive Director and CEO of JCG Investment Holdings Ltd, an SGX listed company. Since this appointment, we have been working towards rebranding and rebuilding a new strategy and direction for the company.
There will now be two pillars: health and wealth, which are two key pillars in our lives, and two aspects that I am intimately aware of. The plan is to expand the company to include healthcare, beauty and wellness, as well as real estate-related investments and services.
As someone in the privileged position of shaping a company, I want it to be built strongly on certain values. Our slogan is ‘Health and Wealth – A Beautiful Journey’, because I believe in choosing to look at the beautiful side of things. Do we want to see a glass as half empty, or half full? I could have been a high ranking officer, but life didn’t allow me to live that dream. Instead, I became very close to my family, and for that I am grateful.
Whenever I tell my story to people, I tell them that I transited from Khatib camp as a soldier to where I am now at Raffles Place. My past is important to me, and I feel like I want to share my journey to inspire others, and how it has made me the person I am today.
Every step has shaped this family together as a unit. It has been a beautiful journey, and mostly because of my daughter.
She’s studying overseas now, so it’s just my wife and me, and life can be a little bit routine. One night, when we were at home, my wife asked me what I was thinking.
I said, I’m imagining Nadya’s wedding. I envisage the day where I can “hand over” Nadya to a better man than me. I will want to have five minutes to make a speech at the dinner, but is that too short? As a proud father, I have so much to say about her. She is my love, and my pride.