Singapore mum fights breast cancer: "I was 33 weeks pregnant when..."
A story of courage, survival and hope, as this Singapore mum fights breast cancer. Do read her very valuable advice to other mums...
"I was back after work one day, and showering, when I felt a lump on my right breast."
"I was 33 weeks pregnant at the time, and was naturally worried about the lump. I began Googling and according to articles I read, I thought that the lump was due to a blocked milk duct."
Singapore mum fights breast cancer during pregnancy
Singapore mum Lydia Koh, 34, a Manager at JTC Corporation, tells us her story. Lydia and hubby Don Marcus, have two children - 3-year-old Chiara and 9-month-old Zephaniah.
It was when Lydia was pregnant with Zephaniah that she first noticed the lump, "I applied warm compression to the lump in an attempt to ease the blockage. However, after a few days, the lump still did not disperse. This was when the warning bells went off in my head, and I decided to mention the lump to my gynaecologist."
"During my visit to the gynaecologist, my doctor performed a scan when I mentioned the lump in my breast, and I was told that the outline of the lump did not look promising. I was then immediately referred to a surgical oncologist, who told me that the lump looked cancerous, but because I was pregnant then, he was uncertain, and needed to perform further tests."
"Being pregnant, I was faced with many complications. I could not undergo a lot of scans meant to test for cancer. I eventually had to do a core biopsy, which extracted a sample of my tissue to be tested for cancer. If I was diagnosed with cancer, I would have to undergo lumpectomy immediately."
"5 days later, I went to see my doctor to receive my results. Indeed, my worst fears came true, and I was told that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was an extremely devastating moment for me and my husband, and I had the complication of having my baby due in a few weeks’ time. After receiving the news, both my husband and I broke down as we informed our families and close friends."
"My surgical oncologist and gynaecologist arranged for a C-section and lumpectomy two weeks later, when Zephaniah was full term at 37 weeks. I would say that the two-week duration of waiting for my pregnancy to reach full-term was one of the worst periods of my life. I was extremely anxious, and jittery during this phase."
"On the chosen day, doctors performed the surgeries in the same procedure, my gynaecologist did a C-section and took Zephaniah out, and right after that my surgical oncologist did a lumpectomy.The surgeries lasted for 4-5 hours."
"During surgery, the surgeon checked to see if I had developed a metastatic growth, which would mean that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. I was tested positive, and hence my doctor removed 18 of my lymph nodes, out of which 3 were infected. The lump was 1.8cm, considerably small, and would have been Stage 1 breast cancer. However, since my cancer had spread, it was upstaged to Stage 2A."
"Looking back, we were extremely blessed that we only discovered the cancer very late into my pregnancy, and we only had to wait for 2 weeks before my baby reached full term. Thankfully, our boy was born healthy."
Side effects of treatment
The postpartum period must have been particularly taxing?
"After my delivery, I had a 3 week break to rest from the operation and lumpectomy, after which I had to start on my chemotherapy."
"I began chemotherapy in early October and suffered horrible side effects. I did four rounds of treatment in a three-week cycle, for three months. Out of the four treatments, I fell very sick after three of them, and this included having high fever, throat ulcers and gum infection. This was largely due to my weaker immune system and susceptibility then, to viruses and bacteria."
"It was definitely one of the toughest periods of my life. With numerous heavy duty drugs administered, I felt as if my body was no longer mine..."
"And on top of dealing with treatment, I had to care for my 2-year-old daughter, Chiara, and newborn, Zephaniah. This was made worse by my baby being a bad sleeper; he would wake up every 2-3 hours at night. Throughout this trying phase, my husband took care of the kids after work."
Support from family and friends
Lydia feels that she couldn't have remained strong if not for her family and friends, "I am blessed to have a very strong support system – my family members, church friends, colleagues and bosses were constantly on the lookout for me, and were physical and emotional pillars during this phase of my life."
"My father has been visiting more often and my mother-in-law has been coming over to take care of my children whenever I have to make my trips to the hospital."
"Furthermore, I am exceptionally grateful to my church friends, a few of whom just happened to be pregnant last year as well. Due to chemotherapy, I could not breastfeed Zephaniah as it could potentially harm him. Hence, my friends who were pregnant, and gave birth, all offered breast milk for me to feed my son, although our paediatrician later advised us against it."
