Five AirAsia Allstars share their inspiring stories of resilience and courage in the face of overwhelming odds, revealing the importance of a support network, particularly one that includes the workplace.
Words Kerry-Ann Augustin Photography Alex Chia
Fighting cancer takes so much more than just modern medicine. It requires a strong mind, an unbreakable spirit and an army of allies – family, friends, and even employers.
For over two years, AirAsia and National Cancer Council Malaysia (MAKNA), a nonprofit organisation, have worked hand-in-hand within the #AirAsiaMAKNA campaign to spread cancer awareness while raising funds for research and underprivileged patients. The latest #AirAsiaMAKNA: Rebel with a Cause campaign is testimony of the airline’s stand – the battle against cancer is a collective effort, and there is a need to recognise the courage and tenacity of those who fight it.
As the late AirAsia Allstar Anaz Ahmad Tajuddin, the airline’s much-loved Group Chief Operating Officer who valiantly fought cancer until he breathed his last on January 13, 2017, once said, “I never allow myself to mull over the thought, even for a day, that I would lose the battle.” In the eyes of those who cherish his memory, Anaz may have in the end lost the battle, but he won the war against cancer by greatly inspiring cancer survivors to continue their fight – perfectly emulating AirAsia’s unwavering support for all cancer fighters, including its own Allstars.
Marianne ‘Maan’ B Hontiveros
69, Chairwoman, AirAsia Philippines
“These are all reconstructed,” says Marianne B Hontiveros matter-of-factly, pointing to her chest. “And I got a free tummy-tuck out of it!” she adds with a laugh. Fondly known as Maan, the Chairwoman of AirAsia Philippines radiates with such confidence and charisma, it is difficult to imagine that she kept her battle with cancer a secret for years.
Diagnosed in October 2005 with early stages of Invasive Carcinoma in one breast and Ductal Carcinoma In Situ in the other, Maan wasted no time in launching her crusade against cancer – she went for a second opinion, consulted surgeons and later, scheduled her double mastectomy in New York, US. “I learned that the only way to beat your worst nightmare is to look it right in the eye and say ‘Damn you, I will do everything to get rid of you!’” she shares.
Maan says that the operation was the easy part. Her greatest challenge was in keeping her illness a secret from her beloved father, who passed away eight years later without an inkling of what Maan had gone through. “I wanted to spare my father the worry and agony of knowing that I had the same disease that took my mother’s life,” she confides.
After years of constant monitoring and diagnostic tests, Maan was finally declared cancer-free in 2010. She battled her fear of a relapse by staying positive, spending time with loved ones and looking towards a bright future. Just a year later, Tony Fernandes invited her to share his dream of launching AirAsia in the Philippines. “I had a lot of reasons to live – I knew I could join Tony in pursuing his dream only if I stayed healthy and fit.”
27, Executive, Document Control Centre, Malaysia
Over 400 job applications, 25 interviews and a few half-hearted offers – that is what exasperated 24-year-old Harikrishnan had endeavored through until the day the MAKNA volunteer trainer gathered up his courage to ask Aireen Omar, CEO of AirAsia Malaysia, a simple question: “What is AirAsia’s policy on hiring people with chronic illnesses?”. The crowd at the launch of AirAsia’s collaboration with MAKNA fell silent.
“If you have the confidence and can prove your competence, AirAsia’s door is open to you,” was Aireen’s reply.
For Harikrishnan, a spunky young man with an indomitable can-do attitude, battling discrimination was even more arduous than fighting Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the cancer he was diagnosed with at age 24. “The biggest misconception most employees have is that cancer patients are a liability to the company. Many doubt our competency to perform at work,” he says, admitting that his honesty in revealing his condition cost him many job prospects.
After the press conference, Harikrishnan was met by Aireen, Aziz Laikar (Head of Communications, AirAsia Malaysia) and Anaz Tajuddin. They offered him an opportunity at an interview to prove himself, just like any other job applicant.
2018 marks Harikrishnan’s third year as a full-time employee at the airline’s Document Control Centre. Despite lingering after-effects of the disease, which he refers to as “the epitome of physical pain”, Harikrishnan is always seen with a ready smile, brimming with optimism some of us can only hope to achieve someday. “The support of my superiors and team is a critical part in fighting cancer. My family at AirAsia doesn’t defi ne who I am by my illness, but by my capabilities – sometimes even I forget I’m ill!”
25, Cabin Crew, India
Divya Meda couldn’t believe what she had just heard. How was it possible that a healthy, stunning, 24-year-old with a jet-setting job and a bright future be diagnosed with cervical cancer?
