My friend’s mum is a breast cancer survivor. I didn’t know her when she was receiving treatment for the cancer, and was surprised to learn that she used to suffer from it, as she looked so… normal. I guess that’s the thing about breast cancer, and probably all other forms of cancer: anyone can get it. Did you know that men can also suffer from breast cancer?
I asked my friend’s mum, Mdm Sim PS, if she would share her story with me for this post, and she very kindly obliged, so here it is.
How and when did you find out that you had breast cancer?
I was diagnosed in 2001, after my gynaecologist sent me for a routine mammogram. (It is recommended that ladies above 40 years of age should go for regular mammograms.) Apparently, my breast was very dense. They found a small lump, and initially, the doctor thought that it was Stage 1, but tests showed that it had spread to my lymph nodes, which made it Stage 2.
I had surgery to remove the lump only, instead of my entire breast, as the lump was 1.5cm. I guess I was considered lucky, as the whole breast would have to be removed for lumps above 2cm. People asked me why I didn’t want to remove my entire breast, since I was already in my late fifties, but the thought of it was just too scary to me. I opted to have the surgery the day after I found out that I had breast cancer. I didn’t want to wait, so I went straight to a private surgeon, who was very good.
After the surgery, I had to go through four rounds of chemotherapy, followed by daily radiation sessions. I also had to take medication for five to six years.
I’m sure those were horribly tough times. How did you cope?
Oh, I cried daily, but throughout the entire process, I had very good family support. At that time, my daughter was just starting her final year examinations, and I remember calling her after her first paper to tell her that I was going to have breast surgery the next day. I didn’t say I had breast cancer, but I think she knew. She was very brave.
My husband also provided a lot of support, even though he was very scared. When I had to go for chemotherapy and radiation, he never failed to accompany me there and back. When I was feeling better, he would bring me to the beach for a walk every morning. We would walk there from our home in Pasir Ris, then when we got to the end, I would do some stretching exercises, before walking home with him again. I think the sea breeze was very good for me too. After my treatment ended, I also went to the gym three or four times a week, to do some brisk walking on the treadmill, and some stretching exercises.
I stayed with my mum for a week after each chemotherapy session, because no one else in my family could cook for me. It was hard for her, because my appetite was very poor, and I felt nauseated all the time. The food had to be thoroughly cooked, so I couldn’t eat half-boiled eggs for example. I had to force myself to swallow the hard-boiled eggs, but I had no choice. I had to eat healthily, otherwise, I couldn’t go for the next round of chemotherapy. I also drank a mixture of apple, carrot, celery, and orange juice daily, throughout my treatment.
My sister brought me to her church every Saturday, while my husband would bring me to mine on Sundays. I had a lot of support spiritually. In fact, on the day before my surgery, which was the same day I found out that I had breast cancer, I called my sister, and my cell group leader. Both of them prayed for me over the phone, and I was able to sleep soundly that night. Despite having to go for chemotherapy and radiation, I never missed a single cell group meeting. I cried each time my cell group members prayed for me, but they were very supportive, handing me tissues, and comforting me.
After the surgery and other treatments, I thought I was cured, but the oncologist told me that I wasn’t considered cured, and that the cancer was just in remission. She told me that to survive five years after that, would be considered good. Ten years would be considered very good. I’ve been in remission for 12 years, and my doctor even told me that I don’t have to see her annually anymore, just once in two years.
My daughter was the one who filled up the application form and signed me up as a member of the Breast Cancer Foundation. I attended a few events, and it was easy to make friends, because we had all gone through the same thing. It took me some time to join the dragonboaters, because I didn’t like the sun, but I saw how happy they all were at an event, and decided to try it out. I made some very good friends there, and it really helped me a lot. I went out more, and it prevented me from worrying endlessly. When you are cooped up alone at home, your mind keeps thinking about the cancer. You need to be positive, and keep thinking that there’s hope.
I also participated in various dragonboat competitions with my team. We usually came in last, but everyone would cheer for us, because they knew we were cancer survivors. We competed against so many different groups of people, and some were Junior College boys, young enough to be my grandchildren! At the end of the day, we just wanted to complete the race, and to have fun together. I am the third oldest member in my team, and nowadays, the races have gotten more tiring for me. I have to huff and puff to complete the 500m, and I can’t slow down, as dragonboating is about synchronised paddling.
