Facebook popped up a notification – It was my friend’s birthday.
The thing is, my friend never get to celebrate his birthday on 30 May.
He passed away in 2013 after fighting a battle with cancer.
He was a hero, but his story was never complete.
We grew up together since we were Secondary school kids and remained close friends ever since.
His name is TJ.
During our school days in Polytechnic, we have our bunch of funny great friends with diverse quirkiness. We call ourselves “The League”. You know like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?
We always had gatherings, potlucks and occasional movie outings as a group. We had fun.
TJ and I were in different Co-curricular activity group during our studies in Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore. I was in Astronomy club, he was in the hearing-impaired club.
We had our paths in making a difference to students. I shared the knowledge of the universe, while he shared the knowledge of communication using sign language.
He teaches new club members on how to communicate with our hearing impaired students.
Once in a while, my other friend Neil and I joined in his sign language club to learn about sign language. We even performed on stage using sign language to sing a song!
I’m sure many people today have remembered him as the great coach who taught them how to use sign language.
The Day That Changed Everything
TJ was a healthy person.
He’s been through the army, performed very well in physical fitness tests. I’ve always envy him that he can pass our army’s physical fitness test without much effort.
Then one day, he couldn’t pass his 2.4 km run test.
He shared that he felt breathless and had to stop half-way.
Before, he had received a free body checkup voucher that he could use.
Sometimes, life gives you a little hint when you receive something.
Concerned about his health, he went for a body checkup.
The result was shocking – he had Acute Leukemia.
For a young and fit person, it was a disease that is difficult to accept.
All it took was a single news that changed how he can live his life.
But TJ was not defeated.
He consulted his doctor and followed a strict diet.
He had to go through many rounds of chemotherapy. Here’s how he described his first chemotherapy experience on his blog:
“The first cycle of chemotherapy (a.k.a. induction chemotherapy) aims to bring the disease to remission. Cytarabine and Idarubicin were administered, both intravenously, for 22 hours over 7 days and 3 boluses over 3 days, respectively.
Of cos, anti-nausea and anti-vomiting (antiemetics) drugs were given prior to chemo to prevent any nauseous feeling or vomiting. This cycle was rather gentle on me – only experienced bloated tummy and dry skin. The gassy stomach was relieved towards Day 7 and there was a moisturiser for dry skin.
My platelet counts dropped after chemo and brushing teeth was a no no! There was an occasion after rinsing my mouth, in front of the mirror, I noticed some bits of cookies stuck in between my teeth. My itchy finger removed it and fresh blood flowed out from the adjacent gum.In the subsequent two days, my gum bled at various locations and they just refused to clot until what felt like a blood gelatin formed. I tried to remove this gelatin with my tongue and my poor gum began bleeding again. The pseudo-jelly salty-iron tasting blood in my mouth was really yucky! I learned my lesson to go on a soft diet and not disturb any clots when my platelet counts are low.
In the subsequent two days, my gum bled at various locations and they just refused to clot until what felt like a blood gelatin formed. I tried to remove this gelatin with my tongue and my poor gum began bleeding again. The pseudo-jelly salty-iron tasting blood in my mouth was really yucky! I learned my lesson to go on a soft diet and not disturb any clots when my platelet counts are low.
I was prepared for hair loss and I thought it really does not matter to me. First, it was finding strands of hair on my pillow in the morning. Next was seeing loose strands of hair on my palms after shampooing. The ultimate was when I sat on my bed and shook my head vigorously, strands of hair just fell off. I laughed. Then I botak-ed myself with mum’s help. It was cooling and not so demoralising anymore.”
After 34 days, he could go home with occasional visits back to the hospital for chemotherapy.
He looked better, we were happy for him.
He can no longer work, so he blogged about his life as a cancer patient, he read about success stories of people who recovered from cancer, learning new skills by picking up playing Ukelele, helped and reached out to raise money for charities.
“Live life to the fullest when you can.”
The Hope: Bone Marrow Transplants
When my friends and I heard that both his siblings are a match for bone marrow transplants, we felt a relief for him.
It’s hope for a cure.
First Bone Marrow Transplant
The procedure to extract a sample of bone marrow said to be a painful experience. I’m don’t know how but it makes me cringe when I heard him described the procedure.
“You can feel the pressure of the needle poking and pulling something out from you”, he shared.
That said, he went for his bone marrow transplant using his brother’s cells. The transplant looks promising.
Unfortunately, 2 days before his 100 days after transplant, he had a relapse.
Not to be defeated, he helped to raised awareness about children’s cancer and participated in “Hair For Hope” raising more than $12,000, which had exceeded his target of $10,000.
He was also interviewed by the local newspapers on his success story.
In the interview, he chuckled: “I didn’t have to shave because the chemotherapy made my hair fall off.”
He started another hobby: Gardening.
Then, things were not looking good for him. His cancer cells were increasing in numbers.
Doctors recommend him Plan B – Have another transplant using his sister’s bone marrow.
2nd Bone Marrow Transplant
The 2nd bone marrow transplant was carried out.
The after effects had made him weaker due to the constant fight with cancer cells.
It seems all is going well after the constant drug therapy.
Then in January 2013, the cancer cells came back. The relapse was faster than before.
Doctors had exhausted all options.
The only treatment available is to go through chemotherapy.
All is lost.
He’s only wish and goal now is to be happy.
Nothing is more important than living in happiness when you don’t have much to live on.
TJ caught a lung infection when he was admitted to the hospital for a fever.
By that time his body was too weak to fight off the infection.
He needs to be put on a machine to help him breathe.
The last I visited him in the hospital, he was reduced to bones, breathing heavily as the machines pumped air into his lungs.
Few of our friends gathered together to see him.
It was a heart-wrenching sight.
He was heavily sedated, trying to keep his eyes opened. Because of the drugs, recognising people was a blur.
But he could remember the friends he has.
He gestured and tried to reach out…
He wanted to say something but he was slipping in and out of consciousness.
I took his hand saying “Get well soon ok? You will get well! So we can have fun together again.”
Those were the last words I had with him.
Not long after…
He passed away.
Finding Happiness Finally…
At his wake, there were his family members and friends, as well as the people whose life he had touched.
It was a big turnout as many came to pay their respect.
As I had the final look at TJ as he lay in the coffin, I saw him smile while he’s asleep in eternal slumber.
There’s no sadness but a relief.
Because I knew that he’s finally found his happiness.
~In Memory of TJ Ryan~
*I hope you can help continue his legacy by sharing his story and donating to the various charities below:
- Children’s Cancer Foundation (CCF): A non-profit organisation with a mission to improve the quality of children and their families. Over the years CCF has helped more than 2800 children and their families at different stages of cancer. Donate Now.
- Singapore Cancer Society: A community-based organisation dedicated to minimising cancer and maximising life by providing financial assistance, public education and support. Donate Now.
**If you know of other research or organisations, share them in the comments or write to [email protected] and I’ll add them to the list!
*In addition, if you have a story you like to share on the battle against cancer, feel free to share in the comments below to encourage one another!*
“What if you have only months to live? How would you spend your life to the fullest?”
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