[caption id="attachment_3755" align="alignnone" width="500"] Dr Juliet Dharmalingam's (R) courage in battling cancer has motivated Dr Saunthari Somasundram in caring for her patients. – ART CHEN/The Star[/caption]
Her late husband, and now her daughter runs the National Cancer Society, but it is Datin Dr Juliet Dharmalingam who truly knows what it’s like to live with cancer.
Retired pediatrician Datin Dr Juliet Dharmalingam’s remarkable battle with cancer – five types over the course of some 40 years – is not only inspirational, but also makes a strong case for early detection.
It started with a spinal tumour which was diagnosed in 1970 when Dr Juliet was 41.
“I had severe backaches for over a year. Doctors thought it was a slipped disc and they gave me traction. Those days, there were no CT scans or MRIs or anything like that,” relates Dr Juliet, 87, who had to undergo surgery which revealed she had a spinal tumour.
“This left me with a lot of physical deformities. I had a paralysed bladder and lower bowel, I couldn’t feel anything in my lower back, had no balance and was very unsteady. I couldn’t walk and had to go for long-term physiotherapy.”
However, Dr Juliet was in good hands as she was married to the country’s first oncologist, her late husband Datuk Dr SK Dharmaligam, who headed Hospital Kuala Lumpur’s Radiotherapy and Oncology Department (from 1962 to 1982). Her diagnosis was a big blow for her family, particularly her husband who founded the National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM), which their daughter, Dr Saunthari Somasundaram now heads.
“Being an oncologist, my father felt so helpless that this was happening to his wife and he spent all his time in his room with his medical books around him,” recalls Dr Saunthari.
Dr Juliet was, however, determined to get well as she had three children to educate and support.
“My husband was in government practice and I knew that I had to work because otherwise, we could not afford to send them overseas to study. So, I made sure I recovered. It was a maternal instinct I think,” she shares.
With that determination and the medical know-how she had around her, Dr Juliet pushed herself to get better. She went for occupational therapy and physiotherapy, and continued to practise medicine. “It was a tough time and I was, at times, very down. I had no control of my bladder and needed help urinating – first by actually having someone physically compress my bladder and later, by using self catheterisation which actually made it much easier. At the time, there was no such thing as adult diapers and so my social life was affected, too.
“It took about a year before I actually recovered properly,” she shares, adding that she still has difficulty walking.
It was about this time that Dr Juliet “re-ignited” her spirituality.
“My sister invited to me to go with her to the Buddhist Vihara in Petaling Jaya and that offered me some comfort. Losing my bowels and bladder functions was very hard and it did get me down. But the teachings of the Buddha helped me accept my fate. I had always prayed but without knowing what I was praying for. Now I am able to accept and live with whatever came after,” she says.
For many years, life seemed routine again until she discovered, in 1989, that she had ovarian cancer.
But that wasn’t the end of her journey with cancer. In 1995, Dr Juliet discovered a lump in her breast. She had a quadrantectomy (where they remove a quarter of the breast) as it was detected, again, at an early stage.
A year later, she discovered tumours in her colon and had a hemicolectomy to remove half her colon.
Then in November 1998, a scope revealed tumours in her stomach for which she had to undergo chemotherapy for about eight months. In 2003, she had a recurrence of her stomach cancer and after a gap, she had a recurrence of her breast cancer and had a mastectomy last year.
Although her spirituality gave her the strength to cope with her illness, it wasn’t as easy for her family to accept, more so because they were doctors.
“My father, my brother and I are doctors and I think we did mum a disservice because we were so focused on treating the disease that we didn’t give much thought to what she was going through emotionally. For the most part, she had to cope with it herself. Sometimes, there are so many options and it is so difficult to find the right one. Seeing my father stressed made mum cope silently as she didn’t want to add to his stress,” shares Dr Saunthari.
Her mother’s cancer journey has taught Dr Saunthari the importance of a more holistic approach to treating patients.
“Dr Juliet says cancer survivors now have more support. “I remember feeling so alone when I had my spinal tumor. There was no one to give me any advice on what I could do or how to cope,” says Dr Juliet who now helps other patients.
“When I first started at NSCM, I often asked mum to talk to people who were newly diagnosed to offer them support. I used to give out her phone number freely ... she was my first support group when NCSM didn’t have one. Mum has this strength and calmness, from which others derive a lot of strength from,” says Dr Saunthari.
Dr Juliet’s advice is to go for check-ups. “In this age, patients should not have late diagnosis. Early diagnosis is so important in cancer,” she says.