Education

Can any good come out of having leukaemia at age 14?

Salt&Light wishes all educators a Happy Teachers' Day!

Gabrielle Hoang // August 30, 2022, 12:33 pm

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The crisis of a cancer diagnosis did not spell the end of the world for young Gabrielle. Instead, it was just the beginning of a new journey for her. She is now 27 years old and a preschool teacher. All photos courtesy of Gabrielle Hoang.

I was 14 when I was diagnosed with leukaemia.

My parents sold our flat in our home country to finance my treatment in Singapore.

A year later, after five cycles of chemotherapy, the cancer was in remission.

Mom was touched by their kindness; she had never seen anything given freely in a foreign land like Singapore.

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

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

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

After Mom spoke to the staff, I was shocked to see her crying. It turned out that most of the fees had been waived. My sister and I could afford to go there every day while Mom went to 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 didn’t 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.

On my guard against accepting any religion, I was deaf to what was discussed.

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: Believers vs me, a non-believer.

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

Every precious tear

The Alpha course included going on a retreat at the end.

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.”

I felt my heart swell up unexpectedly, and tears silently trickled down my face.

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 unbeknown 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 tasted 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 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 given to me 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.

I waited a week after the retreat to see if the feelings of love I felt was real, or just an emotional high.

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; that is, I did not know whether God exists.

Now, re-reading it, a lightbulb turned on in my mind.

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’ve done by dying on my behalf on the cross.

I became convinced intellectually that God existed.

Gabrielle Hoang

Gabrielle getting baptised.

Gabrielle Hoang

The Hoang family celebrating their baptism with the other Alpha participants. Gabrielle is wearing red glasses; her sister is in yellow; and their mum is second from right, in white top with a black ribbon.

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.

Growing in confidence

Subsequently, I saw God’s hand in placing me in one school after getting rejections from many others. 

Before an oral exam, I remember teachers praying for us.

I speculate that the rejections had to do with the quota of foreign students they could take in.

I had to sit for a centralised test for foreign students seeking admission to mainstream local schools.

I was invited, with my Mom, 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.

Gabrielle (left, with a good friend) was 16 when she entered Secondary 3 at Methodist Girls’ School.

At school, encouragement from believing teachers and friends and chapel devotions helped shape and build my young faith.

I’ve seen Him flip every disappointment, hurt, rejection and problem on its head for my good.

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 go from 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 Covid seems to have affected the children’s language development to the point that they began speaking later than previous cohorts.

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.

Gabrielle Hoang

The author today.

Going through these past difficulties and more, I know that any challenges I may face 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.”


This story was first published in Stories of Hope.


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About the author

Gabrielle Hoang

Gabrielle took on her name which means “heroine of God” at her baptism. On a typical weekday, you can find her lifting weights in the gym in the early morning; having toddlers climb over her during working hours as a pre-school teacher; and walking her dog in the evening.

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