Thrice the pain & agony

HOW DO we react when tragedy strikes those closest to us? It is a situation we hope never to face, but for Dr Azlan Kamalluddin, fate had other plans.

In 2013, the 41-year-old emergency physician had to deal with three members of his family being diagnosed with cancer within a 10-month period.

Recalling this dark period, Azlan, who is the head of Langkawi Hospital's Emergency and Trauma Department, says: "I realised that most of the things I learned during medical school did not prepare me to be a caregiver.

"I could not answer [the questions] asked by my family members. I did not even know some of the answers to my own questions. I was surrounded by guilt, bitterness, worry, and self blame."

The first person in his family diagnosed with cancer was his 65-year-old father-in-law, Mohd Yusoff Mohamed.

"We discovered his cancer [by accident]," recalls Azlan.

Mohd Yusoff was knocked down by a car while riding his motorcycle. Fortunately, his injuries were minor.

"However, he continued to experience pain in his hips and joints," says Azlan. "I decided to run more tests."

The tests revealed that Mohd Yusoff had multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. Six months later, he passed away.

"I already knew that multiple myeloma had no cure," says Azlan. "The medication merely helped to slow down the disease."

Less than two months after his father-in-law's cancer diagnosis, Azlan learned that his own father, Kamalludin Abu Bakar, 70, had prostate cancer.

As it happened, Azlan was in the same room as his father when the urologist delivered the bad news.

Initially wanting to soften the blow for his father, Azlan discussed the diagnosis with the urologist in English. However, his attempt was not successful.

Afterwards, both father and son had breakfast in the hospital cafeteria. His father then told him that he had guessed the truth after seeing the worried expressions on both the faces of Azlan and the urologist.

"I admired my father for his courage," says Azlan. "His optimistic attitude made it seem as though his cancer [was like] the common cold."

Sadly, fate was not finished with Azlan.

Just six months later, Azlan's wife Asfah Mohd Yusoff, 41, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

It was a difficult moment for the loving couple.
"I've known her since I was 20," Azlan says. "I met her for the first time when I was working part-time in a book store owned by my uncle. She was [the] cashier."

After two months, the two fell in love and began dating.

Then, Azlan received an acceptance letter from the medical faculty at Dalhousie University in Canada.

"I spent six years in Canada," he says. "It was literally halfway around the world."

The couple spoke on the phone almost on a weekly basis, and even wrote to each other.

"During those six years, I only came back to Malaysia every two years for about two months," he says.

His relatives and friends were amazed that the couple had remained close despite the long-distance romance.

After Azlan earned his medical degree, the two sweethearts got married, and raised three daughters together.

When his wife began losing her hair from the chemotherapy, Azlan found himself shaving his beloved's head.

"I never imagined that one day, I would be shaving my wife's head bald," he says.

Azlan tried to be optimistic for her, even though he was hurting inside.

"I can't imagine how she [must have] felt," he says. "Once her head was shaved, I gave her a kiss on [the top of] her head."

To prepare his daughters – Balqis, 14, Sara, 12, and Hawa, eight – for their mother's new look, he went to the barber and got his own head shaved.

Initially, the girls were shocked to see him without any hair. They laughed, touching his smooth head. Then, they saw that their mother, too, was bald.

Happily, the girls managed to find humour in the situation. Azlan had successfully turned a potentially-awkward and tragic moment into a positive one.

"In fact, one of my daughters said my wife and I were 'cool', with our new looks," Azlan says.

Is he angry at God for giving cancer to his loved ones?

He says: "Faith is important. You need something to cling to when you are in such a situation."

He admits that his most difficult challenge in the years since the diagnoses has been trying not to live in constant fear of cancer.

For example, whenever one of his daughters falls ill, he always assumes the worst, and takes his girl for an intensive medical check-up. Slowly, he is trying to shed this apprehension.

Azlan then decides to put down his experiences in a book in the hope of reaching out and providing guidance to others who are in a similar situation.

The book, Three Cancers in Ten Months, which was published early this year, details all his experiences in caring for his family members, as they struggled with three different types of cancers and treatments.

Three Cancers in Ten Months (RM34.90) is currently available in both Bahasa Malaysia and English at selected bookstores, and through Azlan's own website (drkazlan.com).