Discus king James Wong opens up about his cancer battle, Latest Others News - The New Paper

Discus king James Wong opens up about his cancer battle

For four days in October, discus king James Wong was a nervous wreck.

It is hard to imagine 1.91m Wong, still formidably built at 54, being rocked by anything. Many Singaporeans remember him as a titan who dominated the region in his event over two decades – a man who oozed confidence each time he set foot in the throwing circle.

This time, though, the 10-time SEA Games champion was entering a different arena – his oncologist’s office. Over eight months, Wong had been battling Stage 2 bile duct cancer, something he shared only with a small group comprising family members and close friends.

After completing his eighth and final cycle of chemotherapy treatment in early October, he took a cancer blood marker test which would determine if he could cease treatment, or start a new round.

“The anxiety,” Wong told The Straits Times in a recent interview at his home in Tampines, “was definitely there.

“It kept creeping into my mind. It felt just like before a big competition. Am I going to 100 per cent win? No.

“Even if I am throwing 60 metres, and my closest opponent’s best throw is 50m, there’s still no guarantee. I can still foul every throw. I can still mess up by trying too hard. That kind of fear and uncertainty came back again.”

So the 2004 Sportsman of the Year did what he did throughout his career. He steadied his nerves and forced himself to think positive. And on Oct 16, he left his oncologist’s office with good news: No cancer cells were detected.

While he still has to return for follow-up tests every three months, Wong and his family can finally breathe after a mentally and physically exhausting 10 months.

Unwelcome birthday present

The first sign of trouble came on his birthday in January, when he noticed his urine was strangely dark yellow and his faeces an odd, pale, clay-like colour.

Within two weeks, he found himself in a hospital’s accident and emergency (A&E) department, where he was admitted and stayed for 10 days.

During this time, he learnt that he had a 2cm by 2cm growth in his bile duct that was malignant, and that he needed to have surgery to remove the tumour.

Wong, who was alone when he received the diagnosis, recalled: “I was stunned. Why me? Anybody would think the same.”

Wong’s wife of 23 years, Jana Lauren was in disbelief. She said: “I remember thinking: Am I hearing this right?”

“The anxiety,” Wong told The Straits Times in a recent interview at his home in Tampines, “was definitely there.

‘Like training for a SEA Games comeback’

Before Wong could go under the knife, he was advised by his doctor to lose weight to aid his recovery.

He had retired in 2013 and stopped regular training about five years ago, and his weight had risen to 133kg.

“I hadn’t even gone for a run in four years, so I knew it was going to be painful,” he said sheepishly. “So I just started by walking 2km the first three days.”

Lauren, an athletics coach who was also a former thrower, chimed in: “Soon, he was working out like he was training to come back at the SEA Games!

“He trained twice a day, and said he did not want visitors. He said if they wanted to visit him, they would have to join him in training so he would not be distracted.”

Within four weeks, Wong went from walking 2km to running 5km. He lost about 7kg.

The first sign of trouble came on James Wong’s birthday in January, when he noticed his urine and faeces was odd. Within two weeks, he found out he had a malignant growth on his bile duct. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

After recovering from the surgery – which left a long scar running down his abdomen from his sternum – in late February, Wong began the first of his oral chemotherapy treatment cycles. Each cycle lasted 14 days, during which he consumed up to 12 pills daily.

He said: “At first, I had no reactions and felt fine. In the fourth or fifth cycle, I started feeling and seeing side effects. There were spots on my legs and arms. My feet became blackened. My hands would hurt picking things up.”

Support is key

Wong paid tribute to the dedication and expertise of the doctors, nurses and staff at the Changi General Hospital for their help in his journey back to health.

“Yes, I threw alone and now I am fighting the battle in my body alone, but in both cases, there are whole teams behind me.

“The main surgeon is like the head sports scientist, and then there are other doctors, who are like the strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists and so on... Everyone had very good team synergy to help, and heal, one grateful guy.”

Singapore discus king James Wong surrounded by staff from Changi General Hospital. PHOTO: JAMES WONG

To express his gratitude, Wong gave his surgeon and the team a unique gift: discuses engraved with their names and a thank-you message.

The father of two said he has learnt to lean on the experiences of other cancer patients and also open up about his struggles. He is part of a group of pancreatic cancer patients who communicate regularly on WhatsApp, and they meet about once a month.

Sharing his cancer battle

Wong is going one step further in sharing his story: He has begun working on a book that will chronicle his cancer battle and his sporting successes.

The book, which will be written by former national sprinter Kenneth Khoo – who also wrote former top sprinter U.K. Shyam’s biography in 2018 – is targeted for publication in 2024.

He is looking for sponsors and donors to help in raising funds for the book. Proceeds from sales, as well as the funds, will be used to support cancer organisations, said Wong.

He also wants to become an advocate for regular cancer screenings, adding: “Don’t think just because you are active, you’re an athlete or whatever, that you’re Superman and you can’t get sick.”

National University Cancer Institute, Singapore executive director, Adjunct Associate Professor Chee Cheng Ean, said that such screenings are an “essential step” to a healthier future. She said: “Cancer doesn’t discriminate, and it can affect anyone, regardless of age or lifestyle. However, the good news is that early detection can save lives.”

She added that those who share their cancer journey with others – such as how Wong has – are taking a “brave step”.

“The effects of such sharing can be profound, as patients find hope, inspiration and courage through talking to others who have been on the same journey,” noted Prof Chee.

After a tumultuous 2023, Wong and his family are praying for better days ahead. Lauren said the journey has changed her outlook on life.

“My WhatsApp status now is, ‘Great memories last a lifetime. Enjoy each day to create more’,” she said.

“Most people don’t know why I changed it, and before it was usually it’s something like, ‘Stay fit and healthy’. But I realise how important it is now.

“Even if today you get a nasty customer or nasty student or whatever, there is always something positive you will be able to find from the rest of the day.”

Back in his Tampines flat, Wong looked up at the shelf housing his SEA Games medals and smiled to himself.

“I have a new gold medal to work towards and win now,” he said. “Beating this cancer for good.”

To find out more about the book or make a donation, contact Wong at JW.Book.Fundraiser.2024@gmail.com

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