By the time she was 29, Esther Khong was already an entrepreneur, had launched an app, dealt with a painful breakup, and made peace with her past. All while battling cancer.
I was diagnosed with stage one cancer in April 2017 when I was 29. I was very blessed, because when the doctor tested it, it had already turned aggressive, so if I had waited longer, it would’ve progressed to other stages. You don’t really have time to process it; you don’t really have a choice because if you don’t do anything, you’re going to die.
I didn’t tell a lot of friends. I my family. I have three siblings, and I’m the second child. The last thing I needed was to worry about ﬁ ve other people, but my dad and sisters were crying.
I had to have a mastectomy because it was the right thing to do for my survival, but emotionally, it was another thing.
What my family showed me in the process, though, was that no matter what happened, they’d be just told a close circle of friends and there for me.
The doctor gave me the option of doing a lumpectomy – it would still leave me some sensation in the affected area, which is important to many women my age. But I had other concerns: A lumpectomy would require me to be exposed to radiation, and could give rise to a second cancer. If you still have tissues in the area that could turn cancerous, the fact is that you could get cancer again, and it would be even harder to detect. I really didn’t want to be fearing that I could have it again 30 or 40 years down the road. I just felt the wise thing to do was a full mastectomy. This would reduce potential risk to less than 1 per cent.
The second opinion I got conﬁrmed these fears, and I scheduled an operation for the next month.
On the operating table, you don’t think about material things or money. The only thing you think about is: “If I don’t make it, how would my family feel?” It was so painful for them. I started thinking I should’ve spent more time with them and said “I love you” more. I wish people could see that the things that matter in this world are relationships – people with whom you can be your 100 per cent self.
I was in intense pain, post-op – I can hardly describe it. Just imagine: You’re awake and you have scars all over your body. I felt pain for days and was put on drips. The ﬁrst time I got to see the operation site was when the nurses cleaned the wounds, and the area was bruised and swollen all over, with in-your-face stitches. The nurses told me the swelling would go down.
When I touched the scars later, they felt like sillicone – artiﬁcial. But since I couldn’t do anything to make the scars disappear, why should I be ashamed of them? Beauty is subjective. Yes, many say that scars are ugly, and that perfection is deﬁned as someone who is ﬂawless. But why should I be deﬁned by what the world says? Everything is a social construct, anyway.
I just believe that ultimately, it’s about acceptance and seeing the good that came out of it – I’ve grown from this journey, and I’ve learnt to let go of things, whereas in the past, I’d demand perfection.
It has made me more tenacious and stronger in my character and personality. There was no way I would let going through cancer send me on a downward spiral. A year on, most of my scars have healed quite nicely; my plastic surgeon is really good.
But I did break up with my boyfriend soon after the op. The double whammy made that a very painful period in my life. I think it was because he wasn’t ready to take the journey with me. It’s easy to put up a front with friends and family because they’re so close to you and are superaffected by what happens to you. But the last thing I wanted to do was put up a tough front with my loved ones. I mean, who wouldn’t be scared of going through cancer?
A relationship only gets tested when you go through the lowest of lows, and many times, a relationship doesn’t last because it hasn’t been tested. I took the cancer very personally, and it affected how I dealt with other things. I would blurt out statements like “my business is going to fail”, “the vendors are going to drop out”, or “I’m never going to look pretty again”.
The scars were swollen for the longest time, and I kept asking: “How am I going to show my body in public?” My boyfriend was encouraging for a while, but his reactions to my fears showed how he was feeling. It got to the point where he snapped at me: “Just stop it.”
The relationship fell apart. I was physically and emotionally in pain. But I believed something good would come out of it and make me stronger.
I used to be a banker (corporate loans). Before the operation, I was also working to launch an app called Date Out. I wanted it to be an app that would help couples ﬁnd “couple-y” things to do in Singapore. As most people in Singapore end up doing the same things, we wanted to let couples pick from more than 130 activities and pay for them – it’s not an app for singles to meet.
I was already meeting vendors to drum up business, and after the operation, I had an epiphany: I realised that I only wanted to focus on the app, and that I was ready to give up my ﬁnance work. I wanted to do something bigger than myself – I wanted the app to make a difference in people’s relationships.
I started working again about two to three months after the operation, after passing on my ﬁnance clients to other people. For the app, I wanted to make sure that the ﬁrst few vendors I’d met could understand my heart and vision.
Some vendors weren’t happy because they didn’t hear much from me (I went MIA after the op), and a few of them dropped out. It was almost as if one year of work had gone down the drain. It was very tough having a goal that didn’t happen because of circumstances I couldn’t control, but I didn’t feel comfortable telling the vendors about my operation.
It was already very hard to acquire vendors for the app before my operation – I would meet eight people a day, just cold-calling and meeting them. After the op, this slowed to meeting two a day. My body was still recovering, so my progress dipped. I realised I couldn’t do it alone and that I needed a team of good people. That was when I had to spend time nurturing people and getting them to believe in my vision for the app.
I also needed a break. I needed to see beautiful mountains and valleys and lakes. So in September 2018, a year after my op, I went on a solo trip to Auckland and Queenstown, New Zealand. I enjoy driving because it gives me so much time for contemplation. On that trip, it was just me and the natural beauty surrounding me. As I drove, thoughts of everything that I had gone through ﬂooded my brain, and with this came a huge sense of gratitude.
I realised something cool, too: I realised that beauty comes from ashes. Tectonically speaking, it was “pain” that created the beautiful landscapes around me. If life throws you a challenge and you have to climb mountains to overcome it, the experience will mould you. You can come out of it stronger. I’ve never understood why it happened to me, and have chosen not to question why. I’ve just chosen to see the good that came out of it.
Physically, I still can’t do a lot of sports, though I’d always been an active person before. I used to play contact rugby, but now I feel the strain even from swimming – my strength is maybe 40 per cent of what it used to be. And if I sit up for a very long time, I feel uncomfortable. I am slowly trying to rebuild my strength. I have been swimming and walking, and eventually, I hope to get more active again.
I’ve learnt to appreciate things even when they’re not perfect. If you’re a perfectionist, when you look back, you are only going to realise what an uptight, frustrated person you were, which is not how life should be. You’ll have missed relationships that were important or that could have bloomed (but didn’t) because you demanded perfection.
I had to prioritise when it came to working on the app, not so much about meeting a speciﬁc number of people a day, but about being very targeted. I constantly asked myself what I had to do to get the app launched, whom I must speak to, whom I should spend time with, what kind of vendors I wanted on board, and who could add value to the business.
My ordeal also made me reﬂect on my 29 years of life, and I realised I had so much to be grateful for, so much to be thankful for. Life will never be perfect – it can never be perfect. It’s the little wins in life, the good you see in the bad, the lessons you learn from problems, and being grateful and thankful that make you appreciate life a lot more.
As the saying goes, you can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose your response. I could be bitter and angry and give up, or I could see this as a second chance, and see how blessed I am.
I want to make something that matters in my life. Not everyone has the opportunity to emerge from what I went through, and I am not going to let the experience restrict me. This has made me stronger, and I want to make a difference in other people’s lives. We all have the same 24 hours a day, and what you do with those 24 hours deﬁnes you.
Esther Khong’s Date Out app launched in August 2018 (www.dateout.co). She’s planning a regional expansion in the future.
BIMBA Y LOLA
" I choose to see beauty as strength, beauty as being tenacious, beauty as fighting back against the odds and not letting life’s lows keep you down."