I See Angels In The Operating Theatre

25 June 2010

I wake up at 5.45am. This is the day. I should be nervous, but feel oddly peaceful.

By the time I get downstairs — with my pillow in an X-ray bag — my kids are all awake. Mom-in-law has brought Big B to school, in fact. Little B is rolling around in bed (I steal a kiss) and Middle B is trying to be brave.

“Do you really need to stay in hospital for one week?” she whispers, fighting back tears.

“Yes if I have to go for the long operation,” I reply. “The long operation” is the one where I have a mastectomy. “The short operation” is the one where a lumpectomy suffices.

“I can come and see you right? Tonight? After your operation?”

“Yes sweetie.” We hug each other tight, her tears seeping through my T-shirt.

Since my chat with Jen, I’ve been praying for that peace that she enjoyed. I think the phrase “Seek peace and pursue it” is a most wise piece of advice. I prayed last night I would see angels, that Jesus would make Himself felt, that I would not feel afraid nor alone going into that freezing OT (it’s always freezing).

We arrive at 6.45am and the sky’s just beginning to brighten. Check-in takes 30 minutes — the lounge is filled with sleepy to-be patients watching World Cup replays with glassy eyes.

“Sorry for the delay, ma’am,” the smiley Malay bellman apologises as he helps us with the bag. “Full house today.”

“Full house” means I have a very low chance of getting a single room, which means I might have to listen to someone else groaning through the night. It also means Mr Threez couldn’t stay overnight with me. Now that is a bummer.

We roll into my room at Ward 9 East. My neighbour is a sprightly 60something who is cheerily watching TV and eating. She’s had her operation already and appears to be recovering well.

I load up my bedside drawers with my toiletries, Bible, journal, books, fluffy Ritz Carlton slippers, my iPod and Beth’s card for me. Laptop and clothes go into the wardrobe.

The nurse comes in and gets me to change into the blue dressing gown. “I’m having my period,” I grimace, and so does she. “Don’t worry,” she says, catching herself. “We’ll put the sheet under you. And we’ll clean you up. Don’t worry.”

For the next few hours, Mr Threez and I stare at the dark clouds gathering outside the window, and the rain start to pelt down like licks from a giant dog, turning swiftly into torrents. This day would measure the second greatest amount of rainfall for the year.

At 9am, Dr Andrew Khoo comes in to “mark me”. He’s got two nurses with him, a dark blue magic marker and a coil of measuring tape.

“Look at that rain!” he remarks. “In this kind of weather, park at the top of the hill.” We laugh.

I stand naked with my dressing gown poorly tied around my lower hips as he draws lines down the centre of my body, under the curves of my breasts (I guess to make sure they end up on the same level), and then a line from hip to hip.

“Don’t move,” he says firmly to the nurse who is holding the measuring tape. He draws. Then he stops and glares at her.

“You moved. It’s crooked.”

It occurs to me that now might be a good time to tell him I have scoliosis and my hips are really not level.

“Um, Dr Khoo, I have scoliosis. My right hip is higher than my left.” I smile my best Wallace & Gromit smile by way of apology for not telling him earlier.

He pauses and looks at me, like someone let the air out of him. Then he says “Oh, you poor thing. Okay, I got it.” He redraws the line, then says to the nurse, “Okay, you didn’t move.”

I stifle a grin.

Dr Khoo flashes me a smile and says he will see me later. I guess it can’t be easy for him either, operating on women like me who are forced to have reconstruction and are emotionally affected by the surgery, instead of women who look forward to his hands transforming them in to a thinner/more buxom/younger-looking new person.

But in a big way, I am happy he is available to carry out the reconstruction. When my mother had cancer 21 years ago she didn’t have that option. Her doctor would only encourage reconstruction a year after her mastectomy. She didn’t get to “wake up with two” like I would.

And if I did go through the whole mastectomy and recon thing, I would be losing my mummy tummy, which in theory should make me yummy.

Two nurses come in, having been sent by Dr Khoo to “clean shave” me. This is necessary because I’m having my tummy tucked and hair could cause infections.

Man, I hate this part! They take some kind of 2-cent disposable shaver and scrape off all your muff hair. Plus my shavers are two (lovely but absolutely-never-done-this) nurses who exchange glances, doing an eyeball lom-chiam-pass to ascertain who is going to have to shave me.

