It took Tan Soh Hooi six hours and 55 minutes to complete her first full marathon. Her body was aching all over and she was exhausted from the gruelling distance. But when she crossed the finish line at the Muang Thai Chiang Mai Marathon in Thailand last Christmas eve, Tan felt on top of the world.
Completing the marathon was a feat but Tan’s real triumph was that she was able to do it just months after battling cancer.
“I had a plan: to do a full marathon in my 50th year and nothing was going to mess with my plan … not even the big C! It felt great!
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to run the whole distance and I was prepared to brisk walk all the way. I calculated the pace I needed to maintain to finish before the seven-hour cut off time and I made sure I kept to it. The last two kilometres were the toughest but my two friends who had finished way ahead of me were waiting at the last stretch to cheer me on. And I did it!” says Tan, 51, still beaming from her accomplishment.
Tan is a cervical cancer survivor.
She was first diagnosed with the disease at the end of 2015 and less than two years later, she suffered a relapse.
Finding out she had cancer was a shock.
Tan had been diligently going for pap smears but the tests never showed any abnormalities.
Tan had adenocarcinoma, a rare type of cervical cancer that develops from gland cells and cannot be detected with a pap smear. She decided to see a doctor after experiencing bleeding between her period cycles. A biopsy came back positive.
“I was upset. You always think it won’t happen to you. Cancer is something that happens to someone else, right? But I was more upset because the cancer came just after I’d changed my life around.
“I’d been a couch potato for much of my adult life. Between work and my children, working out and getting fit wasn’t a priority. I’d lounge in front of the TV and it showed on my body. I weighed between 60 to 68kgs and had bulges everywhere.
“In 2014, I decided to lose weight. I set a goal for myself – 50kg – which I was determined to achieve. I joined a gym, watched my diet and cut sugar almost entirely from my diet. I worked hard at achieving my goal. By Dec 31 that year, I did it – I weighed 49.5kg!
“I started running and completed my first 12km race within five months. I had plans to do both my first half marathon and full marathon in 2016.
“So the news about my cancer came as a big blow,” she shares.
Cervical cancer is currently the third most common cancer and the third leading cause of death among women in Malaysia. It is usually detected through a pap smear, which is currently the screening method practised in Malaysia.
Common symptoms include unusual bleeding, especially between menstruation cycles, after menopause, after intercourse, smelly vaginal discharge, pain during sexual intercourse, changes in bowel movements or urination, bone pain or swellings.
Tan was determined not to let her illness get the better of her. Cancer wasn’t going to take over her life or derail her plans.
“I refused to cry. I decided to tackle it as I would a business problem: ‘okay, I have cancer and this is what I need to do’,” she shares.
Because her cancer was detected at its early stages (stage 1B), Tan could undergo a hysterectomy to remove the tumour and didn’t need further treatment.
Her surgery was in November 2015. The gutsy mother of two gave herself a couple of months to rest and recover from the surgery before she put on her running shoes and started training again.
She ran her first half marathon within nine months of her surgery.
“I had a plan, remember?,” she says, with a laugh.
One life to live
Cancer changed the way Tan looks at life.
“All my life I’ve had to work hard for what I wanted. I was the youngest of three but I wasn’t pampered. We weren’t well off and I worked for my pocket money from the time I was 13.
“I was also determined to study abroad so I worked throughout secondary school to save money for my fare. Those days, the exchange rate wasn’t as it is today and along with a small loan from an aunt, I went to study in Britain. I worked all through my university years, of course.
“As a result, I’d learnt to deny myself treats or little luxuries along the way.
“Now, I live my life with more gusto. I no longer hesitate to travel and experience new challenges. One life, live it!” says Tan who is an interior designer.
So for her 50th birthday last year, Tan planned a holiday to New Zealand with a good friend. She also signed up to do the marathon in Chiang Mai. Everything was on track – bookings were made, flight tickets were bought and Tan was excited.
As luck would have it, Tan’s cancer came back in August, just months before her big trip.
She couldn’t believe it.
But once again, Tan refused to dwell on her fate and instead, started searching for the best treatment for her cancer – this time there were three lumps pressing on her urethra.
“I wasn’t going to skip my trip. No way! I had to find a doctor and a treatment option that would allow me to still go to New Zealand. I sought a second and third opinions and found a plan I was happy with,” she shares.
Tan underwent six weeks of intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments. The treatments were administered almost daily and it drained her of her strength and energy.
“The last two weeks of treatment were hard. I was weak and too tired to do much. Thankfully my husband Dennis (Khoo) was a gem … he accompanied me to all my treatments and helped bring me food and support me at home. I also had really good friends who made sure I was eating well. I hated being so dependent on them but I am truly grateful,” she says.
Tan remained stoic throughout her treatment but when she attended a support group session organised by the National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM), Tan had an emotional breakdown.
“I had refused to allow myself to be emotional about my diagnosis. Instead, I was obsessed with searching for answers. Why did I get cancer? What did I do wrong? I searched online for answers non-stop in search of answers that would satisfy me. I didn’t allow myself to cry … until the workshop. The moderator noticed that I was suppressing my emotions and she encouraged me to let it out.
“And my tears just flowed. I realised after that session that I will never find ‘the answers’ and I was finally able to let it go. Allowing the tears to flow freely was a huge release. It took a load off me,” says Tan.
Sharing sessions play a big role in helping patients deal with the reality of their cancer diagnosis, says Adeline Joseph, head of NCSM’s Resource and Wellness Centre.
“It is quite common for patients to have emotional breakthroughs at our sessions. Many don’t have the chance to talk about their emotions and soon enough they get suppressed. The tears come when someone else’s story stirs up emotions they can identify with. These sessions provide patients a safe, confidential and supportive environment to share. They leave feeling uplifted, which helps in their recovery,” says Joseph.
Tan completed her last treatment in October last year.
A couple of weeks later, with the go ahead from her doctor, she made it to New Zealand where she went horse riding, bungee jumping and had the time of her life.
Having ticked the full marathon off her bucket list, Tan has two new challenges for herself now.
“This year, I’m going to learn to play tennis and jump out of an airplane!” she says, eyes glinting with anticipation.