“I’m 40 this year and I’m pleased to tell people I’m 40 because I’m a cancer survivor. At 33, I was diagnosed with cancer. I still struggle from the side effects today. My neck still hurts from cramps, swallowing is difficult and my mouth is always dry when I speak for too long.
Still, I’m grateful for my blessings and with where I am now. Back then, I always told myself that if I ever got through that difficult period, I wanted to volunteer and do more good in the world.
So, for the past 10 years, I’ve been converting my birthday into something that is related to donation or random acts of kindness. I call it the Gift Back Movement.
When I had cancer, I underwent treatment for nine whole months. I felt like that character from Bubble Boy where he was trapped and not able to go out and interact with people for fear of getting infected.
That was why I wanted to travel so badly after my treatment. It was against my doctor’s advice as I had a weak immune system; but I needed to get out of Singapore. I was dealing with a lot of guilt because my father died a year after my diagnosis.
I couldn’t be there for him because he had pneumonia. I had to move out of the house as it was very risky for me to live with someone who was very contagious and there was no closure. I couldn’t see him for a year and then he just died.
After his death, I went to Koh Phangan. Whenever I need answers or have something I need to reflect on, I go to Thailand. It’s always been my sanctuary. It was in Koh Phangan that I had an idea to write a book about how I overcame my cancer treatment.
To be honest, I’ve always wanted to write a book; but something about my father’s death taught me that nothing is permanent and it just felt so urgent to work on it and finish it. So I rented a traditional Thai house which only had a wooden roof and worked on it.
I loved the place. There, I met a few friends whom I really grew to love and felt inspired by simply by knowing them. Within one month on the island, 80 percent of the book was already done.
The idea behind the book? Well, I’ve been a freelance graphic designer for almost 20 years, so I had to think about the concept from a designer’s perspective. I didn’t want the book to be about me explicitly because that felt too narcissistic.
Since I was born in the year of the monkey, why not tell the story from the perspective of a monkey? But not any monkey – a Buddhist monk named Key, the key being symbolic of unlocking the gate to life.
In the book, the monkey swings from tree to tree, so he knows and understands that life has its ups and downs. I took that idea, illustrated it and also delved into how I personally related to the monkey’s experiences and perspective.
I wanted the monkey to be a monk because while design is something I’m very passionate about, I picked up new things – as one does in the journey of life – and grew a very strong interest in Buddhism. This interest was amplified during my recovery from cancer.
In Buddhism, there is something called ‘dedication of merit’ which is the belief that if you have done something good in your life, you shouldn’t keep it yourself – you should dedicate your good deed to others. So on my late father’s birthday, I dedicated the book to him.
I did a fundraiser for the printing of the book and donated proceeds to cancer patients and the Kampung Senang Charity and Education Foundation. The whole process was therapeutic because I was finally able to release my guilt and do something for my father in the end.
These days? I’ve just been busy with freelance design work. The idea of work has a different vibe now. Instead of being stuck working from home, I’m glad for an app like workbuddy that lets me choose different co-working spaces to work from.
Other than that, I’ve actually made the decision to go back to school and study again. Before COVID-19, I was in Chiang Mai for three years doing all kinds of volunteer work, including being a part-time Buddhist tour guide.
Now that I’m back in Singapore, I’ve signed up for a licensed tour guide course. Going back to school sounds scary; but, since I like being a tour guide, why not make it official?
After everything that I’ve gone through, I still believe life is not just living for oneself, it’s not a personal battle. If you can do what you can with what you have for others, then life deserves a celebration.” – Kyle Neo, 40