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[Breathe. Live.] “Even while you try to be brave, you can despair at the same time.”
11 June 2015

Featuring the work of photographer Bob Lee, the four articles in Breathe. Live. showcase the strength and grace of our patients. They let us catch a glimpse of their everyday lives, and share what keeps them going.

“What you see isn’t always what you get,” Gloria Chuah, 63, reminded us. “I seem very positive, very cheerful, but I’m not always like this.”

Often, we laud the positivity, the smiles and the strength, we see in our patients. Yet, as Gloria candidly explains, pain, sadness and despair are most definitely in the picture too, and shouldn’t be dismissed, but acknowledged.

Gloria has been a regular attendee at our day hospice centre since 2010. She learned of her ovarian cancer in 2008, and has been receiving treatment since then. Doctors no longer have new drugs for her to try, and the old ones have stopped working.

“The doctor confirmed that the cancer has now attacked my bladder. I’m bleeding, but at least it’s dried blood. I have to wear diapers, and I know it’s not getting any better. There’s nothing to take to make me well, and I can feel my body getting worse.”

Despite her acknowledgement of her disease and prognosis, Gloria is a feisty spirit, often cheerfully chatting with other patients, and enthusiastically taking part in activities organised by visitors at the day hospice.

Yet, the bottle of liquid morphine she carries everywhere with her, which she needs to help her cope with the constant pain, is a reminder of her words – “what you see isn’t always what you get.” Gloria assert that it’s important to understand that the pain and despair is always there for patients like her, even though they are the ones who have to come to terms with their pain.  

It’s always been a source of frustration to Gloria when people tell her about “positive thinking”. She recounts many times when feeling depressed, she shares her negative feelings with others, only to receive the reply, “Don’t think like that!”

“I know people mean well, but I feel very frustrated. Don’t tell me to be strong. Don’t tell me to think positively. We’re the ones going through this. What can you say to us that we don’t already know?”

Gloria points out that sometimes, knowing that she “should” be strong, or “should” think positively, made her feel worse. For example, when she found herself crying for months after learning of her diagnosis, she initially began questioning her own reactions. Was she overreacting? Should she be crying so much?

t was only after she found others like her that she learned to accept her own feelings, and began to feel less alone. “Sometimes, when you see a sick person crying, they might just be comforting themselves.

“I want others to know that you are not weak if you cry. Even while you try to be brave, you can be sad, and cry, and despair at the same time.”

So how can one show support? It could be as simple as a touch, a pat on the shoulder, she says.

Gloria recalls a time when she panicked before a major operation that would take 9 hours and a huge incision from the diaphragm to the pelvis. She kept telling the nurses at the KK Hospital for Women and Children, “I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go.” A nurse manager there simply took her hand, holding it as they made their way to the operation theatre.

“That was a sort of support I needed – a kind that made me feel braver,” Gloria recalled.

She also feels support from the rest of the patients, as well as the young volunteers who visit at HCA’s day hospice centre, who chat with her and give her words of encouragement. She shows us a little card made by a boy, who pasted flowers on a piece of paper and wrote encouraging words on it.

 Most importantly, though, is the support she receives from her older sister, who accompanies her to her treatments and provides her a lot of moral support. Gloria acknowledges that it is her sister who gives her the motivation to live on.

“Sometimes, when it’s so painful, I don’t feel like living. And then, I see my sister, and I remember that the pain I feel, she feels too. You realise that when you’re upset, your family is also upset, so you decide, ‘Let’s face it.’”

“After you cry, after you’ve become negative, there’s a point when you’d sit down and realise, life is such.”

Read about Vivian, Uncle Latip, and Dayah in the same [Breathe. Live.] series, from previous issues of HCA Connect. If you’d like to send in words of encouragement to Gloria, drop us an email at communications@hcahospicecare.org.sg .