Fay Lim, in her 30s
“Birthdays, weddings, family gatherings – you never realise how precious these are until it hits you that you may never attend one anymore.”
Cancer was the last thing that Fay expected to happen to her.
“I was only 30 then, just got my MBA and a new job as a strategic business consultant. I also recently got married. So imagine my shock when I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Large Diffused B-Cell Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
It started with a lower back ache that escalated into a searing pain. I couldn’t walk, sit, dress myself nor carry my bag. An orthopaedic diagnosed me with a slipped disc. But during a CT scan, a radiologist noticed the lesion in my lower right back and alerted the doctors. More scans, blood tests and a biopsy confirmed my fears. It was definitely cancer.”
Death didn’t terrify me
“A year earlier, my two-year-old niece had died from Malignant Rhabdoid Tumour, a rare and aggressive tumour in the kidneys. When the doctor asked if I wanted to save my eggs, I said no, unsure that I would survive the ordeal.
I underwent six cycles of chemotherapy, one cycle of high-dose chemotherapy and an autologous stem cell transplant which left me weak and ill. Because chemo killed off my immunity, I was confined into an isolation room and had limited physical contact for weeks. I was dispirited and lost the will to live. Then a ray of hope appeared. My blood count spiked, which meant I was on the road to recovery.”
The lump in my belly
“Ten months into my remission, I spotted a lump in my belly. Fearing it was a relapse, I quickly alerted my oncologist who ran some tests. The ultrasound scan showed that the ‘lump’ was a 16-week-old foetus! After the chemo, my menstrual cycle became irregular. This was probably why I didn’t realise I was pregnant sooner.
Our miracle child, Eliza, was born healthy in May 2011. Now three years old, she’s a burst of energy. And just as I felt life couldn’t get any better, I found myself pregnant again and my second baby girl was born in September.”
Time to celebrate
“My brush with cancer has taught me to celebrate life’s milestones. Birthdays, weddings, family gatherings – you never realise how precious these are until it hits you that you may never attend one anymore. I’m thankful that I can be there to celebrate yet another birthday with my family.”
Irene Chui, in her early 50s
Irene had just turned 35 and was a working mum of two young children, aged 9 and 11, when she found a pea-sized lump in her breast.
“When a former colleague shared that she was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was shocked. Because I too, felt a lump in my breast. It was small as a pea, painless but hard and I would feel it tug whenever I lifted or stretched my arm. When I brought this up to a family doctor, he said I was ‘too young to have cancer’.
Six months later, I decided to seek another doctor’s advice. This time, he wasn’t so optimistic. He sent me for an ultrasound scan and biopsy. The results confirmed my greatest fear – there was a cluster of cancer deposits in my left breast. I was stunned silent. My first thoughts were about my children – what would happen to them if I died?”
“My first thoughts were about my children – what would happen to them if I died?”
The worst year of my life
“Back home, I put on a brave front and revealed little about my condition. Although I told my sisters and kids that there was nothing to worry about, I secretly cried buckets. I had to remove my left breast and undergo chemotherapy. I worried that losing one breast and my hair would make me less attractive. But my husband assured me that it wouldn’t change how he felt about me. I felt we had passed the greatest test of our marriage.
After a painful procedure to remove my left breast and then another to reconstruct a new one with tissues and muscles from my abdomen, I started a course of chemotherapy and radiation. I lost 14 kg of body weight and all my hair. As if the side effects of chemo weren’t bad enough, radiation had caused a hairline crack in my rib. The last part of the treatment was 30 months of injections to induce menopause. I was barely 36 years old then.”
Lighting hits the same spot
“Six years into my remission, my oncologist urged me to take a BRCA gene testing. Seeing that I contracted breast cancer at such a young age, she suspected that I may have inherited mutated genes that could lead to a recurrence of another breast and ovarian cancer. True enough, I was BRCA1-positive, which meant my chances of developing another breast cancer was as high as 85 per cent, and 55 per cent for ovarian cancer. At the thought of reliving cancer and chemo, I finally gave up my ovaries and my good breast too.
“A month after my mastectomy, my husband was diagnosed with Adenoid Cystic Cancer, a cancer of the salivary gland.”
He had to undergo a major operation to remove a part of his jaw area, lower cheek and one thyroid. The surgery and reconstruction lasted 15 hours. It took him almost two years before he could finally accept his new appearance.”
There’s life after cancer
“I’m now an active volunteer of the Breast Cancer Association where I counsel newly diagnosed patients after office hours. I tell them that I’m proof that cancer survivors can still lead an active life. After my cancer went into remission, I trekked to Mount Everest Base Camp, and scaled Island Peak and Kota Kinabalu. I am also the captain of the BCA’s Paddlers In The Pink team.”
