At 34, Olsen Goh was hit with a double whammy.
After experiencing prolonged swelling of his face and feet, he decided to go for a full-body check up in March 2019.
He was not expecting the severe diagnoses.
“I felt normal and was exercising regularly. Sure, I would sometimes go to bed at about 1 or 2am in the morning, but I also played football up to four times a week.”
The swelling turned out to be due to kidney failure caused by lupus, an autoimmune disease where a person’s immune system attacks their own tissues and organs.
Goh was also told he had Stage 4 lung cancer, and that it had spread to his spine.
No history of smoking
Unlike what one might expect, Goh had no history of smoking.
He also had no family history of lupus, a disease believed to be driven by genetic and environmental factors.
He was shocked and in disbelief when he received the sudden diagnoses.
Subsequent scans confirmed that the area where he had been experiencing prolonged back pain was one of the locations where the lung cancer had spread.
While the majority of those who are diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC) are usually older, doctors told Goh that there are a small number of patients like him who are diagnosed at a relatively young age.
Goh’s father had passed away from the disease 20 years ago, but doctors told Goh that the exact cause was difficult to determine, as many other factors can lead to an increased risk of cancer, including environmental and dietary factors.
Despite the uncertainty, Goh’s oncologist – Clinical Assistant Professor Tanujaa Rajasekaran, Consultant at the National Cancer Centre Singapore – shared that Goh remained positive, and instead focused on doing the things he enjoyed and spending time with his family:
“He never questioned why he developed cancer.
Olsen is one of the most courageous and positive people I know.”
Hospitalisation and targeted therapy
From May to June 2019, Goh was hospitalised for treatment.
He shared of the experience:
“It was a very emotional period.
My main takeaway from that period is that a positive mindset and support from family and friends is crucial to staying strong and motivated in the face of illness.”
During his hospitalisation, Goh underwent a rigorous regimen of kidney dialysis about three times a week, and targeted therapy for his cancer.
Targeted therapy was orally administered, a treatment option that involves the use of drugs to target specific cancer cells to prevent their further growth.
It is often prescribed as the treatment of choice for EGFR mutant lung cancer – the type of lung cancer Goh has.
Treating both lupus and cancer can be complicated, because the cancer treatment diminishes the body’s immunity, while treating lupus requires one to have a strong immune system, Goh shares.
Still, both treatments proved to be effective.
Goh’s tumour size was effectively halved and he experienced little to no symptoms thereafter. In Sep. 2019, Goh’s kidney function also recovered enough to stop dialysis, and he was able to switch to long-term medication for his lupus.
Pausing work and going with the flow
To focus on his recovery, Goh took a break from work from April 2019 to 2020.
What was originally intended as a break for a few months continued into 2020 due to the pandemic, but Goh reflects that he never regretted the decision.
With the free time, he was able to catch up on things he had always wanted to do but “did not have time for”, such as video editing and learning more about cryptocurrency.
In July 2021, Goh rejoined the workforce, and now works in a marketing role where he is able to work from home most of the time.
“I made the move so that I could work remotely from home and wouldn’t need to travel to meet prospective clients daily. I’m very thankful for that.”
Switching to chemotherapy
However, after two-and-a-half years of living a “relatively normal life”, worrying symptoms began to return in 2022.
In February this year, follow up scans showed a few new spots in Goh’s lungs, indicating that the tumour in Goh’s spine might have become resistant to the drug therapy.
Wanting to take a more “proactive approach”, Goh discussed alternative options with his oncologist, Dr Rajasekaran, and decided to switch to chemotherapy.
As of October 2022, chemotherapy is a treatment option that will be continued for Goh, as long as he responds to it.
As an active person, Goh shares that the process is hard because chemotherapy takes such a physical toll on the body. He elaborates:
“While going through chemotherapy, I still wanted to play soccer once a week.
But I learnt from my doctor that during chemotherapy, it’s common for one’s platelet and haemoglobin count to drop, which directly affects stamina when exercising and causes increased fatigue during daily activities.
The effect was most apparent during exercise, which made it difficult for me to play soccer.”
Despite this, Goh continued playing the sport, and tries to keep up with his weekly exercise regimen by making sure he gets enough rest during games.
“Always live life to the fullest”
What is most important to Goh now, is his family and his recovery.
According to Goh, the priorities are fuelled by a perspective that has remained constant since his father passed away from lung cancer in 2000.
That is, to “always live life to the fullest and always be grateful”.
While Goh’s cancer is not yet in remission, he has already lined up several activities as he takes a break from chemotherapy in December, including taking a month-long family trip to Canada.
Asked about tips he would share with patients who are in the same boat as him and still battling cancer, Goh replies that his simple advice is to “be positive and trust your doctors”.
“I know other patients may be anxious and try to read a lot of information online on their own, but not all online articles are accurate.
Some friends and family may also present alternative treatments that have no scientific references or sources.
All this can inadvertently affect your mental wellbeing and cause stress, which will affect your recovery.”
For those seeking financial advice to cover treatment costs, one can approach various sources, such as support groups, financial programmes, and medical social workers, Goh shares.
“While not all cancer is curable, it isn’t the end. With medical advances and more research done every day, many medically proven treatments are now available for cancer patients, and the recovery rate and ability to prolong life are now significantly higher compared to years ago.
So, continue to be positive and hopeful on the road to recovery.”
This is a sponsored article by Pfizer Singapore.
All images courtesy of Olsen Goh.