Home big read The Big Read: For young adults with cancer, battling an ‘old person’s disease’ is a lonely journey

The Big Read: For young adults with cancer, battling an ‘old person’s disease’ is a lonely journey

The Big Read: For young adults with cancer, battling an ‘old person’s disease’ is a lonely journey
In Singapore, age-specific incidence rate of cancer has risen more rapidly among the younger age groups aged below 40 years, compared to the older age groupsYoung cancer survivors here say they it is not easy to find emotional support among friends and family while support groups tend to be for older patientsCosts for treatment, medication and hospitalisation can also be a heavy burden on young patients who do not have as much savings as their older counterpartsSome young survivors have started their own support groups for fellow young patients and documented their battles with cancer in hopes of educating, inspiring othersDoctors say that cancer should not be perceived as an old person’s disease and point to a correlation between a positive psychological mindset and better overall survival chances 

By Renald Loh Published September 15, 2023 Updated September 16, 2023 Bookmark Bookmark Share WhatsApp Telegram Facebook Twitter Email LinkedIn

SINGAPORE — The aspiring chef was barely 18 when her world fell apart after being diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the body’s germ-fighting immune system, in 2014.

Although Ms Faridah Ahmad had already been accepted into several culinary schools in Singapore, upon hearing that she had cancer, they advised her not to enrol due to the physically taxing nature of the course. 

Devastated, she actively sought help from counsellors, psychiatrists, social workers, and support groups to guide her through a particularly difficult time, but found that no one — friends and family included — could truly understand what she was going through.

This feeling of loneliness and isolation was a familiar refrain in TODAY’s conversations with other young cancer survivors, who said that the problems and experiences they faced were very different from those who were diagnosed in the later stages of their lives. 

Some also mentioned how the conversations they had with friends and family about their condition would also evoke a sense of “pity” that they would rather not receive. 

Instead of working towards major life milestones in the pink of health, young cancer patients must now deal with a curve ball that often leaves them wondering: “Why me?”

According to the Ministry of Health (MOH), 26,891 people died from cancer in 2022, almost a quarter of all recorded deaths that year — making it the leading cause of death in Singapore.

While a cancer diagnosis is often perceived as that — a “death sentence” — medical professionals say that many cancers are treatable and curable, especially with effective treatment in the early stages.  

That was when the former journalist decided, upon completing her operation in January this year, to blaze a trail for others by documenting her recovery journey both in words and in pictures.

“I started taking pictures of myself post-op, and I saw something good there. I saw myself in a different light. I saw a person with a mastectomy scar who was still positive.

“It just sparked this thought that, if other women can clearly see that somebody has come through surgery, has survived and can smile and still be happy, complete and whole in their own body and mind… then surely that’s going to help somebody.”

Ms Alphonso, who currently works as an editor at a local bank, has since written several articles documenting her journey and regularly posts self-portraits of body positivity on her social media accounts.

Ms Ng also started her own “Cancer Diary” series on YouTube where she talked about the events leading up to her diagnosis, the process of chemotherapy and various other procedures she underwent. The videos have since amassed several thousand views each. 

Ultimately, their motivations for publicly documenting their battle against cancer stem from a desire to connect with others who are experiencing similar struggles. 


When Ms Arathi Devandran was diagnosed with Stage 2A breast cancer last year at the age of 31, she too sought a community with which she could share her troubles and be understood.

“I tried finding a community,” she said, “but my surgeons told me that there wasn’t anyone because I was too young, and the support groups that they did have were mostly (for) older people.” 

Ms Devandran believes that it is important for cancer patients to have conversations with people who are in the same age range, as the struggles and priorities in their lives can differ very wildly.

“If you’re unmarried, you will probably have a lot of thoughts like ‘am I going to die alone?’ And if you’re married, it can put a huge strain on the relationship,” Ms Devandran said.

“Then there’s all these questions about family — how are we going to have a family, and what happens if we do have a family and it (the cancer) comes back?

“You can’t talk about it to someone who’s in their 50s — who’s already had kids, who’s been married for about 20, 30 years. They’re just at a different life stage.”

That was the exact situation that Ms Tracy Hoo found herself in back in 2016, when she attended a support group organised by the Breast Cancer Foundation a few months after she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.

At the meeting, Ms Hoo recalled introducing herself as a 29-year-old and receiving looks of shock and surprise from her older peers. She added that she “could not relate at all” to the problems that participants brought up during the meeting, like looking after their grandchildren while seeking treatment.

“When I was first diagnosed, all I wanted was someone to journey together with me, which I didn’t have,” said Ms Hoo, who now works as a human resource manager at an online job portal. 

“I just couldn’t relate, and it made me even sadder and more depressed because then it made me feel like — ‘why am I the youngest one, why am I having this thing?’” 

The NCCS also introduced a mobile application called AYA Bytes in April this year, which provides young cancer patients with specially curated health information, and a feature that allows them to track their moods and symptoms.

Other specific cancer support groups targeted at young patients include the Sarcoma Support Group, Lymphoma Support Group and Acute Leukaemia Warriors Support Group at the National University Cancer Institute Singapore (NCIS) — all of which are open to young adult cancer patients or survivors regardless of where they receive treatment. 

Dr Chuwa of Solis Breast Care & Surgery Centre said it is important for cancer patients not to neglect their emotional well-being as studies have indicated a correlation between a positive psychological mindset and better overall survival.

“While the methodology of these studies have been criticised to be highly variable, (the correlation) comes as no surprise,” she said.

“An improved psychological and mental state directly impacts compliance with treatments, healthy living, and positive health seeking behaviour through adherence to follow-up checks with their doctors and an overall improved quality of life.” 


Physical and mental challenges aside, cost concerns can also weigh heavily on young patients who do not have as much savings as their older counterparts.

The Singapore Government provides various schemes and subsidies to help alleviate the financial burden of citizens and permanent residents who are unable to afford cancer treatments, but patients still have to bear some of the costs.

While Ms Ng had bought insurance that could cover her costly chemotherapy and hospitalisation fees, she has had to fork out several thousand dollars for other procedures like egg freezing and risk reduction surgeries.

Her monthly consultations and check-ups with various doctors used to add up to a few hundred dollars per month, although that figure has now dropped to less than a hundred. 

For 32-year-old Mr Tay Zhi Zhong, the Singapore Armed Forces had covered the bulk of his medical fees as he was diagnosed with Stage 3 nose cancer while he was a full-time national serviceman in 2011. 

However, he still had to tap his parents’ MediSave accounts to pay for his consultation fees after completing his service for a short period of time as he did not have enough savings then.