Between getting her health on track and caring for her toddler, this breast cancer mum shares how she coped through the waves and why her toddler apologised to her.
Mums know that breastfeeding is good for their babies and keep at it as long as they can. Most know, too, that research also says that not only it is good for their children, but also for them too, as it helps minimise the risk of breast cancer.
In Singapore, breast cancer is also the most prevalent cancer in women. According to the research published by The Lancet, for every year that a mum breastfeeds, she cuts her risk of breast cancer by at least 4%.
That is why it can come as a shock when a breastfeeding mum gets hits by the dreaded disease, such as Madam Ng* who breastfed her son, Dave*, for 14 months. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she shares here her personal account on how the diagnosis affected her in all levels of her personal and family life.
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons. The following account has been edited for clarify and brevity.
At 35 years old, I was enjoying my job and raising a toddler with the man of my life. But one day, I felt a small lump on my breast that wasn’t there the last time I examined myself just two months before.
More than 10 years ago, I had a benign fibroid removed from the same breast. Somehow I felt that I needed to get this new lump checked immediately. The very next day, I researched on the Internet and found out about Thomson Medical Centre’s breast centre. I made an appointment the same Saturday morning.
An ultrasound scan, mammogram and biopsy were done all on the same day. I was told that if it wasn’t anything serious, I was to return for review the following Saturday.
Unfortunately I was called to return three days later. The doctor’s diagnosis was cancer. Upset, frightened and in disbelief, I started to ask many questions: What caused it? Which stage was it at? What are the treatment options? How much would it cost? Do I need surgery?
The doctor was unwilling to provide immediate answers. But as it was a small lump, I had a feeling that it should be in its initial stage, so I asked the doctor for the earliest possible surgery to remove it.
Taking things into my own hands
Surgery was then fixed that week and the doctor suggested an admission to the hospital so that they could do the necessary Positron emission tomography (PET CT) scan and checks.
I kept asking why an admission was necessary, but couldn’t get a satisfactory answer. So, I decided not to be admitted and have my time wasted lying on the hospital bed. Many things were needed to be done and my priority was to minimise disruption in my work and in my family’s daily activities.
I started calling my insurance agent, messaged my friend whom I knew had breast cancer and searched on Google to understand more about breast cancer. I also wanted a second opinion and called up National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) to ask for a senior consultant. Dr Ong immediately told me from his initial ultrascan and diagnosis that there was an 80% probability that I had Stage One cancer.
My mind was full with tasks and I spent a lot of time understanding my illness and the treatment options on the Internet. I also went to the office, told my boss, distributed work to support staff and told the Human Resource Manager that I would be taking two weeks of hospitalisation leave for the surgery.
I was so busy with getting things done, I realised that I didn’t have time to be sad.
Thoughts racing through my mind
When I was called to go back to the clinic earlier for my review after the biopsy, I was already mentally prepared for the worst. I suffered sleepless nights, thinking of what I should do and what would happen to my family as I knew that things would never be the same.
My main fear was not the pain from the surgery or treatment, but actually the hair loss that would inevitably occur because of chemotherapy. I didn’t want to look like a bald and ugly woman, so I searched for nice wigs that suited me.
And then the treatments started
I went through lumpectomy surgery to remove the one centimetre lump. There are many types of breast cancer and mine was triple negative, which also meant that I was “negative” to any existing oral medication treatment, as it would not have any effect.
Therefore, the doctor recommended the Adjuvant Therapy. It consists of chemotherapy which lasted for six months (four sessions of AC, 12 session of Paclitaxel) and followed by radiotherapy for four weeks (20 sessions).
My husband is a man of few words
My husband is a man of few words. I could hardly sense whether he is upset or worried. I actually asked him if he was worried about me, to which he replied, “Of course, I’m worried and sad!”
Although he doesn’t really say words of concern so readily, during that period he did all the housework and allowed me to rest as much as possible. I’m grateful that he was by my side when I went for surgery and chauffeured me around to some of the doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy sessions during that time.
Telling a toddler about mummy’s health
My son Dave was just two-and-a-half then, and didn’t really understand what was happening. So, before I became a “botak” (bald) due to the side effects of chemotherapy, I decided to shave my head bald in front of my boy so that he wouldn’t get scared or feel weird about his mother.
I had told him that mama felt like having a hair cut. While my husband helped me, my boy played with his toys beside us.
I was glad that Dave didn’t feel differently about me after the shave. I proceeded to put on my wig and asked him if it was nice. He was a such a darling and nodded in agreement and said “nice.”
