It all started with a small painless lump around the size of a 50 sen coin just above her right collarbone.
“It was just a little lump and it wasn’t painful. I didn’t pay much attention to it actually,” shares Aliza Zienaida Yussoff, 35.
She recalls that it was then the end of Ramadan in 2012, and she had gone home to her mother’s house in Sitiawan, Perak, for the Hari Raya celebrations.
Although her mother was quite worried about the lump, Aliza herself was unconcerned and ignored it.
However, after a week of being called by her mother daily, asking if she had seen a doctor about the lump yet, Aliza finally got annoyed enough to go and see a general practitioner.
The doctor found that the lump was from some swollen lymph nodes, and decided to first prescribe her some antibiotics.
When the one-week course did not have any effect, he immediately referred her to a surgeon, who asked her to schedule a biopsy as soon as possible.
“Three days after the operation, I got a call from the hospital to say that the doctor wanted to see me ASAP,” she says. “The moment you receive a call from the hospital, you know it is not going to be good news.
“The Big C was particularly on my mind at that time, and when you know it might be that, you get really, really scared. But I remember telling myself at that point of time, why do you need to be scared? Because whatever it is, it is already in you, the doctor is just telling you that you have it.
“When I had that in mind, I actually became a lot more calmer.” (See A cancer survivor prefers to remain ignorant, but positive)
What was in her turned out to be Stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This cancer is caused by abnormal B-lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that circulates in the lymphatic system and helps make our antibodies. Stage II means that two or more lymph node regions on the same side of the diaphragm (which is located just below our lungs) are affected.
The most common symptom of Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a painless swelling in a lymph node, which is what Aliza experienced. Other symptoms can include fever, night sweats, unexplained weight loss, fatigue and persistent itching.
Being 29 at the time, Aliza was also in the most common age groups to be affected by this disease: between 15 to 30, and over 55. Fortunately, her young age and early diagnosis also meant that she had a good chance of beating the cancer.
Other risk factors for Hodgkin’s lymphoma include having a medical condition that weakens your immune system, like HIV; being on immunosuppressant medication; having previously been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus; and previously having non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The surgeon referred her to a haematologist – a doctor specialising in diseases related to blood – who started her on chemotherapy. Treatment options for this disease include chemotherapy alone or chemotherapy with radiotherapy. Stem cell or bone marrow transplant, monoclonal antibody therapy and immunotherapy are also options for more advanced or stubborn cases.
Aliza’s chemotherapy was suppose to be 12 cycles, but after the eighth cycle, a PET (positron emission tomography) scan showed both good and bad news.
She says: “The good news was that in the area where they first detected the cancer cells, the cells had been wiped out. But they found new activity somewhere else (in the chest). At that time, it was pretty devastating because I thought doing chemo was the solution to this.”
She had to start another session of chemotherapy, this time with stronger medication, which required a three-day hospital stay each time she received the intravenous medication. Previously, she only needed to be admitted to daycare to receive her medication.
While Aliza shares that she never shed a tear throughout her treatment, it was the removal of her chemoport after her last chemotherapy session that broke her down. A chemoport is a small medical device inserted under the skin and connected to a vein, to help facilitate chemotherapy.
She says: “I was suppose to be very, very happy (for the removal of the chemoport) because that means it is all over. But I was really scared at that time, because what if there was still something in me?”
She explains: “After the treatment, you can’t straight away do a PET scan. You have to wait for a month. So you don’t know if it’s still there or not. So when you remove the port, it’s like it’s done – there’s nothing more I can do about the cancer if it’s still in me.”
Fortunately, Aliza’s fears were unfounded. A PET scan a month later showed that her cancer had been cleared. Five years later, she remains cancer-free and thankful for her second chance at life.
Her final piece of advice, given with a laugh, is: “Listen to your mother – she is always right!”