Singapore mum who had breast cancer during pregnancy now helps cancer patients cope

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"Overnight, without warning, my world crashed. I was diagnosed with Stage 2B Breast Cancer. I lost my career, my hair, my direction in life... for a while."

Singapore mum Dwan Kwan was only 34 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was then 10 weeks pregnant with her second baby. As fate would have it, her father was also diagnosed with cancer that very same month. Dwan emerged from her battles a much stronger human being. Today, she helps other cancer patients come to terms with the illness, emotionally and psychologically. She shares her very inspiring story here, from breast cancer during pregnancy symptoms to losing her parents to cancer, and what it means, to live for others.

“Your hardest times often lead to the greatest moments of your life.”

Breast cancer during pregnancy symptoms 

At 34, Dwan was at the peak of her life when she received the dreaded diagnosis.

“This was June 2011. I had a great career (was promoted), I was enjoying my motherhood with my son and 10-weeks pregnant with my 2nd child (a life promotion too!)”, she tells us.

“Overnight, without warning, my world crashed. I was diagnosed with Stage 2B Breast Cancer. I lost my career, my hair, my direction in life… for a while.”

As for breast cancer during pregnancy symptoms, Dwan realised that something was wrong when she felt breast engorgement at 8-weeks.

“During my 2nd pregnancy, I was hit with very bad morning sickness right from the first trimester. Brushing teeth in the morning was a real struggle, I was throwing up every morning and the smell of toothpaste made it more challenging.”

“However, the real alarm was when I started feeling breast engorgement at 8-weeks. The feeling was really odd as I didn’t expect to have breast engorgement at such an early stage.”

“I started getting worried. I did a self-examination of my breasts during shower one day and felt a lump.” Her worst fears were confirmed.

Ironically, the very same month, Dwan’s father was also diagnosed with cancer, sending the whole family into a spin.

“I needed to have things in place. I quickly arranged care arrangement for my 2.5-year-old son and also the treatment plans/consultations that had to be scheduled for both my father and I.”

“My whole family was very supportive. They allowed me to plan and they gave me their silent support and did what they could do or what I needed them to do.”

Dealing with the diagnosis and treatment: Giving birth to a baby girl

Being pregnant with her second child meant more complications in treatment options.

“The decision was to keep my baby and start treatment. We factored the welfare of the baby for the entire treatment plan”, says Dwan.

Chemotherapy over 12 weeks

“I was coming close to the end of the first trimester at the time of diagnosis. It was safe to start chemotherapy at the start of the 2nd trimester because the pregnancy had stabilised.”

“The doctor’s view was that the immediate chemotherapy regime would be safe for the foetus, it would not harm the baby with after-birth side effects or complications, as long as she was strong.”

“If she was strong, she would be a healthy baby.”

“So I braved on and started chemotherapy. “Believe and be a source of strength, I told myself.””

“I began with 4 cycles of 3-weekly sessions of chemotherapy at the 13th week of pregnancy.”

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Surgery at the start of 3rd trimester

“After having 3-weeks of rest after my final round of chemo, I was scheduled for a mastectomy at the start of the 3rd trimester.”

“Surgery was done under general anaesthesia. It was completed in about 5 hours.”

“However, baby was seemingly deeply sedated during the process. She gave me her first kick/punch only 24 hours later, post-surgery. The medical team was full-on in monitoring her during that period using the foetal heart-rate monitor.”

Prepare for welcoming baby girl at 32 weeks. Oops! 35 weeks

“I recovered relatively well from the surgery, and was granted some rest.”

“One thing that I was grateful for was that throughout this whole time, I was able to pull myself together well, after each chemotherapy session. And was able to go about my daily routine to care for my toddler and father too.”

“It was time to focus and enjoy the joys of motherhood again. Like how any mother would be enjoying at the time of pregnancy.”

“I had about a month to deliver my baby girl at 32 weeks, but there was one condition. She had to cross the 2kg weight mark before she could be scheduled for delivery via C-Section.”

“Our plans were rejected and the birth date had to be shifted from 32 weeks to 35 weeks because she didn’t achieve the weight growth.”

“Finally on 22 Oct 2011, with much anticipation and prayers, we welcomed our baby girl to our lives with joy, triumph and tears of relief!”

“All was good! Born healthy and feisty at 2.2kg!”

“I remember her lying in my arms…I had tears overflowing with joy and honestly, sighs of HUGE relief to see how perfect she was at birth. Then I hugged her gently and prayed quietly in my heart.”

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Dwan and her father…

Battle with cancer continued

Dwan was relieved that her baby girl was born healthy, but there were more battles ahead…

“It was time for me to continue my cancer treatment…”

“I had a focused 3-weeks of rest to be fully well and I did whatever I needed to keep well and be happy. I was to continue the rest of the treatment to conquer cancer.”

