Sammy's story - My stage three cancer journey

Sammy Tiongson is a popular fashion and interior designer who once graced the cover of a glossy magazine. 

With his cheerful, upbeat personality you never would guess that over the last few years, he has been very unwell.

It was in 2020 when Sammy started to experience a blocked ear sensation that wouldn’t go away and rapid hearing decline.

After visiting his GP and then a specialist who ordered a CT scan, a golf ball-sized tumour was discovered, and the diagnosis was Stage 3, Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma, or Nasopharynx Cancer (NPC) and it had spread to the lymph nodes.

“I had no idea. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have any pain other than the blocked ear.

“I was fit and healthy and had never been sick. I couldn’t even relate to anyone who felt sick – because I didn’t know what it was like.” says Sammy.

After the diagnosis, things moved quickly and after his first treatment, Sammy became quite unwell after an adverse reaction and was admitted to hospital.

His treatment also coincided with the COVID -19 lockdown, adding an extra layer of anxiety and isolation. Each day, he was transported by ambulance from Auckland Hospital to Middlemore Hospital for treatment.

“Oh, my goodness, they took such good care of me. I love them all. I was so sick and so weak, but I felt so cared for. I was treated like a star everywhere and with the utmost respect.

“The people were amazing. They saved me. I am still here today, and I am so thankful.”

“They always made me comfortable and ensured that I fully understood the procedure and treatment. “

After leaving the hospital, he was bedridden at home for almost a year due to being immunocompromised.  His journey has been a private and personal one, but now he wants to share his story in the hopes it will help and inspire anyone else going through it.

“The hardest part was watching my loved ones hurting and trying to hide it from me especially my long-term partner, Jason Sarten. I owe him a lot for taking good care of me 24/7.

“Even my dog, Brandy, knew I was sick because I’d been bedridden, and she didn’t want to leave me alone,” says Sammy. Unfortunately, Brandy passed away during Sammy’s illness.


sam and dog brandy web image


Sammy hopes to get the all clear at the five-year mark which falls early next year.  He still has aftereffects from the treatment such as constant dryness, lack of saliva and loss of taste – including his favourite chocolate, cake, and ice-cream…but, “I’m alive!” he says.

“You will go through these phases: denial and anger. It will be a lot easier for you and your carers when you get to the stage of acceptance and surrender, and it will be less stressful for all the people around you as well.”

“My advice for anyone going through it is to trust the system. Trust the doctors – they are the experts. They know what they are doing. Listen to them and show up for your appointments. “

Vandana Singh, Head and Neck Nurse Specialist, says head and neck cancers are among the most common in New Zealand.

“Raising awareness of the symptoms is crucial. The symptoms can be caused by other reasons than cancer so it's important to get them checked especially if they linger. You can read more about symptoms on the Cancer Society website.” 

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