Breast cancer came as surprise to Pan Ling Ling, but this tough cookie was a fighter! She counts her blessings that this ordeal allowed her to gain more as a mother...
When Singapore’s veteran actress, Pan Ling Ling, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she took on the illness with sheer tenacity and a positive attitude that shocked even her worrisome husband, fellow actor, Huang Shinan.
This strong-willed lady shares with theAsianparent how breast cancer actually allowed her to gain more than what she had lost. With her health back on-track, she returns to acting (she just wrapped up filming 118, a 255-episode drama serial which airs on Channel 8), forges a closer bond with her sons, Beckham, 16 and Kynaston, 13, and generously shares health (and beauty!) secrets with us.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Were there any tell tale signs or discomfort before you were diagnosed? How did you find out?
There was no pain or anything. In August 2012, I did a thorough blood test during my annual health check and results were good. But one day, I felt a lump in my left breast, but thought it was just due to menses approaching.
Two months later, it became bigger but I ignored it as my next regular check-up was in February. But my gynaecologist said the shape of the lump was “funny”, so she arranged for a mammogram and ultrasound. We discovered that the shape was irregular, and my doctor advised to seek professional advice from a breast surgeon, so I went the next day.
The doctor explained that there was a high chance it might be breast cancer and suggested a biopsy. So I decided, let’s do it now! This surprised the doctor because most would react with shock on hearing about doing a biopsy.
On the third day of waiting for the test results, I was playing at a golf tournament and my gynae called to say that the lump had to be removed immediately. It’s definitely breast cancer: end of stage one and beginning of two .
The breast surgeon was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to accept the news but I told her that I was actually playing a game. I figured since something not so good was happening, I might as well pray to God for better luck – and I played my best golf game in four years!
All this time, I still had not informed my husband. It was the next day, when we went to see the breast surgeon and arranged for surgery that I told my husband that since I’m pretty and tall, God is probably jealous and wants to take things from me by cutting two lines across my body. My husband was shocked and worried upon hearing the news.
Wow, decisions were made super quick! How was it like on the day of surgery?
On the day of surgery, there was an elderly sister at Mt Alvernia Hospital who spoke to me before the operation. But she thought my husband was the patient, and was surprised that it was me. My husband was more emotional and kept thinking about the worst scenario.
During the surgery, he kept calling the operation theatre. And when the surgery was delayed from seven hours to nine hours, that worried him further and he kept calling wanting to find out why.
The surgery was actually not painful; it was less painful than a Caesarean section! (laughs)
I wasn’t allowed to do any exercise for 40 days and was discharged five days later. I felt so bored staying at home and it was so hard to wash my own hair. After much deliberation, I went to the hair salon to wash my hair but had to find ways to hide the blood bag attached to my body.
What went through your mind upon receiving the news? How did you feel?
I think there’s no point thinking or asking, “Why me?” Just accept it, do what needs to be done and move forward. Life goes on.
How did you break the news to your husband and family?
I was very open with my family. I especially didn’t want my parents to worry, so I told them about my situation.
Before the surgery, I casually told the boys that they could come visit me. At that time, Kynaston was nine, so he didn’t really understand. Beckham was thirteen, and although he was worried, he didn’t show it. After school, he would visit me at the hospital to talk to me.
What treatments have you undergone post-surgery and how has the situation been? Did your husband or family member accompany you?
After the surgery, I went through chemotherapy for six months, then for 25 consecutive sessions of radiotherapy. I finally “graduated” in November 2013! (raises both arms and laughs)
My husband came with me during the first session, then subsequently I went on my own. The therapists treated me very well, and I got to watch shows on my iPad, then I was out two hours later. I could even sleep during therapy.
Needles were the most painful and now only my right hand can be pricked with needles.
What is the current stage of the cancer now?
I’m actually healthier than anybody now! (laughs)
I had do undergo blood tests every three months initially, then it’s once in six months. Every year, I’ll need to do a Computerized Tomography (CT) scan and mammogram too.
