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23 Feb 2021
6 mins
Foo Sei Aik: Courage for Cancer Survivors

Foo Sei Aik has been a long-standing SMOU member of 42 years and counting. Coming from the Hainanese dialect group in those days, many Hanainese men would join the seafaring career to work on board ships as stewards, cooks and engineers. As a true-blue Hainanese himself and with the support of his parents, Foo followed suit.

Foo Sei Aik on board his first ship

 “A lot of my Hainanese kampung friends also encouraged me saying ‘Come, let’s go. Sailing is very enjoyable work. You can see the whole world!’ So I just went ahead with them,” said Foo. He first joined the maritime industry as a steward at the tender age of 19 on a training ship in 1969 where he received his hands-on training to become a seafarer. He subsequently took up an engineer course in 1974 and became a fifth engineer, working his way up to a third engineer at the end of his seafaring career.

The occupation of seafaring came with its challenges, and one such example mentioned by Foo is having to be away from the family for long periods of time. However, even with all the training that he received to manage the responsibilities that came with the job, nothing could have prepared Foo for the two battles against cancer that he would be struck with while working as a seafarer.

Two-time Cancer Survivor

Foo is a two-time survivor of colorectal cancer and bladder cancer. He was first diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1995 when he was working as an engineer on board ships belonging to a Singapore shipping company. When the news came, the company was gracious enough to allow Foo to take a year off to recover and receive treatment, while reassuring him of an employment spot when he returns from therapy. The colorectal cancer unfortunately caused him to be reliant on a stoma bag as a substitute for his colon functions. Such news would have dashed the hopes of many to lead a normal life let alone work on board ships, but Foo’s resilience and optimism shone through. He returned back to sea as an engineer, integrating a new lifestyle into his everyday routine.

10 years later in 2005, Foo once again received disheartening news – he had contracted bladder cancer. “When I found out that I was diagnosed with the second cancer, I was disappointed and worried about whether I can still work after this. However, when I thought about my family, I did not want my wife and children to have a difficult time and I was determined to live because of them.” He received treatment for a second time while taking some time off his work to get better. The impact was similar to his previous cancer encounter, rendering him reliant on a second stoma bag in replacement of his bladder functions.

At this point, most people would scoff at the thought of returning to a life of normalcy, or going back to work while having to rely on two stoma bags. Foo’s outlook and determination to move ahead was stronger because of his family, and soon after his recovery, he returned to work on board ships on shorter term shifts at the Singapore Port. When asked about the stoma bags now, Foo says “I am so used to it now. It is just like my shirt – if it is dirty, I just change it.”

Stoma Ambassador

Having given more than 35 years to the sea, Foo has dedicated his retirement life to helping others who are walking the same journey. Foo’s doctor in 2014 observed that Foo had integrated two stoma bags into his daily routine and managed to live unhindered by something that many would deem burdensome. He approached Foo to ask if he was willing to be a volunteer to share his stories and journey to encourage other cancer victims.

Today, 25 years after his first encounter with a stoma bag, Foo is a Stoma Ambassador at the National University Hospital Colorectal Clinic and at the Singapore Cancer Society, inspiring fellow cancer survivors in their journey of recovery with his experiences.

 “Some people think that they cannot go on [in life] with [having to use stoma bags]. Some even have suicidal thoughts. For me with the bags I still work, I still climb up and everywhere. So this is where I share my stories with them. I try to inspire them – If I can do it, why not you?”

As an ambassador, Foo makes regular visits to houses of colorectal cancer survivors to engage with them and encourage them. Out of the wealth of his experience, he also shares with stoma bag users on tips and advice for the coping and integration of this new lifestyle.

Foo recalled an incident of a Chinese man in Singapore who experienced a bad leakage of his stoma bag at home. The man called the hospital but they requested for him to come down to the hospital and were unable to extend to him the help that he needed.

The man phoned Foo, and he recalled, “I just went down to his house bringing all my [equipment] and I changed the [stoma] bag for him. Then he was very grateful saying ‘Thank you so much Mr Foo. Only you can help me.’”

Healthcare Humanity Award 2020

Nurses that nominated Foo for the Healthcare Humanity Award

For his compassion, courage and selflessness, Foo was awarded the Healthcare Humanity Award 2020 last year by The Courage Fund for being an outstanding and inspirational role model to the community. Touched by Foo’s volunteerism and dedication, the nurses at NUH wrote him up to receive the honourable award.

Write-up on Foo for the nomination of the Healthcare Humanity Awards 2020

Foo has been a ray of light for the hopeless. His life story of how he braved the circumstances of his cancer has paved a path of possibility for fellow cancer patients in that they too can lead a normal life. As a role model to many, Foo continues to volunteer and show others a new kind of life that they can build post-cancer, and it does not have to be a diminished version of what they had before.

Foo’s life is a great example of SMOU’s important core value of “Caring and Sharing” with others, being a lighthouse and beacon for many through the adversities that he has overcome.