Breast cancer survivor pays it forward and helps other Malaysians on their journey

  • Living
  • Friday, 18 Oct 2019

Adeline Joseph has been cancer-free for over 20 years and every year, after her annual doctor’s appointment, she is thankful that she still has her life. She was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in May 1995 when she was 33.

She was working as an administrative executive at the National Cancer Society of Malaysia’s (NCSM) clinic in Kuala Lumpur at the time and through her job, Adeline came face to face with cancer every day. She’d seen survivors come in for consultations and treatment and she learnt about breast health and cancer awareness and how it affects lives of women, men and their families.

She also saw that it was possible to not only survive cancer but lead a full, happy life post-treatment.

But, still, when she heard her own diagnosis, Adeline was shell-shocked.

“You can never be prepared to hear that you have cancer,” she says. “It was a blow. My immediate thought was whether I would survive this. But I was quite composed, maybe because I was more aware about the disease. Also, my sisters reminded me about all the stories I’d tell them about survivors who’d come to the clinic and how well they were doing. That gave me the strength I needed to believe that I could win this battle,” says Adeline.

She found a lump in her left breast when she was performing a breast self-examination, something she’d started doing regularly after working at the clinic. On hindsight, she realises that being breast aware may have saved her life.

You can never be prepared to hear a doctor tell you that you have cancer, says Adeline. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani

“I felt something different on my left breast. I asked my sister to check it, just for a second opinion. She too felt the lump and so, the very next day, I had a clinical examination and a mammogram done at the clinic. Because of my age, the results of the mammogram weren’t very clear, so the radiologist did an ultrasound.

"The ultrasound showed a lesion but there was no confirmation that it was cancer. I was advised to have the lump removed, which was about 1.2 to 1.5cm.

“At that point, I wasn’t worried. I thought the lump was benign. I went back for the results of the lumpectomy after a week and that’s when I was told that I had early stage cancer. I literally felt the fear of death hit me,” she shares.

Adeline had to decide between having a mastectomy or a lumpectomy. The doctor laid out the risks and then told her to go home and think about it.

“It was a really tough decision. I had so much support from my family and colleagues – some advised me against having a mastectomy as I would have to live my life with just one breast. At that time there was no option for reconstructive surgery. Others told me that it was better to remove it.

"I listened to everyone and then I deliberated. I was only 34 and thinking about settling down ... would having one breast matter? In the end I decided to have a mastectomy. If I did meet someone, he would have to love me for who I am,” she says.

Adeline (in red) with her sisters Pauline (left) and Irene and her husband Mac at the Relay for Life event this year.

The surgery and treatment wasn’t easy, Adeline admits. She reacted badly to the chemotherapy and had to be given anti-nausea medication along with the medicine. And she had to go through six cycles of chemotherapy.

“It was bad. I was throwing up every day. I couldn’t even drink water and I really wanted to give up,” she says.

What got her through it all was the support from her family, friends and colleagues. And although there weren’t cancer support groups at the time, a cancer survivor reached out to her and offered her the additional support she needed.

“I didn’t cry for myself but when I saw how my illness affected my parents, I felt really sad. They were so helpless watching me suffer the side effects of the treatments and I hated seeing them like that. My siblings were with me all the way – they were really fantastic and it made me realise how much love and support I had. But there were some fears that I could not share with them as I didn’t want them to worry.

“This survivor was really nice. She’d allocated time every day for me to call her. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have WhatsApp or social media, so I really appreciated that phone call every day,” says Adeline.

To pay it forward, Adeline has made it her life's work to help others through their cancer journey.

Now, to pay it forward, Adeline has spent the past 20 years or so of her life supporting other cancer survivors. She is the head of NCSM’s Resource and Wellness Centre that provides support for survivors and caregivers (not just of breast cancer), through their various activities which include wellness classes, talks, workshops and peer support group meetings. The centre also advises survivors on how to go about getting a fitting for their prosthesis or wig to help them cope with the changes in their bodies because of their treatment.

Support, says Adeline, was crucial in her cancer journey. Apart from treatment, cancer patients need emotional and psycho-social support too.

“My work became a lot more meaningful. I began to speak to the other survivors more and patients who had just been diagnosed. That’s when I began my work in peer support. It was really satisfying because I knew how important support is to a patient. A cancer diagnosis is a big deal. It is like nothing you would have experienced before and often it leaves you feeling alone and helpless.

"You don’t know how to react or what to do. But when you talk to a fellow survivor ... someone who has been through it and has come out of it, you feel better. You are motivated to get better. Ladies tend to want to share their emotions and men seem to want information. We try and help them all,” says Adeline.


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