Cancer is a life-changing event; not just a medical condition. It changes your priorities, causing you to make different life choices.

People facing cancer sometimes choose to delay their treatment in order to send their children to school. That is what is being observed by Dr. Ong from the Hematology Department of Hospital Ampang, one of the important people behind the inception of The Max Schooling Project (or Sambung Sekolah in Malay) in 2014.

“This project is to make the children feel they are not different from their friends. For example, they could also go to the school trip. They deserve to enjoy the same school experience.”

“We’re also giving a chance to the community to help these children who are normally unnoticed,” Dr. Ong added.

Through the Max Schooling Project, hospital physicians refer children to The Max Foundation’s Malaysia team. The Max Foundation matches children with an ‘adopter’ who coordinates financial assistance on a monthly basis for the child. The Max Foundation carries out regular follow-up contact with the enrolled child and their family to provide financial and emotional support.

I have the opportunity to call all the families on the monthly basis. One of the families is Kak Ida’s. We have talked on the phone for 9 months now. Every month, I will chit-chat with Kak Ida. Her only child is one of the 7 children who are the early beneficiaries of the project.  If I am lucky, I manage to talk briefly with her shy son, Ahmad.

The pain from her chemotherapy treatment that made her sleepless, and her vomiting blood with the chest pain, she told me all through our monthly phone calls. Her openness shows she is the right person to speak before the Maximize Life Campaign audiences.

It was a quiet Wednesday morning in August, we finally met for the first time. Amid the nervousness, I greeted her, quietly standing behind her is Ahmad. She smiled a charming smile. In the next hour, she shared about her journey, when it started, how far she has come.

Being diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma (a type of blood cancer) since 2012, she is not only a cancer survivor but a single mother to her teen son, Ahmad. He was only 12 years old that time, and cancer was like an alien. He was only aware that his mother was sick, dressed in a hospital gown for 6 months. He was taken care by his grandmother during the difficult time.

Kak Ida is a sole breadwinner — working at a factory, his teen son is still in high school, taking care of her sick parents, they are all living in the humble flat.

I asked her how she reacted to the cancer diagnosis.

“Treatment cost, how would I manage that?” Her doctor referred her to the hospital social department to ease the financial burden.

“My son, he is the motivation for me to keep going. I will do my best to take care of you, even though you’re being abandoned by your father,” her voice was breaking into sobs and tears rolled down her cheeks.

I paused. I reached for her hands and squeezed them gently.

She also confessed that she planned to quit her job after being hospitalized for 6 months. She felt guilty. She has been working in the factory for 8 years that time. But her diagnosis could not change the fact that she is a good employee. Her employer not only visited her in the hospital and talked with her doctor, they also assured her she could stay working and seeking treatment.

Now, after four years, she knows her health should be prioritized. She trusts her doctors and is compliant to improve her health. She wants to do the best for her son and her parents. Every time she goes to the hospital, Ahmad will accompany her. He wants to make sure his mother is not fainting, especially during the bus ride to the hospital.

Ahmad is a lanky boy with a bit tanned complexion. Throughout my conversation with his mother, I noticed he was listening attentively.

“How do you feel knowing your mother has cancer?” I asked him.

“I feel sad seeing my mother in pain.”

His answer reminded me of love, by its nature, is unconditional. As we finished talking, I realized Ahmad has become more opened. He shared his dreams to become a policeman and to represent Malaysia in Sepak Takraw.

I gain a deeper understanding of how cancer touches more than a patient. It can be very difficult for some people to understand the needs of people living with cancer. But Kak Ida’s willingness to share her testimony in this year Maximize Life Campaign can increase the local community awareness and the support for people living with cancer.

And through it all, a cancer survivor like Kak Ida remains a loving daughter and mother. Having cancer doesn’t define her. Max Schooling Project reminds us that the care is ultimately delivered at the individual level “Who is this person I’m speaking with?”