What is it like to beat breast cancer? We talk to three women who battled the disease and have emerged feeling empowered, educated and enlightened.
Cindy wears dress from Max & Co. Earrings and necklace from APM Monaco.
Last year, a cheeky squeeze led to a life-changing discovery for Cindy Wong. “My boyfriend squeezed my breast as he was leaving the house one morning and he told me that he felt something unusual,” recalls Cindy, who is studying for a career in early childhood care and education. “I was convinced it was nothing but after doing some research and seeing my GP, I decided to visit a breast specialist.”
What they found was a 2.5-cm lump in her right breast that even the doctor initially thought was benign. Cindy decided to remove it for aesthetic reasons but a standard biopsy following the surgery would realise her worst fears.
“They diagnosed me with Stage 1A breast cancer and although I acted quickly following the discovery of a lump, it was a very aggressive type of cancer, commonly found in women with BRCA1 genetic mutations. That’s the same breast cancer gene that Angelina Jolie carries,” she explains.
“More tests revealed that I carried that gene, too, so then I went through a double mastectomy to lower my risk of the cancer returning, because the doctor said there was an 80 per cent chance I would get breast cancer again.”
While Cindy reveals that she’s not yet in the clear as patients can technically only call themselves survivors after five years, she admits she’s very lucky to be alive and now has greater purpose in life. Still, she has some hang-ups about the way Singaporeans broach the topic of cancer. “My wider family still don’t know that I had breast cancer because being sick and suffering from a disease like this is still very taboo to them.
“I found it very, very hard to talk to people in Asia about what I was going through. Even though one in three women get breast cancer in Singapore, no one wants to talk about it,” she laments.
“I decided to take the train home after chemotherapy one day and the reaction I got frustrated me. People looked at me suspiciously because I had almost no hair and I was wearing a surgical mask. No one got up to offer me a seat. I felt like an outcast. This needs to change and that’s part of the reason why I agreed to do this interview. I want to be the face of breast cancer in Singapore and I want to talk about what I went through.”
Cindy hopes that the attitude towards cancer patients will change. “Survivors should be able to go on with their lives without the fear of being stigmatised,” she says. “We shouldn’t have to hide.”
Survivors shouldn’t be stigmatised… we shouldn’t have to hide.
– Cindy Wong 30, Student
Common Symptoms That Are NOT Breast Cancer
Dr Wee Siew Bock, a consultant breast surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Hospital Orchard, singles out some of the symptoms that women typically mistake for being breast cancer but are usually harmless:
1 Breast pain or soreness
There are many reasons why your breasts could be hurting but breast cancer is not usually it. Most breast cancers do not cause pain unless they are inflammatory or if a tumour is causing discomfort. Rather, a painful breast could indicate that your menstruation is on the way or even that you simply have a poorly fitted bra. However, if the pain prolongs or is accompanied by redness, fever, pus or nipple discharge, see a doctor.
2 Skin or nipple rash
Most rashes do not typically mean that you have breast cancer. Rather, it could be a fungal infection, allergic reaction, shingles or skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis. You should see a doctor who can identify the cause and prescribe the appropriate treatment. As skin changes can indicate breast cancer, it is always better to get it checked out.
3 Breast lumpiness
Don’t panic just yet because there are many types of breast lumps and not all of them mean that you have breast cancer. A lump could appear due to fibrocystic changes. You could also have malignant or benign tumours, which are not cancerous but need to be monitored. Generally, cancerous lumps tend to be irregular in shape and feel firm or solid. If, however, you don’t feel comfortable, err on the side of caution and seek expert opinion.
Christina wears top from Max Mara; and pants from Brunello Cucinelli. Earrings and rings from Monica Vinader.
The year 2018 was a challenging one for Christina. She had just discovered she was pregnant with what would have been her fourth child but, at around the same time, she also felt a lump in her left breast.
“I initially thought it was a clogged milk duct because I had just weaned my youngest daughter off breastfeeding, but massages and warm compresses didn’t make a difference and it hurt a lot when my daughter accidentally kicked me in the chest as I was baby-wearing her,” Christina shares.
“A detailed ultrasound was inconclusive so my gynaecologist advised me to do minor surgery, using local anaesthetic, to test out the lump tissue. I was pregnant at the time so I wanted to rule out anything scary and decided to go ahead with the surgery.”
The results came back less than a week later revealing that Christina had Stage 0 to 1 breast cancer, which while in its early stages, was made up of very aggressive cancer cells.
“The hardest part of being diagnosed with breast cancer was terminating my pregnancy, which was about 10 weeks along at that point. The doctor said the embryo might not progress because the yolk sac did look larger than normal, but it was still difficult to go through.
“So I had my second surgery, when they removed my baby and the breast lump at the same time. In a way, I think my pregnancy saved my life because if I wasn’t pregnant at the time, I wouldn’t have done any further tests on my lump and would have left it as it was.”
Armed with the desire to live life “in full colour” following subsequent mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgeries, Christina also started her own company called MuMu Mummy. It provides new mothers with postpartum soup and tea preparations using Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs.
