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Can any good come out of having leukaemia at 14 years old?

By Gabrielle Hoang

I was 14 years old when I was diagnosed with leukaemia. My parents sold our flat in our home country to finance my treatment in Singapore. A year and five cycles of chemotherapy later, the cancer was in remission.

At the age of 14, Gabrielle was diagnosed with leukaemia, the start of a new journey for her. Today, she is 28 years old and a pre-school teacher.

Drawn by the cleanliness, order and education system in Singapore, my family decided to stay back in Singapore. However, Dad went back to Vietnam because of his job.

To help my sister integrate into society, we wanted to put her in a childcare centre to learn English and mix with children her age. However, we were rejected by many centres as we were not Singaporean. (Gabrielle has since become a permanent resident of Singapore)

That was when someone directed us to a non-profit student care centre started by a church.

After Mom spoke to the centre staff, I was shocked to see her crying. It turned out that most of the fees had been waived. My sister and I could go there every day while Mom was at work.

Mom was so touched by their kindness and empathy; she had never seen anything given freely in a foreign land like Singapore. The staff explained that it was the love of God that motivated them.

At the time, I was an atheist who was convinced that God did not exist.

“I didn’t want to eat dinner alone”

Shortly afterwards, we were invited to attend the Alpha course. Mom and my sister readily agreed to go. I only went as I didn’t want to cook and eat dinner alone at home.

Alpha turned out to be a pleasant experience. The food was great (and free), and the people were nice. But as I was on my guard against accepting any religion; I was deaf to what was discussed.

As nominal believers of another faith, we didn’t know much about Christianity, and had never heard anyone share about Jesus before.

I felt resentful when Mom and my sister invited Jesus into their lives. It felt like an unnecessary separation between us: them, believers versus me, a non-believer.

“We had survived all our lives without a god, why have one now?” I thought.

Every precious tear

At the end of the Alpha course, there was a retreat. On the first afternoon, I got a cramp while swimming. Mom prayed for me, and it disappeared instantly. I dismissed it as a coincidence, thinking: “I need better proof than that to believe.”

A new beginning: Gabrielle (wearing red glasses; her sister (yellow dress) and their mother (second from right, in white top with a black ribbon) celebrating their baptism with other Alpha participants.

Later, one of the leaders prayed that the head knowledge I had about Christianity would transfer to my heart in due time. I didn’t feel anything, but unbeknownst to me, my unbelief started to shake.

Still later, as a worship song was played, I felt my heart swell up unexpectedly, and tears silently trickled down my face. The song went: “Before the world began, you were on His mind, and every tear you cry is precious in His eyes.”

I had never felt love like this before. Was I really chosen and loved before the foundation of the world?

The song also explained that because of God’s great love, He sent his only Son, Jesus, to die for us, so that we would come to Him.

I knew then in my heart that God was real and He loved me. This would spur me to love Him in return.

Lightbulb moment

I went home and re-read a book that had been given to me earlier by a teacher at the student care centre. The teacher knew that I was a bookworm.

At the time it was given to me, I devoured it, ready to argue against Christianity. 

But the book – The Reason for God by Timothy Keller – made me realise that the argument for atheism could not be maintained. So I softened my position to agnosticism. I began to question whether there is a God for sure, rather than doubting whether there is a God at all.

After re-reading the book, I had a lightbulb moment.

Keller explained that forgiving someone means taking on the cost of wrongdoing on yourself instead of making the perpetrator pay. I now understood that Jesus, who was blameless, took on the punishment for all the wrong things I’d done by dying on my behalf on the cross.

I became convinced intellectually that God existed.

Still, I waited a week after the retreat to see if the feelings of love I felt was real, or just an emotional high. At the end of the week, I surrendered and invited Jesus into my life.

Gabrielle getting baptised.

Growing in confidence

Subsequently, I saw God’s hand in placing me in a school after getting rejections by many institutions.

The rejections had to do with the quota of foreign students they could take in. As a foreign student, I had to sit for a centralised test seeking admission to mainstream local schools.

My mom and I were invited to an interview with a vice principal of the school, who was very encouraging. She said that the school had no vacancy at the moment, but she was going to open another class which I could join.

Being unfamiliar with Singapore’s education system then, I didn’t know that the school that accepted me was one of the top schools in Singapore.

It was founded by a missionary and has a strong Christian culture. At school, encouragement from believing teachers and friends and chapel devotions helped shape and build my young faith.

Amid the anxiety I felt during my ‘O’ levels – my first major national exam – I clung to Bible verses shared by the Christian pastoral care ministry at school.

Before an oral exam, I remember teachers praying for us. They also said that the examiners were not there to judge us but to witness our progress, our effort, and how well we can do. Their words helped us switch from being anxious to confident.

The school also prepared me in various ways for the next stages of my life. For instance, my CCA (Co-Curricular Activity) debate sharpened my critical thinking skills and gave me the chance to compete internationally. Through this, I honed my language skills.

As a result, I now pay a lot of attention to aiding language development in my current job as a preschool teacher. The isolation during the pandemic affected the children’s language development to the point that they began speaking later than previous cohorts.

Gabrielle (left) with a good friend during her secondary school years at Methodist Girls’ School in Singapore.

Always for good

Looking back, I now see how God turned my earlier cancer diagnosis into an opportunity for my family to know Him. When I was disappointed by rejections from so many schools, He opened the right door for me to join the one He wanted me to be in.

Going through these past difficulties and more, I know that any challenges in the future are ultimately not bad for me if I choose to love God. Because, in His time, I’ve seen Him flip every disappointment, hurt, rejection and problem on its head for my good.

As it says in Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

All photos provided by Gabrielle Hoang. This article was first published on Salt & Light.

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