The Spirit of a Fighter

Undergraduate Poh Wei Tai (CS’21) recounts his journey in overcoming cancer, and how art was a means of coping and self-discovery.

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While everyone else was preparing for the Chinese New Year festivities last year, Poh Wei Tai (CS’21) spent the eve of the celebration undergoing a seven-hour surgery. His doctors had to remove the cancerous tumour that was growing on the bone of his right shoulder and replace part of the bone with a metal prosthetic piece.

“It was one of the scariest things I had ever faced,” said the 23-year-old.

Poh, now a second-year undergraduate at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, first discovered he had osteosarcoma — a type of bone cancer most common among young males — in October 2016. Poh was participating in a ball game at WKWSCI’s annual sporting event, Colour Games, when his arm broke upon contact with the ball.

It was a routine arm swing, and the arm was not supposed to break, said Poh, who was rushed to the hospital mid-game. About a week later, Poh’s biopsy results revealed he had cancer.

Poh’s mind went blank upon hearing the diagnosis, he said, adding that he was an active person who had no prior health ailments. “I was shocked to the point where I didn’t know how to react. I thought I was going to die. It took days, even weeks to register the fact that I had cancer.”

 

Art in WKWSCI

PHOTO: BEVERLY CHEW

Conceptualised by Poh Wei Tai, the WKWSCI mural (South Spine) was painted collaboratively with Beverly Chew (CS’21). Poh was also involved in the Doodle Wall for WKWSCI FOP 2017, which is now a permanent fixture at WKWSCI.

The other artists who helped create the 2017 Doodle Wall are: Joshua Ng, who conceptualised the piece and artists Kelley Lim, Lim Jia Yao, Bambby Cheuk, Joanne Tan, and Jessica Heng (all CS’20).

A test of strength

Still, Poh drew hope from a meeting with a survivor of the same cancer he had, who was at the hospital for a routine check-up. It was a brief yet pivotal moment for Poh, who saw this stranger as a source of hope because she looked healthy and well.

“I don’t want to imagine how much worse I would have felt if she weren’t there,” he said.

On fighting this battle, he added: “My oncologist also told me I had a 80 percent chance of surviving. And I said, yeah, I’ll take that.”

Poh’s treatment included a gruelling eight-month chemotherapy process. One of these involved staying at the hospital for 48 hours while the drug was administered.
“Chemo was horrible,” Poh said. “It’s a drug that kills every cell in your body, the bad and the good. Mentally and physically, you lose all of your strength.”

Treatment literally left a bad taste in the mouth for Poh, who remembers side effects like a lingering metal taste, a ringing sound in his ears, and nausea.

“The toughest part was having to be at the hospital. You feel like you’re just waiting to die. Minutes felt like days,” said Poh.

Loved ones made all the difference

Despite the pain of chemotherapy, what affected Poh the most was seeing his parents, both in their 50s, suffering while they toughed it out with him. Poh’s mother took more than a year off from work and stayed at his bedside while he was at the hospital, and his father came after work every day.

It was then when Poh realised how unconditional a parent’s love can be, and how cancer is not just a solo battle.

"There were really uncertain times because it was so long. What if I was going to die? But you can’t dig that hole and stay inside for too long, you have to get out of it,” Poh said.  

“It felt like a marathon, and along the way there were a lot of pit-holes and low moments when I felt like I couldn’t do it.”

But with the support of friends and family, Poh managed to pull himself out of those low moments.

“Whenever a friend visited, it felt as if he pulled me out of the pit-hole for that moment to continue the race.”

 

VIDEO: DARREN CHING

Turning to art

Besides familial support, art was another significant coping mechanism that kept Poh positive throughout the long-drawn recovery process.

“I didn’t want to feel like I was waiting for a death sentence. Art is (for) when you are in that fragile moment, trying to distract yourself from negative thoughts,” he said.

“Drawing makes me feel carefree when I am alone with pen and paper. It’s like bonding with yourself and your thoughts. It’s very much like writing where you converse with yourself, except that it’s in images.”

POH WEI TAI (CS’21), undergraduate and artist

Poh developed his love for art — in particular, illustration — when he was five, which eventually became a serious pursuit. At 19, he started to keep his own sketchbooks and share his art publicly on Instagram. Poh realised that people were interested in his work, and wanted to use the platform to reach out to more people.

During the recovery process, Poh pushed himself to create more, which helped him become more expressive and organic in conceptualising ideas for his drawings.

“Drawing makes me feel carefree when I am alone with pen and paper,” said Poh. “It’s like bonding with yourself and your thoughts. It’s very much like writing where you converse with yourself, except that it’s in images.”

Post treatment, Poh fell in love with art even more.

Currently, Poh is part of local artistic communities including Band of Doodlers where he helps to create collaborative murals and Henndrawn, a form of temporary tattoo art designs made from Jagua, a fruit-based ink. Poh also prints his illustrations on tote bags, which he sells on his website.

As an artist, Poh hopes that his pieces will help people find solace. “I want to transport people into a fantasy world of their own where they can find things that are not ordinary, and hopefully reach somewhere comforting.

“I want to spread art to the world.”

Looking towards a bright future

Two years have passed since Poh’s diagnosis, and one year since his last session of chemotherapy. Today, Poh is in remission, and is continuing his studies after taking a gap year.

While Poh, an avid basketball fan, misses being able to play on court after his surgery, he still counts his blessings. Poh said: “You lose a little bit, but you gain so much more. I’ve lost the ability to play, but I’ve gained so much perspective on life.”

“As long as you are living, you should never give up. You are stronger than you think. I just want whoever finds help in this story to find comfort and strength from what I’ve been through — to feel like they are not alone.”

POH WEI TAI (CS’21), undergraduate and artist

The daunting episode also taught Poh how fragile life is, and how quickly someone could be healthy at one moment, and on his deathbed the next. Seeing people die in front of his very eyes felt like a slap to the face, said Poh.

While the fear of a relapse still worries Poh, he has learnt to take things in his stride. “There’s no point in incessant worrying. That’s a part of learning also — to get on with life,” he said.

Witnessing death play out in the hospital made Poh realise what was important to him. For Poh, that was to spend time with loved ones, and seeking new experiences like travel.

“As long as you are living, you should never give up. You are stronger than you think. I just want whoever finds help in this story to find comfort and strength from what I’ve been through — to feel like they are not alone.”

 

 

VIDEO CREDIT WITH COURTESY OF: JOANNE TAN

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