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More Than A Wish

For a survivor, the first 5 years of remission are most crucial. A relapse within these years could be devastating, but getting through them “clean” is a big milestone. Today, I am proud to say that I am in the “safe zone” and currently a second year student at New York University, an intern at Make-A-Wish Singapore and Vice President of the NYU Singaporean Students Association.

In late 2012, I was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor called medulla blastoma that caused me to experience terrible migraines and gradually lose my vision. Coincidentally, Dr. Keith Goh, chairman of the Make-A-Wish foundation Singapore, was one of the two neurosurgeons assigned my case. He and his partner expertly removed the large tumor pressing on my optic nerve after 2 long and intricate brain surgeries. These surgeries, though life-saving, had altered the way I walked and brought with it other complications such as blood clots and meningitis. I had spent 2 months bed-ridden in the hospital resulting in rapid muscle degeneration. My legs became too thin to support my body weight, I had trouble speaking, swallowing and a squint in my left eye - a result of the delicate area of the brain that was operated on. Unable to walk or even take a shower independently, I was angry, depressed, scared and felt very alone. I let myself sink into a dark pit of self-pity I could not and did not want to climb out of. Physically, the needles pricked my skin and I fought back tears but emotionally and psychologically, I was wrecked.

Cancer is a terrifying disease that does not discriminate against the young or old, the weak or strong, the poor or rich. It is still unclear to us now how or why cells mutate to become cancerous, but all we can do is stay positive in the fight against it. Research and development, care and support for patients is more pertinent than ever, given that cancer is fast affecting many people in our societies at present.

However, in the midst of it all we must not give up the sliver of hope of recovery no matter how small it may be; we must hold on to it for if we let go, we may very easily drown in a pool of misery, grief and other negative emotions.

Before the start of all my surgeries and treatments, I was asked if I wanted a wish by the Make-A-Wish foundation (Dr. Goh had referred me). At that point in time, I could not fully accept my stage 4 diagnosis, no I did not need a wish! So I immediately turned down the offer.

About 3 months before the end of my 8 month-long chemotherapy treatment schedule, I had accepted the painful fact that I had stage 4 cancer, but I could also see the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel I was in. I picked myself up from the pool of negative emotions I was swimming in and looked up and forward.

There. I could see it and I could almost taste it: Remission in the very near future!

A shot of adrenaline rushed through my veins as I thought of all the fun things I could do after the end of my treatments and the start of a cancer-free life! School was the first thing that jumped to mind. I badly wanted to be university graduate. However, I was unsure if I could make it. Two years is a long time to have been away from school. Did I have what it took to go back again?

My parents noticed my doubts, and suggested I take up the Make-A-Wish offer.

“Talk to them. Ask if they could help you with this. We can only do so much.” They said.

“Alright.” I replied. “Maybe they could help.”

The wish granters who were assigned to me were very encouraging about my situation. They listened to me ramble on about how I wanted to go back to school but was not confident that I could make it, but I did want to finish school with a university degree. I asked if I could wish for a laptop; I needed a new one for school as my old one was, well, old. In my perspective, a laptop seemed like the passport to higher education.

“Could you help me with this?”

“Of course!”

For the next few weeks, the wish granters peppered me with questions about what kind of laptop I wanted. I had free-reign over the specifications and wished for a 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro with retina display, running on a faster core processor and more advanced iOS system than the one anyone could buy off the shelf.

They gamely agreed to it and said it would take time to customize but I would receive it before I began school.

“Is there anything else we could do for you?”

I was amazed.

“You mean I can have more?”

“Cake Pops. I want to learn how to bake them!”

Cake Pops are small cakes in the shape of a lollipop covered in icing or chocolate ganache. Cake pops are sold in many bakeries but are quite expensive. I wanted to learn how to bake them in my own kitchen. So this was my second wish.

My wish granters arranged for my best friend and I to have a private baking class at a patisserie in Buona Vista with the head chef. We got to use restaurant-grade ovens and mixers in the kitchen, which was closed just for us. The Italian chef went through step-by-step instructions on how to make cake pops. We finished the nearly 2 hour session with about 60 cake pops, wrapped nicely in plastic gift bags.

“I can’t eat all of this on my own! Can you guys take some home?” I asked my wish granters and my best friend. They all refused and asked me to keep it for my other friends and family, and we went back to my house in a taxi.

We arrived home to the living room filled with blue and white Make-A-Wish helium balloons. Tied to the ends of the balloon strings were little cards and photographs with heart-felt, hand-written notes from my close friends - people I had not seen the past few months. I immediately started tearing up upon seeing this lovely sight but was also shocked at this surprise. Even my parents knew about this but they had kept mum about it all morning.

I walked to my room to put down all the messages I removed from the balloons to find that the door was closed. Strange, I always leave the door open. I turned the door handle and only heard one thing.

“SURPRISE!”

And then a whole mix of laughter, shouts, hugs and more tears. My friends had not forgotten me!

8 of my closest friends were hiding in my room with a brand new Apple laptop specifically customized to my request for me. This surprise was planned by my wish granters, friends, parents and sister who had been hiding this secret the past couple of weeks! The 60 cake pops I made at the bakery were for me to share with my friends. How sneaky! But a very good surprise nonetheless.

The Make-A-Wish team not only granted 1 wish, but threw in another one and a big surprise for me. Their actions injected a dose of confidence and happiness in my post-cancer journey towards attaining my Bachelors Degree. My parents still talk animatedly about that day, and I am so heartened that they too benefitted emotionally from the wish granting team as well. It must have been tougher than tough to bear news of my diagnosis, watch me go through all the necessary medical procedures and listen to my cries late at night when I could not sleep.

As I write this blog post, I am sitting in the office of Make-A-Wish Singapore, not just as an ex-wish child, but also an intern. Despite my wish being granted a couple of years ago, the gratefulness and warm feelings I associate with this charity organization are still as fresh as the day I received my laptop; my trusty 5 year-old laptop I take with me everywhere I go.

At this stage in my life, I can look back on my extraordinary journey and appreciate the little things that made my recovery process better. I am motivated to do more for the less fortunate. If I could extend this wishing opportunity to more children in similar or more dire situations than I was in, how amazing would that be?

This is a driving force that pushes me through the tough days at school, and is the inspiration behind my choice in degree at university. I want to make sure no one feels the same kind of hopelessness and frustration I had endured. I am a Public Policy major today because of my past influences of people and events.

I cannot be the me I am now without my own unique medical history and the influence of a little charity organization by the name of Make-A-Wish.

Thank you for being a life buoy in my pool of insecurity and unhappy emotions.

I am ever grateful.

Refer a child to us today at http://www.makeawish.org.sg/en/refer-a-child and help us empower critically ill children with hope, strength and transformation.


- Sarah