Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (Stage 4)
William Hong's Story (30)
At the age of 30 most of us are still working our way up the corporate ladder. For William Hong, this was the age he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, a type of blood cancer that is rarely found in Malaysians.
William was at work when he felt faint and breathless walking up the stairs. As a young man, he knew this was not normal and decided to get himself checked after work. That night, when the doctor told him that they suspected he had a form of lymphatic cancer, he was in disbelief.
Images of cancer patients who were bedridden flooded his mind as he recalled what he had seen in the movies. Cancer patients were usually weak, in pain and had short lives to live, so he couldn’t believe this was his fate. Unfortunately for him, the biopsy and blood test results clearly showed he had Stage 4 Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia.
What is Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia?
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) is a type of blood & bone marrow cancer. When the bone marrow produces stem cells, these stem cells will eventually develop into red blood cells: to carry oxygen around the body, white blood cells: to fight infection, or platelets: to help stop bleeding.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) causes a large number of white blood cells to be released before being fully developed—these are also known as blast cells. When the number of blast cells increases, the number of red blood cells and platelet cells decreases. This causes symptoms of anaemia such as tiredness, breathlessness and an increased risk of bleeding.
The doctor recommended William start on chemotherapy immediately and do a bone marrow transplant; otherwise he would only have 3 to 6 months to live. He rejected the doctor’s recommendation because he was fearful of going through chemotherapy. He added that his friends’ misconceptions about chemotherapy, for example: causing death, fuelled this fear even further.
Misconceptions of Chemotherapy Caused Delayed Treatment
After his diagnosis, William sought many types of “alternative treatment”. He saw a few Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctors, who told him to receive western treatment while using TCM to strengthen his body. However, William was stubborn and didn’t want to give up until he met a TCM doctor who told him that TCM could cure cancer.
The doctor gave him various traditional herbs to consume, and despite it costing a fortune, William was willing to try TCM and not go for chemotherapy. After two weeks of consuming the herbs given, William was at home when he suddenly fainted. His mother called the ambulance and he was taken to the hospital and given a blood transfusion because he didn’t have enough blood.
This situation continued for the next 3 months and William’s condition didn’t improve. He would go to the hospital every 2 weeks for a blood transfusion to avoid fainting again. The doctors in the hospital warned him about the risks of continuous blood transfusion, and at that moment, it was like he suddenly realised that the herbs he was taking wasn’t working. In the end, he took the doctor’s advice and sought treatment from Dato’ Dr Chang Kian Meng, consultant Haemotologist at Sunway Medical Centre.
Despite the delay, William said that his body reacted well to chemotherapy. After a few months of treatment, his Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan showed that the cancer was completely cleared. Now he only has to go through maintenance treatment once a month to ensure he stayed in the clear.
“In order to ensure the cancer doesn’t relapse, I have to do a bone marrow transplant,” William explained. “Funds were raised from the public to support my bone marrow transplant, but I have yet to find a suitable donor. There were two initial donors who were a match, one from Taiwan and the other from Thailand. However, we were unable to locate the Thailand donor due to the pandemic, and the Taiwanese donor’s blood sample showed that it didn’t match mine” he added.
Dato’ Dr Chang Kian Meng explained it was possible that because William had received different types of blood transfusion during the duration when he was not undergoing treatment that resulted in it being hard to find a suitable donor when the blood was tested. Hence, the search continues for William in his cancer journey.
Debunking Myths About Chemotherapy
During his time in Sunway Medical Centre, William learned a lot about chemotherapy. With new technology, he learned that patients could receive intravenous (IV) chemotherapy through the chemoport as it provided easy access to his bloodstream. This meant that he did not have to go through the pain of being inserted with a needle in his veins each time he did underwent chemotherapy.
Secondly, he learned the importance of including more protein in his diet that would help build strong muscles and increase his immunity while undergoing chemotherapy. Things like egg whites and medically certified nutritious milk were part of his everyday diet.
“I had a small scare once with regards to raw foods”, William responded when he was asked about what foods he avoided during this time. He had cooked himself some noodles and added in an egg, which might have been undercooked. Having a weak immunity system, he immediately felt dizzy and was rushed to the hospital, where he was in ward for 6 days.
Knowing now what he didn’t know back then, William shares his story in order to raise public awareness on receiving the right treatment for cancer. “I encourage those who are seeking for treatment to consider western medicine that is proven and not to blindly trust those around you, even if they have your best interests at heart,” he concluded.