For most people in their early 20s, it's either about building good careers that can make lots of money for brighter futures, or searching for love to ensure even more complete and happier lives. But for 24-year-old Teerapat Boonyakiat, it's all about doing everything he can to stay alive.
Photo by Pornprom Sarttarbhaya
What began early last year as a sore muscle around his left knee turned out to be osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer usually found in children and young adults.
"At first I couldn't believe it when the doctor told me what it was. I thought it was just the muscles because I was playing a lot of football then. It wasn't until later that I walked out of the room and had some time to myself to process what he'd just said that I started to cry."
But now with a calm smile, and a constant burst of laughter, it's hard to believe that he's the same young man who is fighting an ongoing battle, having undergone five harrowing chemotherapy treatments over the past year.
Teerapat is now able to walk again despite major surgery to remove 30cm of bone including his knee (the upper part was cancerous) and much of the bone in his thigh, which was also considered at risk of cancer. The bone has been replaced with a titanium prosthesis, and he had to endure a series of excruciating surgeries to deal with an infection that followed.
"The 'why me?' kind of question never occurred to me, even though I'm still very young. I have never thought of the world as being unfair. Everybody has their own battle, and there are people who are a lot worse off than me."
What he did after first learning about it and before treatment really began, however, had nothing to do with the disease. He decided to break up with his girlfriend, a decision that may seem outrageously senseless to most people, but one which only a man of his kind can understand.
"People said it didn't make sense but I think it's only fair," he explains. "Before this, we could do anything: take a walk, hop on a bus and when going shopping I could hold the bags for her. Now I don't know what the future will be like. This is not what she signed up for."
While others might have shrunk away with fear and hopelessness as soon as they heard the word "cancer", Teerapat faced up to the malignant tumour that was threatening his life.
"I got on my iPad and started to learn about this type of cancer. I wanted to know as much as I could. I suppose it helped to some extent because at least I knew what I would be dealing with."
Before the titanium prosthesis replacement, he had to receive a series of chemotherapy treatments to reduce the size of the cancer as much as possible.
"Each treatment takes three weeks. On the first day, I was feeling fine and energetic. I couldn't understand the fuss the people who have chemotherapy are going on about. But on the second day I started to understand. I couldn't eat _ just seeing food got me nauseous. Then fever, constipation and diarrhoea followed. My eyes couldn't see right and I wanted to puke. The fifth day was the peak of it all. I was like some sort of vegetable. I couldn't follow what people were saying and I couldn't help myself."
Although it's a kind of painful experience unimaginable to most people, in some moments Teerapat talks about it with incredible ease, as if it was not a life-threatening situation but something he couldn't help but recall with a sense of adventure.
"Pooping should never be a public thing. But I couldn't walk then so I had to do it on the bed," he said, blushing. "It was hard even though there was nobody around. I felt so ashamed. I couldn't even reach down to my own butt so all the cleaning up was done by the nurse."
The toughest part of the treatment turned out to be not the chemotherapy or the knee and bone replacement, but the series of surgeries he had to go through afterwards due to repeated infection around the titanium prosthesis.
"After every chemotherapy treatment, the white blood cells will decrease rapidly and the doctor has to give me some medicine to increase them. But after the fifth chemotherapy treatment, which followed the bone replacement, my white blood cells just wouldn't increase and I got very weak.
"Without the white blood cells, it was so easy for the system to get infected. I have had eight surgeries to clean up the infection. There was a time I had as many as four surgeries over the course of just one week."
It was after the seventh surgery that things started to get out of control when the infection entered his bloodstream.
"I have never felt so near to death as at that time. It was not painful, but I just felt like I was going asleep and my body was about to shut down. I was so alone. I didn't feel the clothes I was wearing nor know what was going on around my body at that time. If I fell asleep then, I knew I would be gone."
Asked what has kept him fighting all along, Teerapat admits that there were times when it got so terrible that he thought it would be better just to die.
"My parents never left my side and I realised then that it wasn't just about myself," he explains. "There are people who are willing to do everything to help me survive. I realised then that my happiness is to make them happy. I'm not strong. I'm just afraid of dying."
The long scar across his left knee might seem ghastly to people when they first see it. But talking to him, you get the sense it's just a tiny scratch he got from a fall. And even though there is a chance of cancer recurring in the future, it seems unlikely that he will let it get the better of him now he's on his feet again.
"I used to think I would be here in this world until I grow old. I realise now that we all have so little time. There has never been a time in my life that I knew better how I want to live. I want to be as happy as I can be."
If there's one thing he might be wrong about, it's saying: "I'm not strong." Maybe it's not him who's afraid of death _ it could be the other way round.
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About the author
- Writer: Kaona Pongpipat