No one is ever ready to hear that they have cancer. When news of her colon cancer broke, Choo Mei Sze did not only have to grapple with shock and dysphoria, her struggles were amplified by the financial worries that quickly entailed the experience.
It all began when her dad insisted that she paid the gastrointestinal specialist a visit following bouts of diarrhoea that lasted for three weeks.
“I often experienced tummy upsets and would have to go to the bathroom up to seven times in a day. But I thought it was normal or I had develop a sensitive stomach towards Malaysian food since returning from the United States (where she resided for five years),” the affable Choo told this writer at a recent interview in Petaling Jaya.
At her dad’s insistence, Choo had a colonoscopy but did not think much about it afterwards. And then her placid world unraveled.
“Imagine my shock when I learned I had a tumour about one-third the size of my colon. Doctors were alarmed. They wanted to perform a colostomy as quickly as they could.”
“I had only a week to get my life in order between the diagnosis and my first surgery,” she recalled.
Prior to her diagnosis, 28-year-old Choo, who’d dabbled with television hosting, emceeing and writing, was bagging a comfortable five-figure salary every month. But even that did not prepare her for the financial challenges that were to come.
What’s going on?
As if learning about her cancer was not trying enough, Choo’s situation grew even more convoluted when she found out that her medical insurance policy had lapsed even though she “paid” her premiums on time!
Prior to the diagnosis results, Choo’s boyfriend had contacted their insurance agent to ask if she could make a claim on her medical card for a growth.
His queries were immediately met with a “no,” and their frantic and numerous attempts to reach him afterwards were to no avail.
The distressed couple wasted no time in scouring for other means to get around the problem and by some luck, they managed to get in touch with the agent’s supervisor.
“We found out that the agent “forgot” to pay the premium that I remitted to him for past six months, making my policy a “lapsed policy”!”
When the doctors confirmed she had cancer, Choo, who’d been left in a state of confusion realised she would have no choice but to tackle the problem head-on.
“The hospital demanded a deposit of RM24,000 upfront. My mum had to swipe her credit card as the amount exceeded my limit,” she shared.
Choo was hospitalised for nine days after the surgery. Her one-week stay at a private hospital raked up a total of RM42,000.
Her struggles did not end there. Choo, with the help of her parents, would again have to fork out an upfront amount for her second surgery, held just one and a half month later.
“Both surgeries amounted to about RM70,000, which my parents had to pay with their credit card again,” said Choo, who shared that her mum runs a real estate businesses, while her dad is a remisier.
Throughout her ordeal, her insurance agent was nowhere to be found and could not be reached. “My boyfriend was very mad,” she shared.
The couple fought tooth-and-nail for the case. “When you have cancer, you really don’t want to deal with anything else. But we had to go through so much hassle, we made countless calls, filed several reports, we even contacted Bank Negara,” she said.
Thankfully, Choo’s case got through in November 2014 and she was able to make a claim for critical illness.
“The agent’s supervisor was very helpful,” said Choo, who added that she was later informed that her case was a “one-off” occurrence. She admitted that perhaps filing her complaint as a “public figure” may have helped speed up the process.
Surviving the big “C”
“I cried my eyes out when I found out I had cancer. I cried like crazy. But then I realised I had to stop crying and find the strength to fight this thing,” said Choo.
And so she fought, and then she won. Her colostomy was reversed in early August.
However, Choo noted that the chances of her cancer recurring were high. “When you get cancer in youth, the cancer cells are about five times more aggressive than they would have been if you were older.”
She now requires close monitoring, and recurring costs from the routine check-ups and scans will come up to RM15,000 per annum.
“I am lucky that I will be able to claim for some of that. But having gone through cancer, I have no other options but to stick with the same insurance policy, the company and the agent because I am now considered a liability and no other insurer will cover me.
“I shudder to think of what will happen if my family did not have the money to pay for my surgery,” she said.
To help others avoid making her mistake, Choo offers some advice for picking a medical insurance agent on her blog:
- Get a medical card with Critical Illness coverage, increase it as you get older.
- Make sure you can TRUST your insurance agent. Don’t just buy to help anyone but make sure you know you are buying from someone who has been in the industry for a very long time and has a good track record. Some insurance agents even go to the hospital to check in with you.
- Get an EMPATHETIC insurance agent, basically someone who cares. The worse part about Choo’s case is that her agent didn’t care which makes her very disappointed. Going through cancer is one thing but having to deal with the financial bit on top of that really tests a person.
- When paying your premium, it is best to direct debit from your credit card monthly instead of paying to a person. If you pay your agent directly, make sure you get a receipt for every single payment.
- Make sure you get your statements and physical policies from your insurer to ensure that what the agent sold you matches what you’re actually receiving.
A new lease of life
“I was only 27 when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was the youngest patient my doctor had. Only 2% of the general population who are female in their 20s will get cancer. I am that lucky 2% ,” she said with a laugh.
“Maybe God is really trying to test me. Maybe there is a bigger purpose to this.”
Choo, who had been pursuing a PhD in psychology prior to her diagnosis, said she will spend more time focusing on herself this year.
“I have always been an overachiever. I was always a straight A’s student. I had a plan for my life. And then the cancer struck, and all my plans got derailed.
“Now, I just want to take a step back and focus on being more spiritual, read, write and learn more about myself. This is a year for me to grow and love myself, and to really do the things I like,” said Choo, who recently travelled to Kyoto and Osaka in Japan.
She also wants to empower other cancer patients. “My post on my experience with cancer has reached over 600,000 people on Facebook alone. My website’s bandwidth exceeded its limit within the first 24 hours.
“From this, I deduce that people are looking for inspiration, empowerment and information on cancer and I would like to do my best to help,” she said.
You can follow Mei Sze’s journey on her blog.[sc:testallianz]