This nasopharyngeal cancer survivor found his own ways to deal with the side effects of his treatment and now leads a support group. Ng Wan Ching reports
Mr Teo Thiam Chye, 57, not only survived nasopharyngeal cancer twice, but he is also a fervent mentor to other survivors of the cancer. Looking at him, you would not be able to tell he has undergone two gruelling treatments for cancer. There are no scars on his face. The first round of treatment in 2003, when he first discovered he had stage two nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC), was a course of radiation therapy, which lasted five days a week for seven weeks.
Unable to find anyone to turn to, the father of two did research online on how to calm the side effects of radiation, which were mouth ulcers and burnt skin around his neck. “Nobody could really tell me what to do. I found out myself that manuka honey was good for ulcers in the mouth and aloe vera, the real thing, was good to rub on my skin,” he said, proudly showing off the baby-soft skin on his neck. The remedies worked so well that he could still enjoy a bowl of yong tau foo at a food centre near the hospital after radiation therapy each time. After that treatment, he was in remission for 4 1/2 years. Just when he thought he would be given the all-clear, a check up in May 2008 showed his cancer had returned. It was a huge blow. But Mr Teo, who recently retired as a programme director at the Media Development Authority, did not let it get him down for long. He was offered a choice of chemotherapy and radiation therapy or surgery. He chose surgery. Once again, he faced it with optimism and a can-do attitude.
His surgeon, Professor Christopher Goh, head and senior consultant at the department of otolaryngology at Singapore General Hospital, did a mid-facial degloving procedure to gain access to his tumour and remove it. The operation, which Prof Goh has been doing since 2000, takes three to four hours and does not leave any scars on a patient’s face, unlike previous surgical methods, which cut through a patient’s cheekbone to get to the tumour. “We do 10 to 15 such cases a year in the SGH campus,” he said.
At SGH, the procedure costs between $5,000 and $11,000. Mr Teo said he did not have to pay anything out of his own pocket after subsidies were given and Medisave and Medishield kicked in. He was up and about on the second day after surgery. He did not suffer much pain and went home after five days in hospital. Since then, his recovery has been smooth-sailing. It is a far cry from the days when he first found out he had cancer and his world came crashing down on him. “I was driving home one day after work with my wife when I touched the left side of my neck and felt a pimple. It was actually a lump,” he said. That night, he did not feel good. The next day, he went to see a general practitioner. He was prescribed five days of antibiotics. But after three days, he felt so uneasy that he went back to the doctor and asked for a referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist. “When the doctor did a scope up my nose, he said: ‘I’m 90 per cent sure you have nose cancer’,” said Mr Teo.
The doctor sent some tissue for a biopsy, wrote down “NPC” on a piece of paper and told him to do research on it. One week later, it was confirmed that he had cancer. As it was still in the early stages, he needed only radiation therapy and not chemotherapy. “Eight years ago, when I finally found someone who had cancer to talk to me about it, all that person said was that during treatment, there’s nothing but ‘pain, pain, pain and more pain’,” he said. However, that had not been his experience. Mr Teo thinks this was because he had a positive attitude and was blessed.
With this month being Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, he added: “I want to tell others about my experience so they can have hope.” Prof Goh said NPC is the most common head and neck cancer in Singapore and the sixth most common cancer in men. It affects 6.4 men per 100,000 population per year and 1.7 women per 100,000 population per year. Between 1998 and 2002, about 1,400 people were diagnosed with it. About 150 people die from it each year. Altogether, 92 per cent of the cases in Singapore occur among the Chinese population. “If your ancestors were from the South-eastern part of China, your risks of getting NPC are very high,” said Prof Goh.
The Cantonese are at the highest risk of getting NPC but people from other South-eastern dialect groups like Hokkien and Teochew also have significant risks of getting NPC, he said. Depending on the size and location of the tumour, surgeons can use a variety of methods to gain access to it. These include the endoscopic method where the surgeon removes the tumour through a scope. “We use all methods depending on the patient’s situation,” said Prof Goh. Mr Teo said: “Eight years ago, when I found out I had cancer, people thought cancer was a dangerous word. They thought it meant death. “When I had cancer, I had to face a wall because there were no answers.
But it’s different now.” For example, patients can now share their worries, fears and how they make their decisions on treatment options in the NPC Support Group, which was formed in 2005. The group, which comprises more than 200 survivors and their caregivers, meets once a month to discuss issues ranging from side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to traditional Chinese medicine, hearing loss and speech therapy. Mr Teo now spends much of his time reaching out to new patients in the support group as its programme director. “I believe no one needs to go on this journey alone,” he said.