Guest Relations Executive Ann Ton - Shares Her Stories with Cancer Patients

A new outlook on life

Touched by her patients’ fortitude, Guest Relations Executive Ann Ton tries to share strength, optimism and hope with those she cares for.

When the middle-aged couple who arrived at the hospital, Guest Relations Executive Ann Ton couldn’t help but be struck by the husband’s attitude to his wife, who was undergoing treatment for her cancer.

He was a man of few words, but she could tell how much he loved her simply by the way he looked at her, the way he held her hands and smiled at her.

The man spent most of his time by his wife’s side, making sure that she got the best care. Whenever she worried, he would reply: “Don’t worry, my dear, leave those concerns to me. Your health is the most important of all. We will always be here for you.”

The man’s words and actions left a lasting impression on the 27-year-old. “The thought of having a loved one always being there for you in one of your greatest moments of need gives me a warm feeling of optimism in life,” she says.

The incident, along with the many patients she has looked after, changed her outlook about life. “Witnessing so many pains and so many losses has given me a different perspective of how I should set my priorities,” she says.

“Previously, I would worry about things I couldn’t control, like the future and relationships. Now, I realise that there is nothing more important than the connections I have with people I care about. I call my parents every day to hear their voices and let them know that I love them.”

Ann, who comes from Vietnam, has also applied these lessons about life to her work. While her role as a Guest Relations Executive is to support patients who come to Parkway Cancer Centre (PCC) for treatment, especially those who come from Vietnam, Ann makes it a point to offer an extra measure of comfort and encouragement in her interactions with them.

Whether it’s trying to address their physical and administrative needs, preparing them for treatment in Vietnam, interpreting for them, or helping them cope with their stay in Singapore, Ann does her best to assure them of her constant presence and support.

“It’s not easy for patients to accept the diagnosis, so I try to be there when their mood is down,” she says. “Sometimes, I don’t need to talk much, I just let them know we are always there for them.”

And no matter what time it may be, Ann will not hesitate to take a call or spend time with a patient, even if it’s after her work hours or on a weekend. “Helping patients is always my number one priority, so I always try to be available for them,” she says.

Ironically, Ann had never thought she would be doing such a meaningful job when she graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in Pharmaceutical Management in 2013.

Attracted by PCC’s job advertisement which seemed to fit her experience and career expectations, she joined PCC in November 2013. That, she said, turned out to be a “life-changing event”.

As a Vietnamese, Ann found that she could connect with patients from her home country and understand their concerns. Many, she says, are worried about the side effects of treatment, what they need to do, and how effective the treatment will be. Others seek to explore alternative treatments or want to know what they can or cannot eat.

“We try our best to reassure our patients that the treatment is worth the risks and there is nothing more important than their health,” says Ann. “We motivate patients to tap into their inner strength and overcome the side effects of their treatment, one by one.”

Ann also tries to make patients and their families feel comfortable during their stay in Singapore. That means recommending places to stay, foods to eat, and activities to do – anything that will help to cheer them up. “When patients finish their treatments, we often surprise them with some small presents to celebrate their triumph,” she says. “Or we throw a small party for patients to celebrate their birthday with their loved ones.”

While such moments give her great joy, Ann admits that there are times when she has to steel herself to help patients cope with bad news or poorer than expected outcomes, and give them the comfort and support they need.

“I constantly have to remind myself not to allow my feelings to affect patients negatively,” she says. “It’s unfair to my patients if I don’t have a good handle on my feelings. So I learn to control my emotions.”

It’s even tougher, she adds, when patients lose the battle against cancer. “It’s never easy coping with all the heavy emotions that come with the loss of someone’s life,” she says. “There is not much you can do in that situation, besides making sure that you have done your best to help them. There have been patients that I had known for a long time, and we had been through a lot together. I still remember and miss them.”

That’s why Ann believes in spending quality time with people. “No one lives forever and everybody will eventually embrace the circle of life,” she says. “Spending more quality time with each other will make our lives become more meaningful.”

To keep herself going, Ann makes sure to keep a healthy balance between work and her personal life, which she calls “an absolute must”. “I wouldn’t be able to offer patients my best and positivity if I am exhausted myself,” she says.

Apart from keeping a healthy diet, Ann keeps fit with physical exercises, swimming and learning new sports and activities such as table tennis and rock climbing. Sometimes, to unwind at the end of the day, she pampers herself with some exclusive “me-time” – with a favourite travel book and some snacks “to keep me company”. She is “not married yet but hopefully, in the near future”, she adds with a laugh.

So what keeps her going?

“I believe I am making positive changes in other people’s lives with my work,” says Ann, who often draws motivation from the patients themselves. “Cancer patients are the bravest people. They are fighting for their lives under very stressful situations, and need all the help they can get. I want to be there for them.”

Ann will always remember one of her patients, a young man who had developed an aggressive form of cancer and required strong treatment that involved constant pain, fatigue and other side effects.

Despite all that, she recalls, he never lost hope. “He once messaged me, ‘Sister Ann, I still have some projects I need to achieve. If they were to succeed, I would have a bright future ahead of me. I need your help to do it.’”

Such messages and stories have made her job extra meaningful and motivated her to overcome her own personal challenges at work, says Ann. “I was not able to do much for the young man, but I would like to think that our daily conversations and my presence went a long way in supporting him during his tough journey.”

Her advice for patients? “Never give up hope. Life is uncertain and you never know what is lying ahead. So be strong and embrace all moments that you have with your loved ones.”

Written by Kok Bee Eng

TAGS cancer positive thinking, experience with cancer patient, managing emotions