“12 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by 24 sessions of radiotherapy. The whole treatment took another 6 months.”

Losing her parents to cancer

Sadly, Dwan lost her father to cancer the following year…

“I was very close to my father since young. It was devastating for me when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer in the same month as me (June 2011).”

“But, seeing it from another angle, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me as I was able to accompany him for all his treatment and doctors appointments, without needing to apply for leave. Life presented me with a gift of time (which I wouldn’t have had) to be with him.”

“I tried to plan our appointments such that we saw our doctors on the same day and during the week when we had chemotherapy sessions, I would schedule the appointment on the same day, asking for couple seats (for 2!!).”

“We were there for each other and took every opportunity to take walks, or have him over at my place to see my children.”

“One deep regret I always had was that I didn’t have the chance to have another holiday with my father. In the midst of his treatment, I wanted very much to take him for a holiday but my father was very adamant to see to his own health first.”

“I still silently wish that I had more time to travel the world with him. My father passed away in Sep 2012.”

Fate tested Dwan yet again, when her mother got diagnosed with cancer in 2017.

“My mother was admitted to hospital and after a thorough check-up, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer in July 2017.”

“I could fully comprehend the feelings my mother went through – disbelief, devastation, fear of death. It was hard for her to accept that she had cancer. It was all too sudden.”

“She had never gone for health check-ups for the past 30 years. And perhaps the memories of those cancer-fighting days of my father’s and mine crept up too.”

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Dwan with her mum…

“The 1-year journey with my mother enriched my life greatly. I lived it to the mantra of my second lease of life – filling my days with positive moments and daily actions.”

“I ensured that I saw to my mother’s health and wellness to the best of my ability, and showed my children how to care for their grandmother.”

“They couldn’t understand her illness at first, wondering why their bubbly grandmother had to go through cancer. They went from being lost to fully supporting her, fussing over her to see that she took her meals and medicine, and also a nightly ritual to check-in with how she was feeling.”

“I felt that this life lesson was very impactful for the children. Not only did they witness how fragile life could be, but also how we could navigate through life’s obstacles to make good of life again.”

“During this one-year journey, we spent many wonderful times with my mother – living life, creating memories and a legacy to keep.”

“My mother passed away in late April 2018…”

Inspiring other cancer patients

“Dealing with cancer made me stronger and more resilient. I have been fortunate and I want to pass it on to others. I wanted to use my story and life lessons to support cancer patients and caregivers, and turn their devastation into hope”, says Dwan.

Dwan founded YANA Cancer Support, offering emotional and psychological care to cancer patients and caregivers. YANA stands for “You Are Not Alone”.

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She is now a trusted partner for doctors, lawyers and financial advisors when their clients get the diagnosis and need holistic support.

“When people get the cancer diagnosis, they are frightened and feel helpless. Suddenly they have to handle situations that life didn’t prepare them for.”

“”What are the side effects of treatment? What will happen to my family and children? How much will the treatment cost? How much time do I have left to live?” The list goes on…”

“Research shows that depression is increased by life events such as physical illness or death of a loved one. At YANA Cancer Support, my mission is to provide emotional and psychological care for Cancer patients and caregivers using The UNWIND Program.”

“And most importantly, to let them know that they don’t have to be frightened or feel helpless because they are not alone”, she shares.

Life after Cancer… is a gift.

Dwan’s story is inspiring, and not just because she won her battle against cancer. She drew strength from the experience and from the sorrow of losing her parents, to give hope to others.

“My daughter is 7 years old and my son is 9. This is my second lease of life, being alive and not just busy”, she tells us.

“I started to rebuild my life, turned my devastation to optimism and filled my days with positive moments with daily actions (no more self-sabotage).”

“I want to be a shining example to others who may be encountering the same season of life as what I’ve been through.”

“And most of all, I want to be a loving mother to my children and teach them values of life and show them what it takes to live strongly and to not be afraid of falling.”

“I call it the University Of Life – what to do when life hits you with tough challenges, how to celebrate victories – big or small, what it takes to do the right stuff with the right attitude.”

Advice for others 

What advice would you like to give our readers on dealing with illness and not losing hope?

Dwan has these inspiring words for you, “Cancer is NOT a death sentence. With the right support and mindset, you can turn this into your second lease of life.”

“IMPOSSIBLE can be I’M-POSSIBLE if you are willing to conquer this battle. Cancer hates love, laughter and life. So, go for it!

“Let’s live out our best day today! That’s why today is called the PRESENT.”

Thank you so much, Dwan, for sharing your inspiring story with us. Mums and dads, if  you are going through a health crisis and need emotional support, you can contact Dwan at  tinyurl.com/TalkToDwan.

Also READ: Breast cancer screening in Singapore: Free and low cost places to get it done

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