N-level students overcome chronic disorder, loss of loved ones to pass exams

SINGAPORE – When 16-year-old Nuraini Binte Mohamed Faizal was in Secondary 1 in 2017, she was diagnosed with familial adenomatous polyposis, an inherited disorder which causes abnormal growth in the colon, and develops into cancer if not treated with surgery.

“I was sad, because I didn’t expect it to come at such a young age, and also shocked, because it was a serious condition for me to be going through at that time,” said the Bowen Secondary School student, who was among 13,380 students who sat for and passed this year’s N-level examinations. They received their results on Thursday (Dec 17).

Her mum, who also has the condition, developed stage two cancer as a result of it in mid-2016, and her 14-year-old sister is also suffering from similar tissue growths.

Because of the diagnosis, Nuraini was advised by her doctor then to give up her co-curricular activity (CCA) – Malay Dance, which Nuraini considers a passion – for the less rigorous Library Club.

But Nuraini’s CCA was not the only aspect of her life that was affected by the condition.

“I often feel very tired, even when I have very few things to do,” she said.

“When I wake up in the morning, I feel very fatigued, and I often lose my appetite and have to visit the washroom often because of the growing polyps.”

In early 2019, her condition dealt her another blow due to excessive bleeding – and led to anaemia. She had to undergo blood transfusions quarterly, each treatment lasting three to four hours.

“Having to cope with my studies while being away at medical appointments every three months was a challenge, and sometimes I had to skip lessons and find out what I missed from my friends,” said Nuraini, who also helps her mother with household chores and supervises her medication.

Nuraini’s setbacks have not dampened her outlook on life, and she counts her late grandmother and mother as among her pillars of strength.

“When my grandma was diagnosed with cancer in 2016 (due to a similar condition as me), she never lost faith and continued to live life as per normal,” said Nuraini of her grandmother who died in 2017.

“She never complained about the sadness that the cancer brought to her life, and always encouraged me to be thankful for everything that happens in life because it’s fated.”

“My mum is also a cancer patient, but she has never used this as an excuse to be laid back, and always told me to stand strong amid my illness,” she said, adding that her mum currently works as an accountant with an engineering firm.

Even as Nuraini passed her Normal (Academic) exams and looks forward to applying for a place in the Direct-Entry Scheme to Polytechnic Programme to study design and media, deciding where to study next is not the only big decision facing her.

In 2019, she was advised by a doctor to remove her colon to minimise the tissue growths from turning cancerous.

Nuraini has yet to make a decision on the removal.

“I still have second thoughts because life will not be the same, there are side effects, and I will feel uneasy often,” she said, adding that the surgery will likely leave her needing to use stoma bags.

But Nuraini continues to look to the future positively, aspiring to be a lawyer, and she is grateful for her teachers’ constant support during her secondary school journey.

Student Nuraini Mohamed Faizal (left) and Mrs Bernice Kuan, her year head. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

One she will never forget is year head Mrs Bernice Kuan, who was in charge of the Sec 4 and 5 cohorts.

“Since she knew of my condition in Sec 1, she never stopped reaching out to me, ensuring that I will always be okay, telling me inspiring stories and reminding me that this condition will not stop me from achieving my dreams,” said Nuraini.

“She spoke to me about twice a month, and I always felt comfortable with her, like a burden was lifted off my shoulders after that.”

She said her optimism kept her going as she believes that “after a hurricane comes a rainbow”, quoting a line from Katy Perry’s song Firework.

Also paying tribute to his teachers as he collected his N-level results on Thursday was Crest Secondary School student Xander Ng, 17, who lost his mother to cancer when he was 12 but rebounded from the loss to become “mature, sensitive and very empathetic”, said his co-form teacher Ms Chang Yi Ping.

She recalled an incident when she disciplined the class for behavioural issues, following which Xander approached her to express his understanding and appreciation for her scolding.

Xander said: “Whenever I’m down my teachers will always be there, even though sometimes they can be really strict, I understand that it’s because they want what’s good for us.”

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Ms Chang said Xander’s story struck a chord with her as she lost her mum herself when she was just four. “I shared his emotions and sadness,” she said.

On what keeps her motivated as a teacher, she said: “For me to see my students go through adversity and challenges, seeing them work hard to thrive in their own victories, that really drives me.

“Watching them grow up individually, at their own pace, maturing in their thought. Gaining a good sense of themselves and having self-confidence, and developing a forward-looking purpose and desire to improve the quality of their lives really makes me very proud of them.”

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