Mdm Sim (extreme left) with some of her dragonboating friends
Last year, I even had the opportunity to participate in the National Day Parade with my fellow dragonboaters. It was very tiring, and we had to wait hours for our turn during each rehearsal, but it was a great experience. After all, how often do you get to participate in the National Day Parade? I can show my grandchildren the photos next time, and tell them that I was part of it.
We also have a dance instructor who isn’t a breast cancer survivor, but she is extremely supportive. She always encourages us, and would choreograph dances for us when we have to come up with dance items for overseas dragonboat competitions. Now, she is even teaching us pole dancing, but I call it pole exercise. It is a form of exercise, and a challenge for me, because I’m so old and heavy, but it is fun because I go with my friends. She doesn’t charge us for the lessons, and neither does the studio, as we go during off-peak hours.
After your scare, do you do things differently?
As I mentioned earlier, I have been in remission for 12 years already. I choose my food very carefully, and will usually eat food that is healthy, with very little sugar, salt and oil. I also seldom take red meat. At times, I use chicken breast to boil some stock, but most of the time, I only eat fish. The food can get a little bland, but I tell my family to bear with it, and we eat out occasionally for a change. I have also been eating oats every morning for the past 12 years, to the extent that I feel like vomiting when I eat it sometimes. I use rolled oats, not instant oats, and cook it myself, with no sugar or milk. I will add raisins and fruits to it, to make it a little more palatable. Nowadays, I am a little more relaxed with my diet, I guess because the initial scare has gradually faded, but I am still careful, because I know it can happen again, even after so many years.
I started exercising a lot more too, to keep myself fit, and not too fat. Dragonboating is a very good form of exercise, as I need to use my arms to pull the water, and twist my body from side to side. Best of all, it is out in the open, and I get to enjoy the fresh air. To get over my dislike of the sun, I apply sunblock, wear long-sleeved tops, and a cap. We are all literally in the same boat in dragonboating, physically and emotionally, because we are all breast cancer survivors. There is very good camaraderie in the team, because we are more than just teammates. We train together every Saturday, but after that, we will go out for a meal together, and spend some time chit-chatting. We are living proof that cancer survivors can lead full and healthy lives.
Mdm Sim (circled) and her husband (on her right), with some of her dragonboating friends and their families.
Apart from dragonboating, I walk a lot, with my husband and friends. I even participated in two 10km marathons, but I felt the strain more during the second one, which was held this year. I took longer to complete it, because I didn’t train enough, and probably also because of my age. I’m proud that I managed to complete the marathons, because I have two medals, which I plan to show to my grandchildren next time.
Do you have any advice for those currently suffering from breast cancer?
Actually, this applies to people suffering from all types of cancer. Firstly, you must try your best to be happy and positive. It is very important to have support from your family and friends. Don’t stay at home alone, even when you are in remission. Join a support group, like the Breast Cancer Foundation, where there are people who have been through the same things as you, and socialise with other people, to take your mind off the cancer. You should also keep exercising. Walking is a very good form of exercise, and you don’t have to worry about how fast you are going. Focus on walking for as long as possible instead. There is definitely life after cancer, and cancer survivors can lead healthy, happy lives too.
Mdm Sim celebrating her birthday with her family this year
The Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF) is organising its annual Pink Ribbon Walk (PRW) on Saturday, 28 September 2013, 5pm, at Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade. The walk covers 4.1km, and will be flagged off by the Guest-of-Honour, Dr Amy Khor, Minister of State, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Manpower. The event seeks to drive home the importance of a healthy lifestyle, and to raise awareness for BCF’s mission to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease, while showing solidarity with breast cancer survivors. BCF is one of the few breast cancer advocacy groups in the world with a Men’s Support League, to emphasise men’s roles in society’s fight against this affliction.
Register by 15 August 2013 to enjoy the early bird discounted price of $32 for first-time adult participants. All participants will each receive a goodie bag and t-shirt. More details can be found below, or on the Pink Ribbon Walk website.
PS. If you are unable to participate in the PRW, you can still support the event by making a donation. BCF is a non-profit charity, and any extra help you can offer would be more than welcome.