In the fall of 1986, just soon after I got married, I discovered Brattleboro. And, as the then editor of the Reformer, Norman Runnion, told me, I could not have come at a better time — Vermont in the fall is simply heaven on earth.
I was at the Reformer under a journalism program of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. My fellow participants chose well-known newspapers in the big cities to undergo their internship. I asked to be attached to be a typical provincial newspaper.
And it was at Brattleboro that I was warmly welcomed, not only by the staff of the Reformer, but also by the community. To this day, I treasure many wonderful memories and am thankful to still remain in touch with Reformer staff like Mark Tarnacki, Pat Smith, Josephine Howard and Linda DuCharme.
At that time, it was the mid-term election season and I was also exposed to American politics. Getting a ride with the candidates, and quite a number of the prominent office-bearers, was quite an experience.
Today, when I read about your ranking Senator Patrick Leahy (who is certainly one of the most prominent senators in Washington), I wonder whether he would remember the eager-beaver Malaysian journalist.
Because I was attached to a small newspaper, I made myself useful and actually worked — filing stories and helping to edit and lay out pages. Most of my fellow participants found that they only could sit around the busy newsrooms and just watch in case they got in the way.
Fast forward to the present.
Reformer newsroom manager Robert Audette emailed me recently asking if I would contribute an article for this newspaper. He had been following my cancer journey on Facebook and felt there might be a story worth the sharing, even if it is happening halfway around the world. Why not? In the world of cancer, there are no borders. We can encourage one another, no matter where we are.
This is my fourth battle with the Big C. The three previous journeys were in 1999, 2006 and 2011.
Together with my wife, we have chronicled these journeys in a little book, "Face to Face with Cancer," that is distributed free to cancer survivors and caregivers (A pdf version can be found here at dttk.net/face2face/FacetoFace2012Web.pdf).
I have written much about my journeys on Facebook and also via the weekly column I write in Sunday Star called Sunday Starters. The Star is the No. 1 English daily in Malaysia with a daily circulation exceeding 300,000 copies and a readership of 1.2 million. Together with its online presence (thestar.com.my) the reach is quite extensive.
I recall when I was in Brattleboro, the staff were surprised that there are so many English language newspapers in Malaysia. I explained that because of the British influence, many of us were schooled in English and were most comfortable with the language. Today, much has changed as the national language, Malay, takes precedence. But if any of you were to come to Malaysia, you will be pretty comfortable that English remains widely used.
When I was first diagnosed with nose cancer back in 1999, my whole world tumbled upside down. It had been caught at an early stage and my doctors were confident that I would win the battle. "Mr Soo, the chances of you being knocked down by a car are higher than you succumbing to this," one of them said. So I went through radiotherapy (35 rounds spread over seven weeks) and recovered. Technology at that time was not so refined and radiotherapy equipment was two-dimensional compared with 3D versions today, so there was a lot of collateral damage that still last to this day.
In 2004, I celebrated the five-year remission, confident that the cancer would not come back. But in 2006, a suspicious lump appeared in my neck. I underwent surgery, followed by adjuvant chemotherapy. At that point, I had gone through what is known in cancer circles as the "cut, poison and burn" regime of conventional cancer treatment. In 2011, the nose cancer reappeared and I had to go through chemotherapy and radiotherapy all over again. No doubt my physical body has been battered in so many ways that when this latest journey began in 2015, my treatment options were severely limited.
In May, a tumour hovering near my brain was discovered. I underwent cyberknife treatment, a highly intensive but highly accurate form of radiotherapy over 10 sessions which the doctors were confident of knocking out. They did, but a new tumour in my original nose cancer area was discovered during a scan in September.
Thus began my chemotherapy, which, at the point of writing, is still in progress.
For nose cancer (which is not so common in the West), the conventional treatment requires chemotherapy to shrink the tumors so that the radiotherapy can work better. In my case, radiotherapy was no longer an option. My oncologist could only tell me that hopefully the drugs would work on its own. My latest results show that the drugs are working and the tumour has been contained and shrunk to some degree.
As this journey continues, there are some physical issues I have to live with. I have to wear hearing aids now and my right eye is no longer functional as the eyelid cannot open. There are long term effects with regard food intake, and I currently have to be on soft diet.
But all told, I am able to function normally and I am thankful. The focus is not on the ailment. Life goes on.
In a strange sort of way, my journeys have made me an authority of sorts, having gone through these treatments. I visit patients to encourage them whenever I can. For apart from the medical journey, cancer also took me through a journey of faith. It was the constant reminder to trust the doctors and keep faith with God that kept me going. I refused to let the trials and tribulations get me down. There were the ups and downs, and many difficult moments, but throughout it all, I turned to God and asked that He uses me in whatever possible way as an instrument of blessing to others going through similar journeys.
When the news broke in September last year, I simply surrendered to God. I was at peace. The medical journey was not as bad as the previous ones. The prayers and support of family and friends, near and far, meant a lot to me. Bob Audette was impressed with the support on my Facebook. That would only be a fraction of the overall support I am getting. Surrounded by so many earthly angels, I was able to savor every step of the journey with courage and conviction. As a newsman, we are daily exposed to so many stories of lives being lost in various circumstances (and not just through a terminal illness) but every journey for every individual is different.
I consider my journey unique but yet there are many common threads that can shared with others, near or far, that can mutually encourage one another.
Ever since that 1986 sojourn in Brattleboro, I have never stepped foot on American soil again. But today, my eldest son, Kevin, is pursuing his PhD in cognitive science at the University of Pittsburgh. This is his third year in your part of the world.
Life is a journey. I am thankful that my good friend Mark Tarnacki keeps me posted on developments. I must be the only Malaysian who has a subscription to Vermont Life (thanks to Mark) that reminds me how beautiful your state is.
Sometimes, in the early mornings, when I wake up to pray, I still remember the lovely colors of falling leaves, Main Street, the office of the Reformer, the wildlife, the very active citizen participation in decision-making ...
And I thank God that for one part of my life, He brought me to your little town so that I may have such memories to treasure. They offer comfort when one is going through a cancer journey like I am now.