Cancer took away his mother when he was just 12.
Most of us have heard of Benjamin Kheng. A quarter of homegrown band, The Sam Willows, he is known for his good looks, witty demeanour, soulful voice and troops of adoring fans.
But there is more to the singer-songwriter. Benjamin, 28, is also an active advocate for the Singapore Cancer Society (SCS).
We met him three weeks ago at a Thai fusion restaurant in Capital Square to learn more about the cause. During our hour-long interview, Benjamin was so passionate about sharing his story that he left his plate of phad thai untouched for the whole hour. (Sorry, Ben!)
It is a cause dear to his heart, after he lost his mother to cancer when he was just 12, just two days before his Primary School Leaving Examinations.
He paused, and as he recollected his childhood memories, the mood turned sombre.
"I didn't have anyone at that time to bring me through and explain it to me. I'm just thankful that my mom was very vocal throughout the whole experience.
"She taught me to always stay positive, to be there [for the beneficiaries] without being overly sympathetic. They just need someone to listen and be understanding," said Benjamin.
Now, 16 years later, Benjamin is turning the painful memories of his childhood into fuel for a greater cause.
Next month, he and his sister, fellow The Sam Willows band member Narelle Kheng, will be performing at Relay for Life. In the overnight marathon event, participants will walk or run around a track at the National Stadium to raise awareness and funds for SCS.
Benjamin has been volunteering at SCS since 2016, when he got involved with a fundraising campaign 50 For 50. Every three months, he volunteers and interacts with beneficiaries, such as young cancer patients or those impacted by cancer.
Aside from being part of Camp Rafiki, he also hosts fundraising concerts for the beneficiaries whenever he has the time.
His personal experience allows him to teach others to cope with their difficulties while facing the disease. Benjamin facilitated and performed at Camp Rafiki 2016, an annual SCS camp led by university student volunteers, in hopes of empowering impacted youths to face their challenges courageously.
Benjamin, who was previously involved with movements helping youths at risk, said: "The kids at Camp Rafiki were all around the age I was at, when [my family experienced] cancer. There were a lot of deep-seated emotions that you can't really explain, and a lot of healing happened because we finally had conversations [about the emotions] the kids did not know how to talk about.
"A lot of kids who have dealt with this were simply got told to get over it, and that shouldn't be happening," Benjamin added.
He even spares time to reply messages he receives, through Instagram, from the kids he meet at Camp Rafiki. It is time consuming, surely, given that he has over 182,000 Instagram followers and receives about 40 to 50 direct messages each day.
"It's about making them happy and letting them know that they're really not alone," explained Benjamin, while sipping on his glass of thai iced tea.
Besides being a friend to children whose lives have been impacted by cancer, Benjamin also champions for regular check-ups for early detection of cancer.
The Singapore Sports School alumni said: "Most people assume they would not contract the disease, even when much awareness about cancer prevention has been raised."
Tightening his smile into a firm pout, Benjamin added: "The statistics are real and scary. One in three people actually develop cancer some time in their lifetime. It is important to go for regular body scans to ensure that your health is kept in check."
In August 2016, Benjamin uploaded a video to help raise funds for SCS.
VIDEO CREDIT: BENJAMIN KHENG'S YOUTUBE CHANNEL
A firm believer of keeping fit, Benjamin also hopes more youths will take up sports.
"Not only does it put you in the right mood, it keeps you physically fit, which reduces the chances of contracting cancer. In fact, I actually just came from a sparring session with Charlie Lim," added the former national swimmer, with a laugh.
But what else can youths do to show their support for the cause, besides keeping their health in check?
"A lot of the things I do [at SCS], they're always looking out for camp commanders. They've got events around the clock, carnivals, fundraisers, others. We'll always need and appreciate the help of volunteers," said Benjamin, who's currently working on a band album slated to drop in March.
Before we ended our hour-long interview, we asked the rising star on what he really hopes to achieve with his work on cancer awareness.
Breaking into a smile, The Sam Willows frontman said: "Ideally, I'll love the cure for cancer to be found. To do that, we need to continue to fund research for cancer and medicine.
"Right now, the only prevention is early detection. I'll surely continue to advocate for advances in medicine but also more awareness across the board, especially kids, because we need to start educating people from young."
BANNER AND TEASER PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/WINSTON TAY