To mark International Women’s Day last March 8, AsiaOne spotlighted inspiring women from different walks of life.
It was the first night of Chinese New Year on Feb 1, 2022 when Jamie Ng first felt a throbbing pain in her left breast. She had been lying on her right side in bed while using her phone.
Thinking that the pain could have been caused by the pressure of her left arm resting on her chest, she turned to the other side. Her suspicions were aroused when doing that didn’t trigger any discomfort.
It was only when she attempted to massage away the pain in her left breast that the then-23-year-old noticed a lump, which to her touch, felt “quite big”.
Remembering videos she’d come across online on breast cancer and the importance of early detection, she wondered if it could possibly be “something serious”.
Thankfully, Jamie listened to her instincts and got herself checked out by a doctor, a process made more difficult as it was during the festive season.
She was stunned when she received her diagnosis about a week later — she had Stage 2 breast cancer.
‘I needed to be strong’
On receiving the call to come into the doctor’s office to get her results, the 24-year-old Singaporean fashion designer had mentally “prepared [herself] for the worst”.
Among the many thoughts swirling in her head, one stood out — how she could fulfil her ‘bucket list’, which included travelling and starting her own fashion label.
“I thought that if the cancer was terminal and I can’t be cured, I would start my own brand,” Jamie tells us of her long-held dream.
At the doctor’s office, Jamie’s focus, however, was on maintaining a stoic front for her mother who accompanied her.
“I was acting as calm as possible to manage her emotions because if I were to break down, I think she’d have felt it even worse as a mum,” she tells AsiaOne.
Feeling the need to be strong for her mum, Jamie prepared herself mentally that “if it was bad news, I cannot show it on my face”.
Even when the cancer diagnosis was delivered, Jamie’s tears didn’t fall. Neither did she feel soul-crushing despair nor the sensation of walls closing in. Instead, she kept looking at her mum, who remained in a state of disbelief.
“Because the doctor said [the cancer] was still in the early stages, I just kept saying to her that ‘it’s nothing’, that it can be cured and how it’s very common these days,” she shares.
What followed after was a blur of tests, scans and biopsies.
Simply following the doctor’s orders on what she needed to do next kept Jamie’s mind preoccupied, and she admits that for over a month, the reality of her diagnosis didn’t fully sink in.
“I was a zombie in a sense, as I tried not to think about [the cancer] and just followed the doctor’s instructions,” she says.
An unexpected hospitalisation following a procedure to preserve her fertility, however, prompted a release of emotions.
Jamie had chosen to freeze her eggs — an option offered to her as a cancer patient — before undergoing chemotherapy. Egg-freezing for medical reasons is allowed in Singapore, and as of 2023, elective egg freezing has been allowed as well.
Only when Jamie was hospitalised — for the first time in her life — last April as a result of abdominal swelling and other side effects from the egg-retrieval procedure did she finally allow the tears to flow.
“That was the first night that I broke down and cried, because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Jamie recalls.
The situation was exacerbated by the loneliness she felt, as the hospital had strict visitor restrictions in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“But after that, I felt a lot better,” she adds with a smile.
Breaking the news
Armed with all the information and a clear treatment plan, Jamie steeled herself and slowly began breaking the news to her close friends.
By that point, Jamie could see “the light at the end of the tunnel”, and was ready to let more people in on what was happening to her.
She decided to record her friends’ reactions on camera as well, “for memories’ sake”.
From their reactions, many of her friends were clearly shocked, and some were in disbelief at first.
“Because I always prank my friends, one of them got suspicious. I was also laughing at his reaction, so he thought it must be a joke,” Jamie remarks with a laugh.
Some friends, however, sensed the gravity of the situation and teared up immediately.
Wanting to create precious memories was also why Jamie rounded up her best friends for a special photoshoot.
Says Jamie, who’s single: “I actually wanted to do a wedding type of photoshoot, in preparation for a worst-case scenario that a wedding won’t happen for me.”
These heartwarming clips were edited into a TikTok video Jamie put up in Feb 8 this year, marking one year since her diagnosis. The clip, which drew more than 19,000 views, was also how we chanced upon her story.
Jamie has also been regularly sharing her cancer journey with a wider audience on YouTube, publishing clips about the different procedures she has had to go through.
“I wanted to share my journey as I never expected that at my age I would have cancer,” she explains.
In her videos, she noted that her vlogs were to “remind future me on how I managed to survive these hard times”.
But she tells us how it wasn’t always easy to hit that ‘publish’ button, especially for her very first video.
On the one hand, she thought about others who, like her, may have also found “something abnormal with their bodies”, and needed that extra push to seek help early.
What held her back, however, was the possibility of being met with hurtful comments she feared she might not be mentally prepared for.
“I think it was the fear to tell the world that you’re sick,” says Jamie of her apprehension. Not to mention the perceived scrutiny and judgement of her physical appearance.
She didn’t want to tell her parents about her videos either.