Winnie Tan, in her 20s
“As a young girl, I dreamt about becoming a famous singer someday. But all that changed during a doctor’s visit for a persistent low grade fever and a painful swelling in my right knee that had left me limping for months. He referred me to a paediatric specialist who ordered a biopsy and found a malignant growth in my right femur that measured about 3 cm long. Osteosarcoma, bone cancer, was a very rare type of childhood cancer, he’d said. While my mum broke into sobs, my mind was a blank. ‘Cancer… people died of cancer’, was all I could think of.”
“Being young, my physical wounds healed quickly. But emotionally, I was traumatised.”
The worst was yet to come
“As if watching my hair fall out in tufts from the chemo treatment wasn’t bad enough, my oncologist advised me to amputate my right leg. He worried that even with chemotherapy, stray cells may spread. It upset me so much. I told my parents that I’d rather die than live life disabled.
My parents and siblings tried to change my mind. The odds of the cancer recurring was as high as 60 per cent if I’d kept my leg. Without it, I’d stand a much higher chance of survival. So I gave in but cried all night before the operation.”
I missed my old leg
“Being young, my physical wounds healed quickly. But emotionally, I was traumatised. I knew in my heart that no man would love me like this. I would not have friends. I would never lead a normal life.
Soon after the operation, I was transferred to the Foot Care & Limb Design Centre at Tan Tock Seng where I learned to walk again with a prosthesis. My first prosthesis was bulky, heavy and squeezed my wound. I missed my old leg so much that for a few years after the amputation, I experienced the ‘phantom sensation’, as if my severed limb was still there.”
Returning to a normal life
“Like me, the erhu is made up of pieces that have been broken up and sanded down into shape.”
“The treatment lasted a year so I had to start from Secondary One when I returned to school. Schoolmates would mock me and imitate the awkward way I walked. I lost count the number of times I’d hide in the toilet to cry my eyes out.
During my first year at the polytechnic, I picked up the erhu. I was drawn to its soothing melancholic tone. Like me, the erhu is made up of pieces that have been broken up and sanded down into shape.”
Desire to help others
“I work as an admin assistant while studying part-time for a Social Work degree. The course includes patients’ psychology and that really strikes a chord within me. I want to help children and youths who suffered like I did. Hopefully, seeing my prosthetic leg will remind them that they’re not alone.”
Su Dhanaraj, in her 50s
On his 28th birthday, Su’s younger son Adrian found a lump in his neck the size of a ping pong ball.
“He asked me, ‘The doctor thinks it is Hodgkin Lymphoma, cancer of the white blood cells. Mummy, is it?’ I was working in Papua New Guinea as a regional operations manager with International SOS. The next few seconds were difficult but I told him the truth. I said yes and assured him that we’d take it step-by-step. Adrian was a professional footballer – a midfielder with Gombak United. He could not have contracted cancer.
But a CT scan showed that Adrian had multiple lesions, the largest measured four by six inches across his chest. When I arrived home the next evening, Adrian and his brother Christopher had read extensively on lymphoma. We cried together and talked about what the treatment would entail. Adrian was so brave he said, ‘I have cried… so let’s move on.’”
I wished I could bear his pain
“Many times, I wished I could trade places with him.”
“The next few months were very difficult but Adrian soldiered on. Many times, I wished I could trade places with him. On the morning before he underwent chemotherapy, he got Christopher to shave his head bald. He was such a disciplined athlete that he exercised regularly throughout his illness. He believed this helped him cope better. He looked fitter than most healthy individuals that when he and my husband, Peter, bumped into one of his friends at the hospital, the friend thought it was Peter who had cancer!
Three weeks after Adrian’s diagnosis, our five-year-old golden retriever, Misty, was diagnosed with the same illness. Adrian loved Misty and was distraught that they both suffered from the same cancer. It appeared that up to one in five golden retrievers die from Hodgkin’s. Misty left us three months later.”
I knew time was running out
“Adrian’s first series of chemotherapy failed as scans showed quite a bit of residual tumour. He was switched to a stronger course of radiation before an autologous stem cell transplant (a bone marrow transplant that uses his own stem cells). Those didn’t help. Ten months later, there were still lumps on his neck.
A month later, Adrian was admitted to hospital for abdominal pain and chest infection. He never came home again. For the next three weeks, I stayed vigil with him until his final moments last September 11.
I doubt we will ever get over losing our son. If, by some miracle, I am given one more day with Adrian, I’ll hold onto him tight. I’ll make him all of his favourite food and smother him with kisses. I’ll tell him again and again how much I love him. I won’t let him go.”
Text: Sylvia Ong / The Singapore Women’s Weekly October 2014
Photos: Chia Yoon Nyen