Wan Petom may not have much time left with her family but her heart will forever be with her son.
WORDS CHRISTEL GERALYN GOMES
A sudden onset of retching causes Wan Petom, mother to seven-year-old Cali to rush to the bathroom. Cali jumps to his feet and runs behind her, reaching up to rub her back and ask if she is okay.
“I’m okay sayang, (darling) it's just the germs,” says Wan, even as tears begin to well. “Why don’t you go out today and play with your friends, huh?”
“I cannot leave Ummi alone. What if anything happens to Ummi (Mummy)?” Cali replies, causing, even more, tears to form.
Wan is currently living on borrowed time. She has stage 4 terminal breast cancer, and according to doctors, should have died months ago. It was in March 2016 that Wan first started having backaches. The pain initially started in her neck and quickly spread to her shoulder blade, then on to her waist and hip. Sometimes, it would hurt so much that Wan would find it difficult to even walk.
When Pain Remains a Mystery
“Initially, both the Polyclinic and GP told me that it was likely a muscle sprain due to my work as a chef, lifting heavy pots and pans. To help, my sister in law recommended a masseur to give me weekly massages,” says Wan.
When the pain remained relentless five months later,
Wan’s husband went to get a referral to the hospital for a more thorough
investigation. The doctor this time still couldn’t find anything wrong,
but nevertheless, a full-body check-up was performed for the third time,
and it was then that they detected a lump in the breast.
“When I heard the word ‘lump’ I cried. It wasn’t because of the diagnosis, but because my thoughts ran to my family, as I was the sole breadwinner. The costs of treatment and our family’s daily needs worried me. I was subsequently referred to a hospital,” Wan says.
At the hospital, Wan underwent a biopsy on 18 August 2016, her son Cali’s birthday. The diagnosis was stage two cancer, and the treatment plan was immediate surgery. Meanwhile, bone and organ scans were to be done.
“After the scans, my breast surgeon called me and wanted to see me immediately. Inside my heart, I knew something wasn’t right. She told me that the cancer cells were very active and had already spread to my spleen, liver, spine and ribs – six organs and bones and scattered over a large area,” said Wan.
A New Prognosis
The prognosis this time was stage 4 cancer and Wan had an estimated six months to live.
“I cried for the second time. I cried not because I was scared to die, but because my son was only six years old. My heart ached at the thought of Cali becoming an orphan,” she says.
Explaining what was happening to Cali was immensely difficult for Wan. “We told Cali that there were germs in my body and that doctors were going to remove the germs. But Cali is a very smart boy – he listened to what the doctors were saying and asked me, ‘Ummi, what illness do you have?’” Cali eventually picked up on the word “cancer” and googled it to find out more.
Preparing Cali for the Worst
The worst part of being sick, for Wan, is thinking about what would happen to her son. “I keep telling him, ‘Ummi loves you very much. Even if Ummi is not around anymore, always remember that Ummi loves you very much. Ummi will never leave you because Ummi is in your heart all the time. Cali must study hard and be an astronaut (his ambition). You must keep praying for Ummi and ask Allah to cure Ummi.”’
Wan has made her mother and her two siblings promise her that
they will take care of Cali should the worst come to pass.
She adds, “To me, everybody dies eventually, but I still have lots of love to give to Cali. We are very close, and the illness has made us even closer. I call Cali ‘Mummy’s Super Glue Sweetheart’ (Buah Hati Super Glue Ummi)”.
Long Dark Days and Nights
Wan says that there were a number of things that felt awful. One hard reminder of her illness is the way her physical appearance changed so much, such that she no longer recognised herself. “Looking at old photos taken around the time I was diagnosed… I looked so horrible. I looked very unwell and haggard as I had lost 40kg. If my time is up, at least I want people to remember me looking good.”
Wan has since treated herself to a makeover and feels better about the way she looks now.
She adds, “I also want to mention the treatment I had to endure. There were some, scary, painful treatments, but I thank God that I didn’t have it too bad. My side effects weren’t as severe and my pains weren’t that intense. I’m glad that today, despite the treatment, side effects, and illness, I still look quite well.”
Losing Physical Strength
Wan has lost a lot of the strength that she used to have. She is mostly listless at home with little energy to do the things that came easy before. “Before my illness, I was working in a Nasi Padang restaurant, cooking over 30 dishes within a couple of hours. Now, even though I’ve stopped working, life is much more difficult – one simple dish takes me more than an hour. Peeling an onion takes up so much energy for me,” she says.
Despite the challenges, Wan is deeply grateful for her husband who has taken over most of the household duties, including cooking. He even helps to bathe her when she doesn’t have the strength. She says, “However, I make sure that I am the one who gets Cali ready for school – changing him, packing his snack. I pamper him now because I don’t know how long I can pamper him for.”
Wan’s prayers today are mostly for strength. “I don’t want to feel like a burden on anyone," she explains.
Hope and Gratitude, Despite the Odds
Since she has taken ill, Wan has discovered and nurtured new talents – singing, playing the ukulele and painting. She has created a painting titled, “Calihasim, My Astronaut”, for her son, to remind him of their quality time together, to motivate him and to remind him never to lose sight of his ambition.
She is so incredibly proud to have such a loving, mature, intelligent and successful boy to call her own. Wan recalls how Cali went for a day camp where he learnt more about dealing with cancer. “When he came home, he told me, ‘Ummi, it’s okay to cry. You can cry on my shoulder’.” Wan tears, as she says, “So sweet, isn’t it? Any mother would be very proud to have a child who is as mature and loving as Cali is.”
She is also proud that Cali is one of the top students in his class, “Thanks to God!”.
Today, Wan is compiling her own recipe book; “I want the next generation to enjoy the traditions of cooking, and I want to share my food knowledge with others,” she says.
She is also an ambassador for Run for Hope 2018. When asked why she took on the role, she explains that she wishes to encourage others not to give up, and hopes to share that miracles do happen.
She adds, “The word ‘HOPE’ means ‘Hold On, Pain Ends’, and I hope that one day, all this pain will go away.”