Just when you think you're tough enough


Syazana Alia Battles Cancer Through Running And CrossFit

When it seems like everything in life is going downhill, Syazana Alia did not give up. Instead, the medical doctor lifted some weights, and picked up a pair of running shoes to set on a new phase of life!

However, even doctors are not spared from critical illnesses which can throw your life into turbulence. Born in Klang and currently practising in Shah Alam, fortunately this 34-year old doctor has a special interest in Sports and Exercise Medicine which has helped save her life.

ToughASIA had a chat with Syazana to find out how she is overcoming her debilitating battle with cancer through running.

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ToughASIA: How, when and why did you get involved in running?

Syazana: Two years ago, I reached a point in my life where I felt unaccomplished and unfulfilled as my most of my friends have settled down and progressed in their career in the medical field. In addition, I was heartbroken as my serious relationship did not work out. So, I decided to get my life sorted out by changing my lifestyle – physically, mentally, spiritually, financially.

I forayed into CrossFit and then joined a full marathon in Malaysian Women’s Marathon (MWM) 2019 without proper running training. However, I ran over the distance (47km!) and did not feel so sore the next day. That was when I decided to venture into running.

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As a beginner, I managed to get sub-2 hour for my first half marathon and progressed rapidly, despite the fact that I was training for CrossFit more than running. Soon, I started winning podium positions in certain events, which garnered attention from the running community, social media and some sports brands.

Subsequently, I became mpore motivated to train with a few running groups and experienced runners. I will always be grateful to my earliest fitness friends like Sharifah Jasmine Soraya and Suying, friends from Fuel Prime, former running group SARC (Shah Alam Running Club), the members and its captain and his family, also associated friends to the club (road and trail), last but not least the ASICS running club.

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ToughASIA: We understand that you are undergoing cancer treatment. Do you mind describing your situation?

Syazana: I was diagnosed with right adrenocortical carcinoma, the cancer of adrenal gland early this year. On Christmas eve morning last year, I had severe abdominal pain (prior to that, I was lifting weights and running as usual). My mother rushed me to the emergency department because I thought I had a ruptured appendicitis. They did a scan, and that was when I found out I had a huge mass sitting on my right kidney, pushing my spleen and bowel away.

In January this year, I underwent a major operation where I lost a lot of blood but I was stable throughout my operation as my cardiovascular system was so strong.

Furthermore, my recovery was fast as I was active prior to the event, and I ran 21km in the Budi Half Marathon, 6 weeks after my surgery.

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In February, my biopsy result came out and it explained why I progressed so fast in fitness and sports. The cancer had affected my hormones, which caused my testosterone level to be 4 times higher than normal women!

A lot of people thought I took performance aid substances like steroids, however I thought it was due to my intense training and I had athletic DNA but never realised it before as I was not an active person.

Spot Syazana (2nd from right) as a pacer at the ASICS Running Club sessions


ToughASIA: How do you manage your treatment and your running sessions?

Syazana: I am now on oral chemotherapy called Mitotane and the dose keeps increasing to meet the therapeutic level, therefore now my fitness status is inconsistent. I tried to push myself too hard and suffered from severe lethargy the next day. I have now learnt my lesson and trying to recover better, if not fully.

I am now doing a lot of running drills and easy run, no more than 30 – 45 minutes. I am now focusing more on techniques rather than pace or mileage. At the same time, I also am focusing on my mobility issue.

ToughASIA: We heard you dug deep to complete the 63km Merdeka run with some friends. What drives you and goes through your mind when you are running in a race?

Syazana: I joined the 63km challenge at the last minute, but I had some training from virtual races and a running coach. I ran slowly as I know my own capability and it was an ultra distance running anyway, so I know I should not push myself too fast too soon.

However, in the last 5 or 6 km I managed to run fast and finished strong. In a race, I just wanted to see my own capability of how far and fast I could go.

I am my own competition. I don’t care about other competitors except myself. I set a goal and to be able to complete it, that’s when I feel accomplished and satisfied.

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ToughASIA: Does your passion in medicine or health influence the runner you are today?

Syazana: Definitely. As a medical doctor practising in primary healthcare, we manage chronic diseases patients such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Our first management will always be lifestyle modification before prescribing medication unless indicated.

Therefore, I would like to “walk the talk” and I am so happy to see a lot of medical professionals are venturing into exercise and sportsdespite our hectic schedule.

If I wasn’t physically active before I was sick, I might not be able to deal with it like how I am now. So I keep telling people, try not to start being active before you get sick. It makes a lot of difference.

ToughASIA: What is your proudest achievement or moment in running?

Syazana: I managed to create awareness and motivated family and friends to start running and living a healthy lifestyle.

I also am so flattered to receive messages from people I don’t know who felt inspired by my story in running and started to venture into the sport. They are now more fit and feel healthy and that made me happier than receiving any place on podium.

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ToughASIA: What keeps you going into 2021 and beyond as a runner?

Syazana: I want to be healthy, cancer-free and would love to help people especially who are in my shoes to deal with things they are going through by running. Running keeps our mind free and can be therapeutic, especially trail running when you are connected with nature. Try to find a running partner who understands your situation. I believe in a strong support system.

ToughASIA: Would you like to share any other perspective regarding your journey as a runner?

Syazana: I met a lot of people outside my medical circle which was quite an eye opener. Networking is also important to broaden your mind. It made me realise that there is more to life when you know people from other industries who share the same passion of yours. Nonetheless, be mindful not everyone has the same heart as ours.

Admit our weaknesses as well since we’re human and no human is perfect, learn from them.

Lastly don’t forget your friends who don’t have the same passion as yours. Maintain a good relationship with everyone but know your limits. Achieve that balance in life and don’t overthink.

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Syazana has reaped tremendous benefits from cross-training in running and Cross Fit.

ToughASIA: We have seen you in the CrossFit scene, previously. Can you share how you have improved as a runner with CrossFit?

Syazana: The community. I was blessed to have genuine people in my life helped to encourage me to become a better person not only in running but life in general. I used to workout at a few CrossFit boxes (gyms) but CrossFit Pahlawan and its 6am community helped me a lot throughout my challenges.

ToughASIA: Do you have a desire to pursue triathlon or any new sports in the near future?

Syazana: I would like to pursue Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) and Spartan Race instead of triathlon. I believe my background in CrossFit, road and trail running suits the sport more. In addition to that, less women in our country participate in OCR or Spartan Race competitively and I would like to grow the sport.

Photos provided by Syazana Alia.