As we celebrate World Cancer Day today, it is interesting to learn that the first Malaysian appointed by the American Cancer Society as a ‘Hero of Hope’, Mui Siew Koon, is a born and bred Penangite.
Mui, 66, a retired school principal, is among 23 cancer survivors from around the world, selected as the first-ever ‘International Relay for Life Hero of Hope’ by the American Cancer Society in 2010.
The award was a recognition for her tireless and selfless works on cancer awareness.
Relay for Life, an annual overnight event, celebrating the lives of cancer survivors and to remember those who have lost the cancer battle.
Forty years ago, Mui Siew Koon was diagnosed with breast cancer.
After her treatment and recovery, she became actively involved in cancer awareness activities including social and charity works.
Mui married with two grown girls, was born in 1946.
In 1971, 1972, 1973, she started to discover lumps in different locations of her breast.
The lump in 1973 became suspicious and she had to undergo radical mastectomy, a major operation that left her with a permanent 10 inch scar.
She lost a lot of blood and needed blood transfusion. After the mastectomy, she underwent 30 sessions (6 weeks) of radiotherapy in Kuala Lumpur.
She was 27 then, single, with a loving mother and three sisters.
“In a way I’m glad that God made me the candidate for cancer instead of anyone of my family,” she said.
“My mum lived a very sheltered life and my elder sisters were married with small children and my younger sister was an undergraduate.
“I was unattached then and independent, working as a teacher.”
She said that she was glad that she had breast cancer instead of other types of cancer as she said breast can be cured and life can still go on.
She shuddered to think what would happen if she has brain cancer instead.
Armed with a positive attitude, it is no wonder that just 3 short years after her recovery she became actively involved in the National Cancer Society of Malaysia, Penang Branch (NCSM Penang).
She served in the main committee and practically at all the sub-committees for more than three decades.
From NCSM Penang, she then became actively involved in Relay for Life.
She has held the chair for survivorship in Relay for Life for years and has helped to draw out survivors from the closet to participate in Relay for Life.
Mui started her teaching career in 1970, and serve various schools.
From 1997 to 2001, she became the principal at the Sekolah Menengah Pendidikan Khas Persekutuan, Penang.
She retired in 2001 and in 2005 she was one of the recipient of the ‘Tokoh Guru’ award.
Mui said that in a way, her encounter with cancer had changed her perspective of life.
Her academic dream had flown out of the window.
She realised that life is very fragile and she started to pursue her hobbies and to reach out to cancer patients.
One of the hobbies that she pursued was floral arrangement and she is now the president of the Penang Floral Art Society.
Mui produced four floral art books featuring arrangements she produced.
These books have since then become a collectors’ item.
“God has been kind to me throughout my whole cancer journey,” she said.
“So I thought to myself why not I give back to society by helping others who are going through what I went through.
“Under NCSM Penang’s project ‘Reach to Recovery’, I have counseled hundreds of breast cancer patients.
“When NCSM received a call from a breast cancer patient within 24 hours I’d be there to lend a listening ear to her.
“I’ve been through the journey, so it’s easy for me to talk and listen to them.
“I’ll let them cry and tell them cancer is not a shameful disease to hide,” she explained.
Mui had spoken publicly about her cancer experience in schools, collegers and universities.
She believe in doing so, this will give hope to new patients.
She also spoke on behalf of Relay for Life and for NCSM Penang, and help to collect funds four NCSM Penang Hospice programme.
She was asked if she has any advice for those who found out they have cancer.
“As soon as you find that you have a lump in your body, get it out at once.
“Go for a thorough check-up and follow whatever your doctor advise you.
“If you can afford it, go for a second opinion.
“What is important is that you get treated fast. Cancer at stages 1, 2 and 3 can be cured.
“All in all, it is up to you, to made your own decisions.
“Well meaning friends may suggest this and that but ultimately it is up to you to decide.”
On what it felt like being a cancer survivor Mui explained that there is neither glory nor shame in the experience.
Cancer, she explained is like any other disease; if caught early, would pave for greater recovery and need not be deduced as a death sentence.
There is life after cancer, and that people who survived cancer should come forward to share their journey with others to inspire and encourage them, she added.