"Additionally, I would like to thank Philomena, a 17-year breast cancer survivor. She is definitely my life-saver throughout this painful journey. Being someone whom I could constantly turn to for advice, encouragement and comfort, her expertise truly made the recovery process easier for me. She told me what to expect in advance, from how chemotherapy would be, to preparing the appropriate diet post-chemotherapy. I will always be grateful for her love and support, in my battle against breast cancer."
Depression and mood swings
And yet, at times, she did feel that she couldn't bear the suffering any more, "Despite the support, there were still days where I experienced depression and mood swings due to the chemo and hormonal therapy. The whole course of treatment entails a large intake of drugs to suppress my hormones, and to control the cancer cells in my body."
"Having very low levels of hormones, it was akin to going through menopause, and I would naturally experience mood swings, be irritable and easily agitated. Apart from the emotional changes, I also had a lot of body changes to cope with – dry skin, hot flushes and pain when I urinate, to name a few."
"I am by nature an optimist, and always look at the brighter side of life. However during those bad days, I would begin to question, "Why me? Why did I get breast cancer, why can’t I be normal and why do I have to go through chemotherapy..."
"It is difficult to face these challenges, but with a conscious effort to get out of this negative thought process, and having good family and friends’ support, it was easier..."
Living with cancer
Though Lydia is still not completely "cancer-free", her condition is more stable now, "I am so thankful that I survived six months of chemotherapy and 18 sessions of radiotherapy. I am now going through hormonal therapy (Herceptine) until December."
"In addition, I am taking Tamoxifen, a pill used to suppress hormones. I have to continue taking the pill for 5 years. Lastly, I have Zoladex jabs, which is used to preserve my fertility in case I plan to have more children in the future. As chemotherapy affects my fertility, these jabs help my ovaries hibernate, so that they will not ovulate during the post-operation stage."
"Now, that my treatment is ongoing and at a more stable stage, I am looking forward to my future. I intend to lead a healthier lifestyle, with exercise and a balanced diet. I am currently on a one-year break until my treatment is over, so once my treatment ends, I look forward to going back to work."
Lifestyle and diet changes
What changes to her lifestyle and diet did Lydia make?
"After being diagnosed with breast cancer, I have opted for a healthier, cleaner diet. I decided to do a complete switch to home-cooked food and began to be more conscious of every meal.
For one, I switched from white rice to multi-grain, and from white bread to wholemeal bread. I also love milk, but only drink it once in a while now, I have replaced it with rice milk, oat milk or almond milk. I eat more fruits and vegetables, and have less meat and more fish. Additionally, I replaced processed sugar and salts with organic and unrefined alternatives."
Cancer has also changed her as a person, "On top of this, having breast cancer has made me realise many positives, and also made me more appreciative of my life."
"Previously, I was meticulous and uptight, and would fuss over many things, especially being on schedule, and having everything go according to my plan. Now, these hold less importance, and I allow myself to go with the flow, instead of constantly planning ahead."
"After all, I had planned to have three or four children, and having breast cancer drastically changed my life."
Advice to other mums
"My biggest advice to all the mums out there, is to be aware of your body changes. I did not experience any symptoms of breast cancer, except for having a lump in my right breast."
"Hence, it is extremely important to be aware of your body, and to do regular breast self-examinations. This is even more crucial for women under 40, as we are not recommended to undergo mammogram checks for breast cancer – our breasts tend to be denser, making it difficult for small changes to be detected. When in doubt, always consult a doctor."
"In addition, it is exceptionally important to have good insurance coverage! This helped to cover a huge sum of my surgery and post-operation costs."
"Maintaining a positive mindset and embracing the diagnosis would be most helpful to a great recovery. I realise that with an optimistic outlook to this predicament, I began to believe in myself more, and now, I truly look forward to life after recovery."
"Additionally, I would encourage people with breast cancer to talk to someone who has gone through the same journey."
"Personally, I chose to share my story, as it may inspire and touch someone facing the same predicament. Talking about breast cancer helps me to embrace and accept my condition, and make it less scary than it seems."
"With that, I’d like to say that nothing is impossible to overcome, and a positive mindset, coupled with a good diet and exercise regime, is key to achieving a speedy recovery!"
Thank you, Lydia, for sharing your very inspiring story of survival and hope. Here's praying for this family, and wishing them peace, love and happiness!
Women diagnosed with breast cancer are also welcome to seek support at Breast Cancer Foundation support groups. For more details, visit https://bcf.org.sg/.