At one point during her chemotherapy treatment, one of Aliza Zienaida Yussoff’s closest friends asked her whether the thought of giving up or dying had ever crossed her mind.
Her answer was no.
“It was, to me, just a mild illness where I just needed to go for treatment and it would be gone after I finished the course.”
For her, the less she knew about her condition, the better. “Different people believe in different things. Some people think that the more knowledge you have on this, the better it will help you.
“For me – and I’m not asking others to agree or to do the same – I didn’t want to know more,” she says.
The AirAsia route revenue manager shares that she did not even research her condition online after one initial, and quickly aborted, search. “I Googled once, after I had my biopsy, on what it could possibly be, and cancer came out, so I was like, ‘Ok, no, I’m not doing this to myself’,” she says.
“Even after I was diagnosed, I never Googled anything about the illness,” she adds.
This extended even to her consultations with her doctor. “In fact, when I did chemo, I never asked my doctor for my progress. Whenever he came to check on me, I would talk about other things, never ever would I ask him about my condition or how things were going.”
The only exception she made was for the results of her regular PET (positron emission tomography) scans, which monitored the progress of her cancer.
Says Aliza: “I just thought that he knew what he was doing and I just needed to be positive. I just focused on being well, feeling better, and hopefully, whatever the doctor has prescribed to help me would help.”
This was also the reason why she told so few people about her diagnosis, limiting the knowledge to only family and close friends.
“Actually, I didn’t tell a lot of people about my illness when I was first diagnosed because I didn’t want to hear any negativity. I really wanted to stay in a positive state,” she says.
She adds: “I think a lot of people would say you just have to stay positive. Going through this, I know that it really, really helps to stay positive, and to keep yourself with those who are also positive.”
Her efforts to act normal and be positive even enabled her siblings to joke around with her about her condition. “My brother, when we wanted our mother to agree to something, he’d say, ‘You have cancer, right? You tell mama, she’ll agree to everything you say’,” she shares with a laugh.
When asked if she might have been in denial about the reality of her condition, Aliza laughs and admits that she might have been. However, she says: “From Day One, I thought I would beat this, and alhamdulillah (thank God), I was giving a second chance to live, even though there were bumps here and there.”
Staying the same
One of the main things Aliza was determined to do during her cancer journey was to rely on her own self as much as possible.
“As much as I had support from my family and friends, I did not actually rely or depend on them, because I wanted to train my mind that this is just a mild illness, where I don’t need people to be driving me around everywhere I need to go,” she says. “In fact, I drove myself to the hospital each time I had chemo because I wanted to feel that nothing had changed.
“My life before and during the illness, and even after, I am the same Aliza as I was before – I do things on my own, drive myself around on my own.”
She even drove back regularly to her hometown of Sitiawan, Perak, to visit her mother and recover from her chemotherapy sessions, explaining that the side effects usually only hit her a day or two after the actual session.
She shares that even though the matron of the private hospital she was receiving treatment at was initially surprised at her coming on her own for treatment, she encouraged her, saying that it is the independent patients who tend to do the best.
While her mother did accompany her for the first few chemotherapy sessions, Aliza says: “It really made me very uncomfortable, having her around. To see her so uncomfortable in the hospital, I didn’t like that, so I told her, it’s ok, I can go through all this on my own.”
Her determination to be as independent as possible was also to stop her mother from worrying so much, especially as she was still working as a headmistress at that time.
“I just didn’t want her to worry; as least, if she sees the normal me, she can feel that I’m really going through this well.”
She admits that she was very fortunate that her condition was not that bad, even during chemotherapy. “There were days when I was just stuck in my bed and wouldn’t be able to get up, but most of the other days, I actually lived my life very, very normally.
“I guess my experience was that, although I was being tested (by God) with this, it was quite easy for me,” she shares.
Her worst side effect was actually from an injected medication she had to take to boost her white blood cells, as their level had become dangerously low. “That was very painful. The first time I got it, the next day when I wanted to get up from my bed, I actually couldn’t move at all.
“I really, literally couldn’t move, it was like when I opened my eyes, I was like, ‘Oh, no, what happened?’” she says. “It was the whole day until the evening, before I could move, but it was difficult.”
Other than that, the common side effects for chemotherapy like fatigue and losing hair, were, for Aliza, quite manageable both physically and emotionally.
A second chance
However, her cancer diagnosis did make her reevaluate what was important in life to her.
Aliza shares that while she had previously worked with AirAsia, she had left the company for a higher-paying job in 2011. “After completing my treatment and being cleared, I started to think about what I really wanted in life, because I now have that second chance. To be frank, I actually left (AirAsia) because I wanted more money.
“And when you go through cancer, you rethink, ‘Yes, this company gives me more money, but do I have satisfaction in life, do I enjoy going to work?’. “You know you spend over eight hours at work, so it has to be a place you love being in,” she says.
She felt that the industry she had moved to was boring and very stressful. “When you work in a company where the hierarchy is really important, you have that stress when you want to see your boss or when they want to see you, even though it is nothing.
“To be honest, sometimes, I tell myself it’s the company that gave me cancer, because I was very, very stressed. I hear people saying stress kills your immune system, but having this experience, I think it really does – you really need to eliminate stress in your life,” she says.
So, after she completed her treatment, she started looking for a new job. In the course of her job search, Aliza shares that she experienced discrimination as a cancer survivor. “I did receive a remark from a company, saying, ‘Why do we want to hire someone with cancer?’”
So, when she asked her former boss in AirAsia if there was an opportunity for her to return, she made sure to check if her cancer status was an issue. “I still remember his answer was ‘But you’re cured what? So what’s the problem?’” she shares.
She adds: “You need something more meaningful in your life. I don’t really want to go to work and just work. With AirAsia, I really loved what I did – the people, the culture, the company itself – it gives me the satisfaction.”