“They might think, oh then it’ll be hard for you to get married,” she says with a wry smile.
She received support from her friends and older sister, however, to put her story online.
It took a few months of contemplation before Jamie finally gathered the courage to release her story to the world mid last year.
Fortunately, the responses so far have been heartening, with Jamie receiving many emails — either from fellow cancer patients or relatives of those diagnosed with cancer — on how her sharing had helped them.
“When I receive these kinds of emails it actually makes me happy, so that is my joy from sharing,” says Jamie.
The experience also taught her an invaluable lesson.
“I’m someone who always worries a lot for nothing. And this was the most concrete example that you just have to do it and don’t worry too much, because sometimes the things that you worry about don’t happen.”
Shaving her head and undergoing a mastectomy
There are some things, however, that Jamie still finds difficult to share.
One video which she had been dreading to revisit was that of her getting her head shaved.
“[The clip] has always been [stored] in my phone, but I didn’t dare to watch it,” she says.
“[Without] even playing it I want to cry already,” says Jamie wistfully.
She still did, however, include a short snippet of the moment in the TikTok clip of her one-year cancer journey. A YouTube video, however, will have to wait.
Jamie shares that she took the bold step to finally shave the remaining hair on her head after observing clumps of it falling out following three rounds of chemo.
“I looked in the mirror and I could not accept it anymore. So I texted my friends to ask if they were free and [told them] that I wanted to shave my hair off.”
Tearing up at the memory, she continues: “It was already 9pm at the time and the salon here closes at 10pm, but they all rushed down to accompany me.”
Throughout the process, the three friends whom she has known since secondary school kept her spirits up with encouraging words.
“I’d already bought a wig so they helped me to hold it, and they kept saying things like, ‘Oh you really suit a shaved head, your head-shape is very nice’. They really supported me and it helped a lot,” Jamie recounts.
The next big hurdle Jamie had to overcome was undergoing surgery to have both her breasts removed.
After careful consideration, Jamie opted for a double mastectomy with reconstructive surgery, as she was found to carry the hereditary BRCA 1 gene which makes one more susceptible to developing breast cancer.
BRCA 1 is the same gene mutation brought to worldwide attention by Hollywood Actress Angelina Jolie, who had also opted for a double mastectomy after her cancer discovery.
Doctors had told Jamie that with the gene mutation, there could be “an 80 per cent chance” of cancer recurring in her other breast, which sealed her decision.
She opted for the double mastectomy so as “to not keep thinking about the ‘what if’, and whether the cancer would relapse”.
And even though she was initially wary of developing “breast implant illness” — one possible side effect of the procedure — she chose to get reconstructive surgery primarily, she admits, for her mental health.
“I felt like I might not be able to get past it mentally, if I don’t do (reconstructive surgery) at my age.
“As much as how in our modern society, people are raising awareness about having a positive body image, it’s very hard to reach that state of peace,” she replies thoughtfully.
One year on
At the moment, Jamie shares that she’s still undergoing immunotherapy to reduce the chance of a relapse. She had undergone 16 rounds of chemotherapy as well as radiotherapy and surgery in the past year.
Although officially cancer-free, she says it’ll take another three years before she can be considered fully recovered.
While clichéd, Jamie admits that her brush with cancer has taught her not to sweat the small stuff.
Not only has she learned to stop worrying so much, but she also stopped “picking on everything”.
She shares: “I don’t dwell on the small things and just go with the flow now.
“I used to try to make everything go the way I want to, but life doesn’t always go the way I want.”
Other more subtle changes include how she no longer focuses on her weight. “Last time if I put on one or two kilos, I’d go on diet. Now as long as I can eat well, I’m OK.”
Remembering how chemotherapy used to affect her appetite, she has realised that “having an appetite to eat is a blessing”.
Jamie, who’s thankful to her mum for being her “silent supporter” throughout her journey, also credits the doctors and nurses who helped her see her journey in a positive light.
“Because of how they took care of me, explaining the whole illness and how it can be cured, it helped a lot. Then I just did my own mental work to be positive,” she explains.
Jamie also found herself armed with newfound courage and confidence. “I dare to pursue what I want to do now,” she says.
She quit her job as a fashion designer at a local company this year, with plans to use the “gap year” to travel and to rest. First up on the list is a month-long trip to Europe with her sister and friends in April.
On why she decided to leave a job she loved, Jamie reflects that her experience had made her feel that “life is short”.
“I didn’t know when my follow-up treatment would end and I didn’t want my company [who was saving her spot] to wait for me.
“So I just told my boss that I want to rest for this year and they supported my decision.”
Last but not least, she has also learned to prioritise her own needs.
“I’ve started to put myself first more whenever I make a decision,” says Jamie.
When before she would be easily swayed by factors such as her family’s or friends’ opinions, “now I think I should do what I want to do, before it’s too late”.
“I just want to experience as many things in life as possible.”