“My whole life turned upside down,” says Divya, recounting the fateful day in 2014 when she discovered that she was ill. For months, she was riddled with anxiety and profound sadness. When she started chemotherapy in early 2016, her lush lashes and thick, wavy tresses started to fall, much like her self-esteem that was slowly chipping away. Being a cabin crew, she felt it was only a matter of time before she would be asked to leave. But what happened next took Divya by total surprise.
“My manager Jasmine Dhillon, Head of Cabin Crew, never once doubted my capabilities when I returned to work after my chemo and surgeries. Instead, she saw me as a stronger person and told me I was an inspiration to everyone.” That unshakable reassurance from her employer, and the enduring love of family and closest friends,
reignited Divya’s desire to live.
Now, after four years since she was first diagnosed, Divya is still flying with AirAsia India, but her perspective on life has completely changed. “I want to set an example for people who are fighting the Big C. Of course, there is fear but don’t become victimised by it – beat it with willpower, faith, hope, love, determination and most importantly, a positive attitude.”
46, Kuching Hub Manager, Malaysia
The day Aziza Ariffin was diagnosed with cervical precancer in 2014, a steady stream of tears trickled down her cheeks. At first, Aziza, a mother of two and the airline’s Hub Manager in Kuching, Malaysia, thought the best thing she could do was to resign from the company to which she had dedicated 11 years of her life. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to perform at work,” she confides.
When news reached her former boss Francis Loh, Head of Group Operations based in Kuala Lumpur, he flew down to Kuching immediately. “Francis mentioned that Tony (Tony Fernandes, Group CEO of AirAsia) wanted me to receive treatment in Singapore as Anaz did.”
The late Anaz Tajuddin became one of Aziza’s closest confidants and strongest supporters throughout her battle with cancer, calling her frequently and reminding her to keep fighting. “He motivated me to continue working,” says Azizah, reaffirming how important a good support system at work is. “I would never be as strong as I am now
without the motivating support from Tony, Aireen, Francis, Anaz and so many others. They helped me to continue believing in myself.”
Nereewipakarn Teethong (Jack)
39, RAMP Bus Driver, Thailand
If there’s one person who seems like she can take cancer down singlehandedly, it’s Nereewipakarn Teethong. Not only is the 39-year-old grandmother a bus driver with AirAsia Thailand’s RAMP team, she is also the only female Allstar in the department! “I can do a man’s job,” she says, offering a gentle smile, which immediately softens her angular features.
Born Sunikorn Teethong, she changed her name to Nereewipakarn, which means ‘strong woman’ in Thai, after overcoming the trauma of a car accident and later, stage two uterine cancer. Her journey in fighting the illness was both emotionally and physically painful but Nereewipakarn refused to succumb to the same disease that took her father’s life – she fought tooth and nail, enduring excruciating treatments that rendered her weak. “I was terrified that I might lose my job because of this,” says
Nereewipakarn, an Allstar since 2010.
At home she had the strong backing of her mother and family, who inspired her to continue fighting the disease. At work, her department came together to build her a web of support – on days she felt unfit to drive, her team voluntarily took on the task for her and let her handle administrative work instead. They checked on her constantly, yet never made her feel different from anyone else. “It’s true that I had some physical limitations, but love and support from people around us can do wonders,” says Nereewipakarn with conviction.
Doses of Discrimination
People diagnosed with cancer, and even those who have successfully recovered, often face discrimination in the workplace. Some of the various forms of discrimination include: being sacked or demoted for taking time off work for medical treatment; being overlooked for new or important positions due to the perception that the employee might be too weak to perform their duties; and being made redundant in fear that the company will incur cost for medical treatments.
Statistics from a study carried out in 2016 by British charitable organisation Macmillian Cancer Support clearly show that there is a need to strengthen anti-discrimination policies at the workplace to assist employees diagnosed with cancer. These are some of the findings.
• 18 per cent of people who returned to the workforce after being diagnosed with cancer faced discrimination from their employer or colleagues.
• 14 per cent resigned, or worse, were made redundant, as a result of their diagnosis.
• 85 per cent of cancer patients felt that continuing to work was important in their fight against the disease. It is clear that support in the workplace is crucial in helping cancer fighters keep up the good fight and continue leading a meaningful life.
Raise & Rise Together
AirAsia and MAKNA have raised MYR700,000 (approx. USD170,000) during the short duration since the #AirAsiaMAKNA campaign was launched in 2015. As part of the ongoing commitment to increase cancer awareness and raise funds for underprivileged patients, the organisations have collaborated with Malaysia’s leading fashion e-commerce retailer, FashionValet, to sell exclusive AirAsiaMAKNA t-shirts. The pilot and cabin crew inspired t-shirts for both kids and adults are available for purchase at MYR30 (approx. USD7) each in selected stores in Pavilion and Bangsar Village II shopping malls in Kuala Lumpur, as well as online at airasia.com/airasiamakna and fashionvalet.com.