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My mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer when I was 16.
Just a few days before my first O-Level Mathematics paper, I accompanied her for her first chemotherapy session. As we went for more sessions, her hair started to fall out.
Then one day, she asked me: “Kakak (Malay for older daughter), can you shave my head for me?”
My mum wears the hijab so no one outside our family can tell if she has shaved her head.
But she still asked us cheekily if we would shave our heads with her. We didn’t in the end but these days, being the obnoxious middle child I am, I’d kiss her on her head instead of her cheek.
That was three years ago. This year, my mum asked me to shave her head again. She is still battling her cancer, which has now spread to other parts of her body.
Return to physical events
Shaving our heads as a symbolic gesture to support those going through their cancer journey is a powerful visual reminder that there are those among us who are fighting their personal battles.
Which is why it’s great that last month, the Children’s Cancer Foundation (CCF) had its first physical kick-off event in two years for its annual Hair for Hope campaign at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery.
Called Hair for Hope, it is CCF’s head-shaving event in Singapore to raise funds and awareness for childhood cancer. This year is CCF’s 30th anniversary, making it a special year for them to go back to physical satellite events for the first time since the pandemic hit.
The event was attended by Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Baey Yam Keng, who had been recently diagnosed with nose cancer.
At the launch event on May 1, Mr Baey talked about going through radiation therapy and losing his sense of taste. He said that since he announced his diagnosis, he received much encouragement online and offline.
“I got a lot of understanding and empathy because society at large is rather understanding,” he said, adding that many Singaporeans reached out to him to share their own experiences after they got their diagnosis.
Last year, CCF raised $3.6 million even though it went virtual in a new digital format, livestreaming and having offline satellite shaving at partnered salons.
This year, with a return to physical events, it has raised more than $1.4 million so far and hopes to hit its target of $3 million.
Two beneficiaries who shaved their heads alongside CCF CEO Peng Hai Ying at the launch are childhood cancer survivors.
It’s the second year that 22-year-old Lee Xin Tong has shaved her head at Hair for Hope. Last year, she shaved at the virtual event; HFH took a one-year hiatus in 2020.
This is Xin Tong’s second time shaving for HFH, but the first as a ceremonial shavee to kick-off off the two-month campaign.
She was diagnosed with a brain tumour when she was only 15.
She shared with me how she often threw tantrums going through treatments at such a young age. She was in a lot of pain and could only express them through anger and frustration.
That meant that in her growing years, she was very closed off. It took her a while to realise it would have been easier if she had opened up to others.
After going through several treatments, her hair started falling out.
Xin Tong said: “I prefer everything to be neat and tidy, so seeing clumps of fallen hair frustrated me.”
Her cancer treatment is complete but left her in need of hearing aids. In 2020, she lost all hearing in her left ear.
Everyone has different side effects to the treatment, and these effects can last for years after the cancer is in remission.
Every cancer patient is different. That’s why Tay Qin Han, 27, believes that the choice of words when speaking with a cancer patient matters — he gets especially upset by tone-deaf affirmations like ‘I understand’.
“How can you say you understand when you actually don’t?” he asked, adding that as a fellow cancer patient, even he doesn’t fully understand what Xin Tong was going through.
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Doctors found a brain tumour at the back of his head when he was 13. He went through so many treatments, his weight dropped to 28kg. Seeing his hair fall out every morning depressed him so he shaved it off with the help of hospital staff at KKH.
Now, 14 years later, Qin Han said that he has matured a lot going through the ordeal with his family.
He said: “Before cancer, I was hot-tempered and rebellious. I remember being very angry all the time. After cancer, I became mellow and matured. I became more considerate of my family, and through my cancer experience, I grew in empathy.”
This year is his 8th year shaving his head for Hair for Hope.
Both survivors have the same purpose: “To let children with cancer know that they are not alone, that it is okay to lose your hair. Hair will still grow back.”
How do you talk to someone with cancer?
I asked Qin Han and Xin Tong: “Why is it frustrating for my mother when I ask if she is feeling okay?”
Both of them immediately understood my mother’s point of view.
It can be frustrating to hear the same question over and over again, explained Qin Han.
So how do you express concern for someone with cancer? Observe before saying anything. Some cancer patients may appreciate a straightforward approach; others may need a more subtle touch.
It can also be hard for them to express how they are feeling. Qin Han pointed out: “Even if they aren’t okay, what can you do about it? You can’t get rid of their pain.”
Xin Tong says that it is important not to treat them like they’re too fragile to do anything. Many are still strong and determined to fight their cancer.
“We are capable human beings too,” she said.
I understood that: My mother, the most stubborn person I know, does everything by herself. She even goes back to the office sometimes right after her chemotherapy session!
One thing Xin Tong says that people can do is to help create a safe space: Chemo leaves them feeling vulnerable and exposed, so a comfortable environment is of utmost importance.
Aside from the physical battles, the mental and emotional struggle can take its toll too.
Cancer patients often felt the need to hide how they really feel. Sometimes they keep up a facade just so those around them don’t feel disheartened.
Many have their own way of dealing with the situation — exercise, massage, music…
While Xin Tong says she often turned to her mother to talk out her feelings, Qin Han used music to escape. During his radiation treatment, he would listen to ‘A Little Bit Longer’ by the Jonas Brothers as he lay face down for two hours. Some of the lyrics go like this:
Got the news today / Doctors said I had to stay / A little bit longer and I’ll be fine /
When I thought it’d all been done / When I thought it’d all been said /
A little bit longer and I’ll be fine
Said Qin Han: “Just keep moving forward, day by day.”
As part of the campaign, Hair for Hope also held satellite events all over Singapore from schools to corporations to shave in support of the children and the cause.
At Hwa Chong Institution, 86 students volunteered to shave their heads to support Hair For Hope. The total amount raised is still being tallied, according to CCF.
A Sec 2 student, Frederick, told me why he was doing it. “When I’m feeling down, I don’t want to feel alone. A companion is always better to help you cope.”
When I spoke to some student councillors who volunteered to shave their heads, they shared that their main aim was to get more people involved.
“(By shaving their heads), more people would also experience and put themselves in the shoes of a cancer patient” said 15-year-old Si Hearn.
At Montfort Junior School, the 11-year-olds I talked to were excited to shave their heads at the auditorium with the older secondary school students.
One boy happily told me that the three reasons he was cutting his hair (in order of importance) was that he wanted to support cancer patients, donate as much as he can, and because “it’s too hot in Singapore!”
His mother, who was present at the event, laughed as she hugged her son and told me how proud she was of him because of how much he wanted them to donate.
One student I talked to at Montfort Secondary, Marcus, 14, told me he is shaving his head for his seventh year now because two of his relatives had cancer and shaving was something he wanted to do to support them.
As one of the Montfort students chimed in from the side: “Shave for love!”
That got me thinking.
I remember once walking into the room and seeing my mother crying by herself. It broke my heart then because I realised that she didn’t want to cry in front of us — she wanted to be strong for us.
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Shaving our heads may be a small gesture on our part, but it could mean everything to those undergoing a difficult season in their cancer journey. Be strong for them, and remind them that they aren’t alone in their battle against cancer.
To my mother and everyone going through their cancer journey, please remember that you are not alone. We are here with you, every step of the way.
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