“My breast cancer journey has been a life experience that has led me to where I am today and it’s part of my story even though it’s been a struggle,” she says.
“Now I want to use my business to fulfil the needs of new mummies, as well as use it as a platform to provide a wider social impact along the way through charity work, volunteering and sharing my story with other women.”
The hardest part of being diagnosed with breast cancer was terminating my 10-week pregnancy.
– Christina Willock 36, Founder, MuMu Mummy
DO YOU REALLY NEED TO GO FOR A MAMMOGRAM EVERY YEAR?
“A mammogram is the only screening tool that has been proven to reduce deaths related to breast cancer by 30 percent,” says breast surgeon Dr Jendana Chanyaputhipong from PanAsia Surgery. Gynaecologist and Obstetrician Dr Ann Tan, of Women Fertility & Fetal Centre, agrees, saying women should start going for yearly mammograms after the age of 40 especially if they have a family history of breast cancer. “Other tests a woman should be going for and performing to maintain her health is self-examination of the breasts and ultrasound scans to help figure out if a lump is or isn’t dangerous,” adds Dr Tan.
First-time Screeners Pay $0!
To encourage more women to go for a mammogram screening, the Singapore Cancer Society (SCS), Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF) and National Healthcare Group Diagnostics (NHGD) is providing funding assistance through their Community Mammobus Programme. If you’re having a mammogram for the first time, it’ll be free. Visit http://www.bcf.org.sg/our-services/#section-community-mammobus-programme for details.
JOIN THE PINK RIBBON WALK 2019
Join in the Pink Ribbon Walk to raise greater awareness and support those whose lives are affected by breast cancer. It will be held on October 5, from 4 pm, at Singapore Sports Hub, OCBC Square. You can still register at https://www.pinkribbonwalk.sg/
Jasmine wears top from H&M Conscious; and skirt from H&M Studio. Earrings from Monica Vinader x Issa.
Jasmine woke up on November 29, 2018, as a regular working mum of two young children but by the end of the day she was a breast cancer patient and her world had come to a standstill. “We were trying for baby number three and I did get pregnant but then I had a miscarriage, so we went to my doctor’s office to find out what happened,” reveals the dance studio co-founder.
“After a full body check-up, and several trips to an obstetrician-gynaecologist and then an oncologist, we confirmed that I had Stage 1C breast cancer. It was a shock to the system when those words fell out of my doctor’s mouth but, in retrospect, thank goodness for the miscarriage because otherwise I would have found out much later that something was wrong.”
After seeking a second opinion, Jasmine powered through with the clearest course of action: A full mastectomy of her left breast where a 2-cm cancerous lump lay in wait.
“I found out I had cancer in November. By December I was booked in for surgery, and in January, I started the first of four cycles of chemotherapy,” Jasmine shares.
“Throughout my ordeal, I never once asked ‘why me?’ because I know cancer does not discriminate. My mum had breast cancer, my grandmother also had breast cancer, so I knew that maybe one day I would have it but I didn’t know I would get it at this age.”
A positive mindset was crucial to Jasmine’s recovery process. She says she made it a point to always find the bright side of her situation. “For many women, losing their breast may be traumatising, but because I’m a dancer, having smaller breasts actually helps me dance better! I have the same attitude towards hair. My hair started falling out but I knew it’d grow back and at least when I was doing housework, I wouldn’t find strands of hair on the floor,” she explains with a laugh.
“A lot of the time what heals you is all in your mind. So I made sure to surround myself with positive people and I read the right stories about recovery, not death.”
I never asked ‘why me?’ because I know cancer does not discriminate.
– Jasmine Han 41, Co-Founder, Slap Dance Studio
Lend A Helping Hand
The Estée Lauder Companies’ Breast Cancer Campaign has raised over $100 million globally to support a breast cancer-free world. You can do your bit by snapping up these pink-powered products that donate a portion of their sales towards the cause:
● NIGHT RESPITE
Being charitable never looked this good! Grab a bottle of the powerful Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Synchronized Recovery Complex II, $175 (50 ml), that comes with a pretty Pink Ribbon bracelet, and see $20 of each purchase go towards a great cause.
● PINK PERFECT
Prettify your pout with this pairing of two limited edition lipsticks in original shades, Pink and Tulle. The Bobbi Brown Proud To Be Pink Lip Color Duo, $65 (3.4 g x 2), will put 50 percent of each sale towards powering up breast cancer awareness.
● FIVE’S A CHARM
In its bid to do its part, the jumbo-sized bottle of the iconic Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion+, $85 (200 ml), comes with a five-charm key ring. Buy a bottle and you’ll be contributing $15 to the campaign, while banishing skin dryness.
PHOTOS: FRENCHESCAR LIM
ART DIRECTION: IVY CHOONG
STYLING: DEBBY KWONG
HAIR: ASH LOI & SHAWN LEE/RAVISSANT HAIR STUDIO
MAKEUP: AUDREY WEE USING CHANEL
LOCATION: SLAP DANCE STUDIO