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Cikgu Nora with her daughter, 1 out of her 4 children. Photo: Norashilawati Bt Mohamed Nor

Breast Cancer Awareness Goes Beyond Pink October

3 breast cancer survivors, 3 inspiring stories

For many women, a breast cancer diagnosis may seem like all hope is lost. Diagnosed patients often feel distressed and helpless, as if they are alone on their journey. These feelings are often amplified by the strong stigma around discussing breast cancer openly for fear of guilt, shame or fear of being a burden.

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are many survivors and patients who have conquered the same hardships.  “As a doctor, when we treat our patients, we don’t get a lot of close contact. Sometimes your clinic duration is very short, and you can’t really talk to them for too long … you [often] don’t understand what they have gone through and what happens to them when they walk out from your clinic. All of them have a very special story,” said Assoc. Prof. Dr. See Mee-Hoong, Head of Breast Surgery Unit at University Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC). Here are the inspiring stories of hope from three brave breast cancer survivors from a not-for-profit organisation at UMMC, called The Candy Girls.

The Candy Girls breast cancer support group. Photo: UMMC Candy Girls Support Group Facebook.

The love of a family

e-hailing driver Phyllis Yeoh’s personal story with breast cancer began over a decade ago, when she first discovered a lump on her right breast. “The doctor told me there was a lump, and that I needed to undergo surgery. I had six cycles of chemotherapy and fifteen [sessions] of radiotherapy,” she recalled somberly. “It was very difficult because my body was weak.”

Phyllis was diagnosed with breast cancer BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene 2), and those who have inherited a  harmful variant in BRCA2 tend to develop cancer at a younger age1. She had a particularly gruelling journey on her road to cancer survival, with her needing to rest for six days straight after each treatment cycle. However, Phyllis credits being able to stay headstrong through the difficult times due to the love and support of her family. From the very first day of her checkup, her parents have never left her side – with her mother becoming her primary caretaker and constantly going the extra mile for her.

Phyllis (far right) with her family. Photo: Phyllis Yeoh

It would be a lie to say Phyllis hadn’t felt that she was nearing the end of the road. “I texted my cousin and said, ‘If anything really happens to me, please take care of my parents’,” she shared tearfully. “My cousin replied, ‘Don’t think of those negative things, you have to be positive’. I [thought to myself] ‘yes, I must continue with my journey. I shouldn’t give up [now]’.”

Knowing how she has been able to carry on with the help of those around her, Phyllis has been actively giving back to those in the same position. “When I was a Grab driver, I would wake up at 6am … sometimes I would send passengers to the hospital and tell them ‘Okay, you don’t need to pay’,” Phyllis confessed, with a smile on her face. “Because it’s usually patients who are [visiting] the hospital. I’m very proud of myself [for] walking through this journey and [being able to] help people.”

Battling breast cancer amidst COVID-19

For schoolteacher Cikgu Nora, cancer was not an unfamiliar topic in her life, as her own mother had also passed away from cervical cancer. Her own journey with cancer began in May 2020, during the tumultuous times of the pandemic and the MCO (Movement Control Order). “Every so often, I would perform a routine checkup in the bathroom while I’m showering,” she explained. “And I found a lump around my right breast.” Her mammogram results revealed that the lump was about 2cm in size, catching her breast cancer diagnosis between Stage 1 and Stage 2 of the disease.

Cikgu Nora was surprised and shocked by her diagnosis, with her first thought being that she wouldn’t be able to live for long. However, as a mother and a wife, the love for her family kept her going. She was then referred to UMMC for a second opinion, where it was recommended that she undergo a number of cancer treatments.

Cikgu Nora with her daughter, 1 out of her 4 children. Photo: Norashilawati Bt Mohamed Nor

Her battle with breast cancer was long and arduous. Opting for six rounds of chemotherapy,  Cikgu Nora was close to giving up during those times, particularly during her fourth session. “My body was shivering, and I was asleep throughout the day,” she recalled. Beyond family, her principal was a ray of hope in her life, encouraging her to keep going as she had already come so far. Cikgu Nora finished her remaining chemotherapy sessions and a lumpectomy, removing a total of 17 lymph nodes and other suspicious lumps.

“We have to act early and quickly. In the earlier stages [of breast cancer], it is still curable, so don’t be afraid of going through chemotherapy,” Cikgu Nora emphasised, encouraging fellow breast cancer patients to go for their treatments, and that they are not alone in this journey. “When I joined [breast cancer] support groups, I realised that many others share similar journeys and experiences, and they have managed to overcome [their situations] – so why [can’t the same be true] for myself?”

Overcoming health challenges twice

Breast cancer wasn’t Lim Chiou Ling’s first encounter with a serious medical condition. Years prior to her cancer diagnosis, she suffered a stroke, which caused her to have trouble walking and speaking. “I was almost paralysed,” she shared. “But I’m a very strong person, [so] I went for all the physio and learned how to walk again.” This strength carried on to Chiou Ling’s breast cancer diagnosis, where she was able to power through her treatments, knowing that she was at least able to walk, talk and eat properly.

Chiou Ling (far left) enjoying breakfast with her Candy Girls Pink Dance Crew members. Photo: Lim Chiou Ling.

“We tell people, ‘It’s okay [if you] have breast cancer, life still goes on [and] you can be [even] happier than before.” Chiou Ling said.  The Candy Girls support group has given her the chance to enjoy brand-new experiences, such as dancing on stage, climbing Mount Kinabalu, and participating in a half marathon.

“[For women] who are more than 40 to 50 years old, don’t forget to get your breast checked, and for those who have breast cancer, life is always beyond our cancer – we are always with you, so don’t give up.” added Assoc. Prof. Dr. See.

The fight for breast cancer awareness goes beyond Pink October. This is why medical face mask company MEDICOS has partnered with UMMC and the Candy Girls to launch the Hope Is Just Around The Corner campaign to spread hope to all breast cancer patients and caregivers, to consistently share their experiences with each other to ease the journey in battling this disease. In conjunction with this campaign, the full video testimonials shared by the breast cancer survivors can be viewed on the MEDICOS Facebook page or YouTube channel.

References:

  1. National Cancer Institute. BRCA Gene Mutations: Cancer Risk and Genetic Testing. Available at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics/brca-fact-sheet. Last accessed 25 October 2021.