'The only thing scarier than cancer is the silence'
The New Paper on Sunday spends time with patients and practitioners of palliative care.
A cancer patient's story
Creativity is central to Mr Muhammad Khairul Ikhwan's identity. The 23-year-old Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts graduate's social media channels feature him in an array of outfits and enjoying being in front of the camera.
Yet he admits his paintings often have macabre themes, manifestations of his innermost thoughts - allegories of hope, sexuality and the unpredictable nature of life.
But Mr Khairul has dealt with the unpredictable.
The avid painter, dancer and drag artist is also a Stage 4 colon cancer patient. At one point, doctors gave him just two months to live.
The New Paper on Sunday visited Mr Khairul a number of times over four months.
When we met him in December, his cancer was at its peak, and his face was swollen from treatment.
He had been living with his disease for over a year, and he seemed fragile.
In November 2014, at age 21 and barely a few months into his national service, he began experiencing an incessant ringing in his ears - often paired with migraine.
"I thought I was going crazy," he explains in a voice softer than his frame would suggest.
The intensity of his symptoms alarmed him but hospital visits resulted only in painkillers.
By the seventh visit, he was experiencing anxiety attacks, double vision and blood in his stool.
In January 2015, after a complete loss of hearing in his left ear, he went to Singapore General Hospital. He was immediately warded.
"They found two mushroom-like lumps in my large intestine and a tumour in the brain - almost immediately they knew it was colon cancer," he says, his speech cautious and slow due to his hearing difficulties.
His first response?
"I didn't want to believe it. I've barely lived my life. So why me?"
Yet Mr Khairul did not know at the time just how bad his cancer was.
He had lost all hearing and relied on his mother to tell him the doctor's verdict.
His mother, Mrs Sanisah Sanwan, could not bring herself to tell her son the full diagnosis - Stage 4 is commonly the point of no return.
Mrs Sanisah hoped she could keep his morale high by not telling him. It worked.
"Not knowing what stage helped, because I was feeling fine," says Mr Khairul. "I told myself that if I could survive this far, I could do anything."
He reveals: "I didn't know what stage I was in until a friend accidentally let on."
Discovering a dedicated circle of friends, who were eager to help and determined to see him beat his disease, has been one of the few positives.
He found courage from messages received on an almost daily basis on social media.
But it could still get lonely.
"This illness has showed me the best and worst in people," he rues.
"Friends I've known for years avoided me because of my illness."
As a young cancer patient, he scoffs at the Hollywood feel-good take on the terminally ill with films like The Fault In Our Stars.
"They are sugar-coated love stories, which do nothing to highlight the actual struggles people like me go through."
His illness altered his lifestyle. He was no longer the party animal.
"My mother called me a vampire," he says with a laugh.
Yet cancer did little to dampen the spirit of the artist within.
His bedroom cupboards are packed with sketchbooks in a variety of sizes.
Art offers him a much-needed escape.
"When I paint, I wander off into another realm. There, I am someone else. Someone who is not me."
Despite reacting well to chemotherapy sessions, Mr Khairul spent months without his hearing.
"The only thing scarier than cancer is the silence that comes from being deaf," he confesses.
"It is a lonely world when you can't even hear yourself."
Since March, there has been a change in Mr Khairul's status.
He says the cancer has gone from "70 per cent active" to just "10 per cent".
His brain tumour has become smaller, and his hearing has returned.
In April, he even had his first art exhibition - fittingly titled Hope - held at the Nafa campus. He has another one lined up in August.
But he is not out of the woods.
He still has cancer. It is still Stage 4.
But he refuses to be meek and wait for darkness. He dresses up when he can.
"I don't really care what people think," he asserts.
"Be it in a positive or negative way, it is important to express yourself wherever you are."