Cancer survivor overcomes odds, volunteers to be ‘punching bag’ for other patients

A lesser human being would have probably given up, but Larry ‘Joseph’ Wong is no ordinary mortal.

Besides surviving cancer three times, Wong has suffered heart, and lung failures, cracked bones, and lost his vision for 16 months when undergoing treatment.

He has overcome the pain and is now a motivational speaker and volunteer counsellor with the National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM).

As he said, his body is broken from the inside out, yet his spirit is indestructible.

“I earned my Master’s in Counselling from Open University Malaysia in September 2020,” said the 40-year-old Wong.

“I used to be a brand consultant, but after surviving cancer, I knew I wanted to do something to help others.

“I have been a volunteer with NCSM for the past nine months. It is good to help others. Anyone can reach out if they need my help.”

Wong was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) in 2011, and a different mutation of that cancer, in 2012.

AML begins in the bone marrow, which is the soft interior of the bone and the site of new blood cell production. It typically spreads swiftly.

It can occasionally spread to the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, testicles, central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), and other organs.

In 2014, he had Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that begins in the lymphatic system, a part of the body’s germ-fighting immune system.

“I spent five years in hospitals, from my initial diagnosis, to when I finished all my treatment.

“It was a struggle. The pain was excruciating. I had two bone-marrow transplants, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy,” said Wong, whose treatment means he cannot have children.

“The first transplant was autologous – using tissues or cells from the ‘clean’ part of my body.

“The second transplant is called MUD (matched unrelated donor). I had a one-in-a-million chance of finding a donor.

“I am so blessed to have got it.”

After his recovery, Wong decided to change his first name from Larry to Joseph for good luck, and to signal a new beginning.

“When I was born, my dad named me Larry, while my mum wanted to call me Joseph. After I recovered, I read a lot about feng shui and decided I needed to change my luck.

“I followed my mum’s wish of calling me Joseph,” said Wong, when met at a running event in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend.

“The NCSM set up a booth at the event, and I volunteered to let people know that someone was willing to listen to their problems.

“It is not just about cancer. Mental health is important, too.

“In Asia, men think it is not macho to talk about their feelings. There is a stigma – with women, too – if you admit to having mental issues.”

Wong said people must realise that when their psychological being is not well, their physical being is also affected.

Those going through a hard time need to find someone willing to listen to their problems.

“This is especially true for cancer patients. Sometimes they think, ‘why me? What have I done to deserve this?’

“The first question I ask is how they are coping,” said Wong, winner of several awards for his motivational talks.

“I want to know how they feel. Are they positive or negative? Sometimes, people have this misconception that if you have cancer, it is a death sentence.”

Wong added that cancer patients would initially be overwhelmed, but the best way is to break down those feelings and find out what they fear.

“Then, we work on them one by one. Because, if too many things come in, you get confused.

“You will reach a stage where you will get angry and start blaming people. It is a grieving process,” said Wong.

“That is where I come in. Instead of getting angry at spouses, children, or other family members, let me be the outlet where the anger flows.

“I will be the ‘punching bag’. Once patients work on their anger, the healing process can begin,” he added.