Breast cancer made my life better

Stoic patient travelled to 40 countries since diagnosis


By Serene Chua, with Yeu-Gynn Yeung & Po Lin Lim

With my family at Iceland’s Solheimasandur plane crash.

Photo credit: Serene Chua


Not everyone can say that their lives got better after cancer. But mine sure did.


Since cancer diagnosis in 2013, I’ve chalked up trips to 40 countries. No mean feat for anyone, cancer notwithstanding. And I should add, with a few of those between chemo treatments!


Flippant as it may sound, we used credit card points for wan ton mee in Bangkok. Then there was Iceland and Europe too.


But most remarkable was the time when I ascended the Tiger’s Nest - climbing up the whole 10,000 feet on the edge of the Hilmalayan mountains. I was out of breadth, and took double the time most adults would. But the spectacular view at the monastery, and making that pilgrimage was truly special.


On my way up the mountain to Tiger nest in Bhutan.

Photo credit: Serene Chua


Little did I know - the Diagnosis


It was an otherwise uneventful Tuesday in 2013. I had gone in to have my breasts checked after having pain on my entire right breast. But I knew something was amiss when the phone call said I should bring someone with me when coming back to see the doctor for my results.


I brought the man I married. And when Dr Esther Chuwa, my breast surgeon broke the news, he teared up.


Stage 3 hormone-sensitive breast cancer, she said. I was shocked. My family’s medical history was full of heart attacks. And I had assumed that would be my fate. But, cancer?


Was it the regular diet of chicken wings and bubble tea? The stress from constantly chasing work’s sales targets? Or the hormone pills I had been taking for my acne?


The following few days was a blur. Mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy, more scans - the whole shebang. With the lab result of breast cancer diagnosis, I proceeded with CT scan and within a week, I was at OncoCare’s clinic seeing Dr. Peter Ang - the man who would be my breast oncologist and partner me in this journey.


My treatment days were brightened up by Dr Peter Ang and these nurses at OncoCare.

Photo credit: Serene Chua


As an insurance agent, I had accompanied my clients to some of their doctor visits and sat through too many medical consultations where the patient would be pressured or condescendingly told what to do. To my relief, Dr Ang was nothing of that sort. Instead, he spelled out the treatment options available, but gave me the space to make my own decisions.


“At least I have time to say goodbye,” I thought to myself. Unlike those who get a heart attack and pass on pretty quickly. I knew I needed to see the glass half full.


Of Korean dramas and Warrioring - the Chemotherapy


So it started. Chemotherapy doesn’t actually hurt during the session, but it bites you through the following days. To get through the discomfort, I distracted myself by binge watching my favourite K-dramas like Princess Hours. And online shopping. All from lying in bed.


Most cancer patients would tell you though, it’s the frequent needle poking that unnerves them. It certainly doesn’t help to have ‘small’ veins as I purportedly do. Thankfully I benefited from the swift and bullseye skill of Nurse Eunice Ng.


Another group photo with the nurse team at OncoCare.

Photo credit: Serene Chua


Overall, the nurses at OncoCare did their best. Nobody is fond of undergoing chemotherapy but the friendly nurses made it bearable. Kind gestures like offering us blankets if we were cold, offering a smile as they walked by or asking if we needed to go to the toilet. As little as these gestures sound, they go a long way in comfort.


Some days were easier than others. Other days were miserable.


My younger daughter was three back then. Taking on from the cue of adults asking her to drink lots of water so she wouldn’t be sick, she’d bring me water and say, “Drink lots of water mummy, so that you can get well quickly.” It was going to take more than water to battle cancer, but if nothing else, her words were the boost my spirit needed to get through the day.


Then there was my elder five-year-old daughter. She was learning to play the piano at the time. She would offer to comfort me with pieces she thought I’d enjoy.


I didn’t want to let the girls down.

Hanging out at Skogafoss Waterfall, Iceland.

Photo credit: Serene Chua


The Travel Itch - Living to the Fullest (even through Treatment)


Midway through treatment, I was told that the chemotherapy I was undergoing wasn’t quite having the effect we had hoped. I was going to have to switch to a stronger chemo. But before we did that, Dr Peter Ang suggested I take a two week break.


Seizing the opportunity, I decided to plan a family trip. Afterall, who would have known if it would be our last together. Dr Peter was very supportive and did the needful to enable me to make the trip. We chose the Gold Coast in Australia. Sun, sand, and sea felt amazing. I returned refreshed, ready for the battle ahead.


Thankfully things went well from there. I got through the next series of chemotherapy and was assessed to be ready for my mastectomy.


But before the surgery, my husband and I squeezed in a holiday to Turkey. Our time, I thought. To make it special, at Cappadocia, we booked a hot air balloon ride. Just as we were swooned by the spectacular views, our hot air balloon made a sudden drop and could not make the usual landing. As people fell, my stoic beliefs rattled. The one thought that ran through my mind, “I didn’t survive chemotherapy to die out here.”

We survived. And to many more destinations we would travel together.


I love travelling. Armed with a new perspective of mortality, my focus has become less of ‘material things’ and more on memories created with those I love. In the short few years, we have invested in making memories in places like Okinawa, Taipei, Tibet, Russia, Norway, England, Fiji and many more across the globe.


Making memories at Stonehenge, England.

Photo credit: Serene Chua


Experiencing life together is my new motto.


Of course, none of this would have been possible without the support from my husband. Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, we used to argue frequently. Over the pettiest of matters. After cancer, our quarrels have taken a backseat.


In my lowest moments, he was with me. He shaved his head when I had to shave mine. He was right there cleaning up my vomit during the not-so-good days of side effects.


My husband. He stood by me through thick and thin, with unwavering love.

Photo credit: Serene Chua


Life as a Survivor


After completing treatment and undergoing surgery to remove my right breast entirely, I took another seven months of rest, to give my body the time it needed to recover from all that it had gone through. I was lucky. Many other patients I knew were working through their treatment. Their employers were not as supportive. And their financial constraints made rest impossible.


These days, I’m back working as an insurance agent.


I’ve made changes to my diet - less sugar in my bubble tea (and at times, even without the bubbles!), more organic ingredients, and soup-based foods.


I’ve become the queen of the house.


I’ve become clearer about my priorities in life.


Wouldn’t it be true to say that breast cancer has after all, made my life somewhat better? Before cancer, I only followed what everyone else was doing. I lived life based on standards set by society.


Now, I focus on what makes me happy, my family, the travels and creating the best memories with my children.

Photo credit: Serene Chua


Cancer may have made its mark on me, but I’ve already made my mark on 40 countries across the globe. So here’s to the other 155 I’ve yet to visit. I’m coming for you!



The Asian Woman develops content in partnership with institutions where we think our readers or audience will find such content educational, valuable or interesting. This article is supported by OncoCare Cancer Centre as part of their initiative to bring empowerment to our female community, in conjunction with Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For more information on Breast Cancer, there are two educational videos available for viewing on their website: https://oncocare.sg/en/breast-cancer-in-young-patients/

https://oncocare.sg/en/latest-treatment-options-in-advanced-breast-cancer/


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