It was the year he would turn 40. With two beautiful children and a loving wife, there wasn’t much else he could’ve wished for — not when he also had a dream job in the palm of his hands.
Anaz Ahmad Tajuddin was at the height of his career as AirAsia’s group head of engineering, but his plans for the future took a nosedive when a routine check-up early last year revealed that he had kidney cancer.
The only tell-tale signs that Anaz had was sudden and unexplained weight loss and sharp back pains.
Since he was due for his twice-yearly physical and blood test anyway, Anaz had gone ahead to check out his concerns with the family doctor.
“My blood work came out fine. But before I walked out of the clinic, the doctor said: ‘Anaz, why don’t you lie down and I’ll do some physical checks on you.’ That’s when he felt something bloated on the right side of my stomach.
“After a series of scans and tests, they confirmed that there was an 18-cm growth in my kidney,” Anaz, 41, recalled.
Although there was a medical history of kidney cancer in his family, it was still a rude awakening for Anaz.
In Malaysia, kidney or renal cancer is rare, affecting two out of 100,000 people. Which makes it all the more deadly, because people don’t talk about it.
Despite the initial shock, Anaz very quickly made peace with the situation.
“The first thing I did was accept that I was the chosen one. I knew I needed to put in a strong fight and that I needed to be very open about it,” he said.
In fact, one of the first things he did after the big reveal was to announce the news to his team at AirAsia.
“There was nothing for me to be ashamed about. I made sure that everyone around me was aware of my condition. I needed the support. And I believed that the more people know about your situation, the more they can pray for you.”
After an 11-and-a-half-hour surgery, the loss of one kidney (but the successful removal of the tumourous mass) and months of chemotherapy, Anaz is almost back to his former self, just 10kg lighter.
It was two days before Hari Raya when we met at the AirAsia head office at the LCC terminal in Sepang, Selangor.
His thirst for life has never once ebbed, not with the constant support from his family and friends.
He still sports the same close-cropped hair and half-rimmed glasses like in the AirAsia publicity photos that you can find online when you type in his name.
He still works as hard (Anaz admits to being a workaholic), but has wowed to spend more time with the family.
His two sons, aged 11 and five, are aware that their father has cancer. But as to what cancer really means to them is quite something else altogether.
Perhaps the only change that they’ve noticed is that their father’s dinner is cooked in a separate pot – Anaz has since made the switch to the healthier brown rice, while the staple for the rest of the family is still white rice.
“It was important that we lived life like normal. I behaved as normally as possible as I didn’t want to worry my family. I never allowed myself to mull over the thought, even for one day, that I would lose the battle,” Anaz said.
The power of mind over matter can do wonders, he added.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. But one thing’s for sure: channeling a positive spirit helps. Once you lock yourself in the room and start asking ‘Why me?’, that’s when your body and mind become weak. And that would make you susceptible to a lot of other attacks.”
To outsiders, it would seem as though life goes on after the big C. Anaz revealed that he had not taken a day of MC after recuperating from his surgery – which to some, may seem like a sign that all is well, but the dark hours are far from over.
Not many people are aware that he is hooked up to a small chemotherapy pump, quietly hidden within his pocket. The palm-sized ball-like device trickles a controlled amount of drugs very slowly into the bloodstream via a tube that is attached to an artery below his lungs.
Because the cancer had spread to other parts of his body, Anaz has been carrying the pump with him for the past 18 months.
While he has since been given the all-clear, the doctor has advised for the pump to be kept with him for now to prevent a cancer recurrence.
Over the course of the treatment, Anaz has had to deal with painful ulcers, brittle nails, frequent fevers and crazy rides on the emotional roller coaster. The only consolation he has now is that the frequency of his doctor’s appointments have dwindled down to every six weeks, as compared to every two weeks at the start.
But no matter how brave a front he puts on, lingering thoughts of succumbing to the disease is never far from the back of his mind.
“Usually, what makes me feel sad is when I get reminded about what will happen to me next – whenever I read or learn about someone succumbing to the disease. It makes me think about when my time will be up,” Anaz said.
With a tinge of melancholy, he added: “No matter how much a person tries to understand a cancer patient, only a cancer patient can understand a cancer patient.”
Having a network of support from not just family and friends but also from other cancer survivors is crucial to the healing process.
Anaz said that he finds comfort in talking to fellow survivors. He has also taken it upon himself to encourage talk among the newly-diagnosed.
“I have this habit now that if I know of any staff whose immediate family member has cancer, I would just call them and talk to them and see how they are doing just to give them moral support. It’s amazing what the sharing of feelings can do,” he said.
Anaz’s hope of getting more people to talk about cancer was realised when his idea for an AirAsia-MAKNA collaboration took flight in May.
As part of its corporate social responsibility, the company is selling limited edition #AirAsiaMakna T-shirts to help raise funds for the National Cancer Council of Malaysia. Retailing at RM40 each, the shirts were designed to take after the AirAsia captain and cabin crew uniforms.
“As a global brand, AirAsia can play a big role in helping to raise funds for cancer awareness and get people to be more open at talking about it. I’ve seen cancer patients become reclusive and that ends up making them sicker instead,” Anaz said.
He said not many are as “lucky” as he considers himself to be, as there are those diagnosed with cancer but did not have the means to go for treatment.
“Prevention is key and I really hope that the AirAsiaMakna campaign will take the council one step closer to making cancer treatment available to all.”
Join Anaz and his fight to help spread awareness on cancer. The #AirAsiaMakna T-shirts can be found at: makna.org.my/airasiamakna