Has this health revelation changed your life?
I’m definitely healthier now! I used to be a meat eater but now I eat loads of vegetables and fruits. Thanks to chemotherapy which left my tastebuds feeling bland, I started to develop preference for sweeter stuff and enjoy fruits and fresh green vegetables more.
I do the same for my family too, and give them more fruits, vegetables and mushrooms. My boys get juices or fresh fruits after school and my fridge is always well-stocked.
I’m exercising more too, and have taken up Figure-robics in addition to golf.
I still enjoy working because I’ve missed work for one year! I’m so happy to bond with my colleagues in the 118 drama serial team. We share a lot of happy moments together even after filming has ended.
Were there changes to your fashion choices?
Because of chemotherapy, I put on 13 kilograms during that period. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make much changes to my wardrobe. I stubbornly tried to squeeze into my old clothes or wear my husband’s or sons’ shirts because I think that I will slim down.
Is there any special diet that you are following?
A glass of ABC juice every morning which is made up of Apple, Beetroot and Carrot, one tablespoon of black cumin oil, pomegranate and vinegar.
Every week, I’ll have double boiled soup of Cordyceps (Dong Cong Cao), American Ginseng (Pao Shen) and meat.
A recipe that (fellow artists) Fann Wong and Christopher Lee recommended for building collagen in my knee ligament also improved my complexion! You need to drink this everyday for three weeks, and I really saw and felt the effects on my skin! It’s good for tightening facial muscles.
How to make it? Take one or two pieces of fish maw and soak overnight. The next day, double boil with pandan leaves and some water for one to two hours. Add fresh milk and boil for another 30 minutes to make a small bowl. Rock sugar is optional. Subsequently, drink this twice a week then once a week for maintenance. And the best time is to have it as a tea break at around 3pm!
Thank you for sharing your best-kept beauty secret! Do you have any message to fellow mothers going through the same journey with you?
Be positive. You will gain something after this experience.
For me, my son, Beckham, wrote something that touched my heart. We had a heart-to-heart talk, and he wrote something very sweet on his Instagram. Without this happening, I wouldn’t have gained this relationship with my son. It made us closer and I understand him more.
Now when things happen, he pours out to me. I was so touched that I told my husband, although it may not be a good thing to happen but I gained back unexpected results: my son’s heartfelt words, appreciation, encouragement etc. Initially, I was worried that the public revelation will affect his schooling, but my son commented that I was a fighter and that he was proud of me. (eyes welling up)
Were there any unexpected surprises that warmed your heart recently?
During Beckham’s recent birthday happened to clash with his preliminary exams for the O levels. I said, “Son, mummy will take you to have your favourite lobster bisque, okay?,
But instead, he told me, “It’s okay, mummy, exams are coming. Maybe you can buy me two bowls of the soup and I’ll mix with rice to eat.” And then he thought for a while and said, “How about you bake a cake for me? “
I was shocked at his request because he only told me this a day before his birthday (15 September) and I’ve never baked a cake before!
So, I called his Godma for help, as she’s an avid baker and has everything in her house. The next morning, I went over to her house and got her to teach me how to make lava cakes.
That night, when our family was sitting at the dining table, I carefully took the lava cakes out and presented it to my son. He was so surprised to see them and asked if I really made them myself! He ate the cakes and he told me, “Mum, your cakes are very nice.” And I melted.
How can fathers and family show their support?
By being worried! (laughs)
My husband told the boys, “Don’t let mummy get angry; let her be happy everyday!”
Whatever I wanted to do, he would check and ask me about it. He even got me a helper during that period to help out with the chores so I wouldn’t overtire myself. My friends, (fellow artists) Vivian Lai and Zoe Tay, have been very supportive and encouraging during those times too.
We are heartened to see that Ms. Pan Ling Ling takes on a positive approach towards breast cancer. Her fighting spirit is indeed commendable, and we hope that other breast cancer patients will be strong during their battle for their health too.
Do you know of other breast cancer patients? Share some positive words of encouragement for these fighters below!