Cancer survivor repays support she received

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 June, 2008, 12:00am

After Zhu Xuhong beat cancer in her early 30s, she decided to help other sufferers, and now volunteers by visiting terminally ill cancer patients. The Shenzhen accountant speaks about what her work means to her and what she hopes to offer.

When and why did you join the hospice visitors' scheme?

I was diagnosed with leukaemia in my late 20s and fortunately recovered from it after five years. I joined the Shenzhen Volunteer Association in 2000 when I got better because I saw volunteers visiting a young boy who shared my ward while I was getting medical treatment. The association launched its hospice visit scheme in 2002 for patients with less than six months to live. I joined the scheme hoping to use my experience to help cancer patients and repay the great emotional support I was given.

What have been some of the most memorable moments?

There are too many. I still remember the first hospice visit we made in early 2003. The bedridden patient was a young migrant worker with terminal breast cancer, and faced a life expectancy of three months. Her right leg had been amputated because of the spreading cancer cells. She was married but lived alone, with no family support and was considered a burden for both families. The 29-year-old lady was so pessimistic that funeral arrangements were her only concern. We had to choke back our tears in the first couple of visits. Fortunately, she gradually changed her outlook through our companionship and emotional support. She spoke freely in the last phase of her life and spent her last birthday with us. What makes me happy is that, although she needed to face death eventually, she faced it with dignity and peace.

How do the hospice visits help cancer patients and their families?

We have visited more than 40 terminally ill patients and their families over the years. It's obvious that the visits make a meaningful difference to those facing the end of life, and for their loved ones.

Many terminal patients are more willing to share their anxieties and health problems with strangers rather than family members, who may already be mentally and physically exhausted. Most of those we have visited were able to manage an optimistic attitude in the last few months of their lives; some even donated corneas or organs to others. We may not be able to reduce their physical pain, but at least we can ease their emotional and spiritual suffering, making the end as peaceful and fulfilling as possible. For example, we managed to find a kind of traditional Cantonese glutinous cake with banana oil for a terminal patient, whose desire was to taste something like the ones she had in childhood

Have any patients refused your visits?

Yes. Not every cancer patient wants to share their thoughts with us. We met a 26-year-old lady two years ago who had lung cancer. She refused to talk to anyone or even take food. She was probably too young to face the cruel truth. We felt guilty, as we were unable to offer any help.

What are the biggest worries among terminally ill cancer patients?

Usually, a cancer patient on a palliative care scheme will have fears about the future, worries about their family and feel like a burden. For us, their conflicting feelings between a desire to live and coming to terms with death are the biggest concerns. There isn't a set or fixed way of dealing with their distress. The key to effective hospice visits is to provide a way for the individual to address their psychological or spiritual distress, although not every patient will want to discuss it.

Have you adopted a new attitude towards life through this experience?

It's a huge emotional challenge for both the terminal patients and volunteers to acknowledge that the individual will die. Many caregivers will also suffer higher levels of depression, anxiety and other mental problems after hospice visits. We need to seek professional counselling after a certain period of time. But the voluntary work and my own experience do inspire me to cherish life and be more forgiving of others. Life and death are natural laws that we can't change, but the hospice service teaches me how to face them with dignity and calm. As an accountant, I can only devote my spare time to hospice visits. In the future, I'm looking forward to becoming a full-time social worker so I can serve more terminal patients.