But somehow after a few months, he knew that mama was sick. He started to ask in his little boy way, “Why mama no go work?” And he noticed the plaster on my hands every time I returned from the hospital and would ask, “Mama has (sic) injection?” and “Mama is sick?”
At times, he would also ask, “Why mama wear fake hair?” And, I would always reply with, “This wig is pretty and mama is vain.”
My son felt guilty that I was sick and that broke my heart
Earlier this year, while we were preparing for bedtime, Dave, now three, threw me off-guard, “Why is mama sick ? I make mama sick? ” He repeated the questions a few times, but I was caught off-guard and didn’t respond right away. So he added, “I’m sorry” very softly.
I didn’t expect him to feel that he was responsible for my illness and was very moved by his words. I held him tightly that night and explained that it wasn’t his fault, that this had nothing to do with him and that I love him very much.
When the going gets tough, even the tough ones fall
I returned to work in between chemotherapy but I would rest for a few days after each session. Other than hair loss, I experienced nausea, aching, diarrhea, bloatedness, frequent urination, insomnia – basically a lot of side effects.
They usually subsided after a few days and I would return to work before the next session started.
Once, while I was still fighting the side effects of chemotherapy, Dave contracted bronchitis, which got me really worried. My husband was on a business trip and would not be back until two weeks later.
I had to administer the nebuliser every four hours, as my parents were unable to cope with the complex machinery. I hardly slept as my boy was coughing badly at night. Thank goodness that his condition improved after only two days.
It caused a toll on my body, though, and I fell sick over the next few days. I didn’t realise right away that I had a fever, which was bad news. Chemotherapy patients are advised to be put on an antibiotic drip for temperatures above 38 degrees, as the white blood count might fall dangerously low, posing a serious threat to health.
I was worried for Dave and whether my parents could cope with him at night, as he always slept with me. But I told myself and my parents that “everything will be okay”, had my dinner, reminded my parents to give Dave his medicine, removed my makeup, changed my clothes, grabbed my handbag and made my way to the hospital.
I stayed in the hospital alone for the next few days fighting to get my fever down. I didn’t tell my husband what was happening, as I didn’t want him to needlessly worry. After all, there wasn’t much he could do even if he were to fly back immediately from his business trip.
Appreciating the rainbow after the storm
It has been nine months since this arduous journey. I’m cleared and in remission now. My doctor told me that the cancer cells should have been present six to nine months before diagnosis, and I reflected on the past year which was undeniably stressful.
My husband and I changed jobs, and my boy started childcare, which also meant he fell sick frequently. So I would attribute stress as one of the main triggers to breast cancer.
After the diagnosis and the following battle with the disease, my perspective and habits have changed. I improved my diet and started to eat more vegetables and fruits, and avoided red meat and processed food.
I also attended talks held by the NCC and Singapore Cancer Society (SCS) to learn tips not just on on healthy eating but on managing emotions as well. I did my best to slow down and relax.
I was very hard on myself previously. I didn’t want to spend on myself, as I wanted to save for Dave and the future. I also had high expectations of myself and didn’t take medical leave unless I was really very sick.
To add to all that, I also had a strict routine in place for Dave. I would get panicky if he wasn’t put in bed by 9pm or if missed his nap time. I was also very particular with his diet. Even on days when I was unwell, I would still wake up at 6am on weekends to cook for him. I led an extremely stressful life and was practically unhappy most of the time.
I am now learning how to slow down and relax, to appreciate life, and to be happy just because I’m alive and healthy again. I tell myself life is short and doesn’t follow our plans most of the time. I learned to let go.
These days, we read bedtime stories until 10pm. And I learned to pamper myself; I go on leave to go shopping, have a pedicure or watch a movie to de-stress. I also started a small gardening hobby in my office and have some potted plants near the windows and on my desk. It makes me happy when I look at the plants.
My message to fellow breast cancer patients
Don’t despair, don’t take chances and never refuse treatment. We are living not only for ourselves, but for our children and family.
Do join a hospital support group or SCS to learn from other patient who have recovered. You’ll be surprised that SCS has many informative health talks and activities like yoga , dancing , painting etc.
Accept help from your partner, in chores and child care, so you can rest well. Celebrate as a family when you complete each cycle of treatment. At the end of the day, it’s important to learn to love yourselves, for your family.
Breast cancer is indeed a battle beyond the physical, and we are glad to hear that Madam Ng is taking life a little easier now and that she is a happier, lighter person at heart too.
Do you know of anyone who battled with breast cancer too? Do share some positive words with these fighters!