How to ace exams while fighting cancer

Young achievers: Zara (second from right) posing with other UPSR top scorers after receiving her results slip.

EVERY parent wants their child to score straight As in every exam – especially the big ones like UPSR or SPM. Many are looking for a winning strategy that will help their children cross the finish line in first place.

It isn’t easy with all the distractions out there. Many parents are sending their children to tuition centres and classes from an early age in the hope that it’ll keep them occupied and focused on their schoolwork.

However, is this the right approach? I was reminded of my friend and fellow journalist Hazlin Hassan and her daughter Zara.

They’re certainly a success story in more ways than one; Zara was one of the 1.1% out of the 440,782 UPSR candidates who scored straight As in all six papers she sat for in the exams, a feat made more impressive when you consider that she overcame two battles with leukaemia on her path to those straight As.

Zara was first diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) at the age of five in 2009 and then Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) when she was nine years old.

The diagnosis and treatment completely changed the lives of the family as Zara began two years of almost daily chemotherapy that seriously weakened her immune system to a point where something like chickenpox could be fatal.

Hazlin tried her best to ensure that Zara had as “normal” a childhood as a young girl can have under these circumstances, and that included quick holidays to Port Dickson, and later trips to Universal Studios Singapore, several concerts, and visits to Sentosa Island whenever her doctors gave the family the green light.

During this period, the focus was on Zara’s health more than her studies, and Zara would do some homework through workbooks whenever she was up to it – which wasn’t very often, due to the effects of the chemotherapy which left her very weak and sick.

Hazlin also explained how she worked it out with Zara’s government school in Kuala Lumpur.

“She missed about half of Year One as she was in her second year of treatment for ALL at the time and still going for chemotherapy half the time, or feeling ill or experiencing side effects from the drugs. Throughout her years in primary school, I also kept her at home if there were any kids down with illnesses like chickenpox or hand, foot and mouth disease. Her teachers were understanding as I briefed them every year on her condition and what she had to avoid,” said Hazlin.

Zara also briefly attended some classes at the Children’s Cancer Foundation school in Singapore when she was receiving treatment for AML there, but ultimately missed two years of school due to AML – Year 3 and Year 4 – before returning to Year 5 in Malaysia in 2015 after her bone marrow transplant doctor said that Zara was well enough to resume schooling.

“She attended some classes at the CCF school, but she was unable to attend many classes as she was battling the effects of treatment, including those from the drugs given when she had her bone marrow transplant. When she went back to school in Year 5, I sent her for some tuition classes to catch up on the work she missed. She also went for extra classes in school, and attended study camps run by her school,” Hazlin said.

Zara discovered a love for singing when she returned to school and joined the school’s choir team in Year 5.

“She was an active member and took part in international competitions. Zara was very busy with the choir even during her UPSR trials and I did initially wonder if it would be detrimental to her studies but I felt that it was a good outlet for her to release stress, and that it would be healthier for her to balance studies with music and singing which she loves and is passionate about, rather than just studying all day which may not be emotionally healthy,” said Hazlin.

This was part of their winning UPSR strategy: Zara uses singing – and her other hobbies like cooking – to cope with the stresses of school and the long-term effects of childhood chemotherapy.

“She has a few late onset side effects, some of which are long-term. Doctors are only seeing some of these now, with more and more child or teen survivors of cancer, thanks to improved treatments. But the downside is that they are not always 100% sure of how to manage them. We take each day as it comes. She has overcome cancer twice; that is more than I could wish for,” said Hazlin.

The experience of beating cancer twice has left an indelible mark on Zara. This played a role in propelling her to her UPSR successes and continues to drive her.

“I think it has changed her in that she feels she can achieve anything if she sets her mind to it, despite the doubters. If anything, it has made her want to work doubly hard in order to achieve what she wants to achieve, to prove all the naysayers wrong. She is a fighter, and I am proud of her no matter what,” said Hazlin.

It’s clear that parents don’t need to cram their children to the gills with all forms of tuition and all sorts of activities from an early age if they want their kids to get all As.

Hazlin and Zara clearly show that any child can excel – even in the most challenging of circumstances – if they are allowed to have a childhood, with the support and love of their parents, of course!

Indeed, Zara said it best: “Always tell your kids they are capable of achieving their dreams. Let them do things they are good at; support them so their achievements will boost their morale and self-confidence.”

  • Senior writer Tan Yi Liang’s In Your Face aims to prove that people have more positive power in their hands than they realise, and to challenge them. He can be reached at

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Opinion , Tan Yi Liang , columnist


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