One of them finally drops her gaze and determinedly snaps on her gloves. She proceeds to try shaving – upwards.

Oh for Pete’s sake.

“Um, you need to get some powder,” I say, gently but very firmly. The one that won the eyeball-toss rushes out to find a bottle of powder, returning with a brand new Johnson’s Baby Powder, no doubt from the maternity ward.

They pour enough powder on my triangle to make a snowglobe, and then she starts to shave—”downward!”. Once she gets the hang of it, she does a pretty neat job. I am hating this by the second, knowing that for the next three months while the hair grows out I’m going to feel like I have a hedgehog between my legs. A poor girl’s chastity belt.

After an eternity, the girls leave me in my bed, starting at the rain as I pray. There is a warmth emanating from my core. I know my many friends are praying hard for me this morning.

Have you ever felt Jesus just sitting beside you, His arm around you, like you’re His kid? That’s what I feel this morning. Just warm, happy (and a little itchy down there).

Mr Threez leans over and kisses me. Together, we pray, trusting my life into God’s hands. I don’t tell him, but I’m banking on seeing some angels today.

“Lord, please let me see some angels,” I pray. “I don’t get to come out of theatre with a baby this time, so at least let me see something wonderful.”

It’s 9.45am and they’ve come to wheel me to the OT. Mr Threez walks this Via Dolorosa along with me in my gurney. We’ve done this three times before, for each of our babies. It feels weird — maybe just wrong — going into OT without that same excited anticipation of meeting a beautiful bundle of life at the end of the ordeal.

We part as they push me through the swing doors and park me at the prep room. My cheery anaesthesist introduces herself — “Hi I’m Dr Tan,” and proceeds to chat with me about my allergies, family history and any other health issues I might have.

“I have scoliosis,” I blurt apologetically, as if to make up for not telling Dr Khoo earlier and causing him to draw double lines on my tummy.

“Oh, it’s true!” exclaims Dr Tan. “My professor used to say ‘All pretty girls have scoliosis.'”

She asks what I’m in for, and I explain that Dr Hoe’s going to try a lumpectomy, failing which, I’ll have a mastectomy followed by reconstruction.

Dr Tan’s eyes cloud with sympathy. She pats my hand. “Yes, a lumpectomy is better, huh? You’re so young.”

The nurses wheel me into the freezing OT. “This is the newest one – it’s freezing,” I hear somebody comment. Someone else inserts a tap into my left hand for a drip.

“Is Dr Hoe here yet? Late again ah?”

Dr Tan’s giving instructions on how much GA to give me.

I remember my prayer to God and open my eyes. There, on my right, are two watery blue angels with indescribably peaceful and loving faces.

“You sent them!” I smile to Jesus, my heart warm with peace. “You’re here!”

Dr Hoe comes in. “Hello Theresa! Sorry I’m late!”

I nod my acceptance of his apology. He discusses the procedure with Dr Tan, who wins me with her appeal to him to give me a lumpectomy as far as possible, and not a mastectomy.

“She’s so young…”

I am beginning to wonder when they’re going to put me to sleep when they finally slip a breathing mask over my nose and mouth.

“Breathe, Theresa.”

I count in my head: one, one thousand, two, one thousand… funny I’m still awake.

“Keep breathing Theresa, breathe deep.”

Three one thousand… and I’m out.

13 Hours Later

25 June 2010: 10pm (thereabouts)

It’s the “deet, deet, deet” of my own heartbeat on the monitor that wakes me up.

I’ve been here before: three C-sections and thrice in the post-op waiting area. Except this time I have no baby to show for my time in the OT.

The first sensation is the horrible, horrible backache that comes in waves like a pinch that won’t let go. My eyelids flutter open and I see two nurses in masks checking their clipboards like they were traders and the floor had just opened.

“Back… pain.”

They look up at me. The China nurse pecks at me with her staccato English – possibly the most annoying sound in the world after Kenny G – “No! You cannot move. Doctor see you later.”

I don’t feel any other pain, just the backache, that suan feeling, like rheumatism at its worst. My buttocks feel numb. I am resting on the right one.

Seeing that I am going to get no help, I slowly slip one hand under my butt and lift myself up. I position my left buttock to take my weight, and that relieves the backache for a few welcome seconds.

I guess they are waiting for me to stabilise before bringing me back to my room. I tell myself they are not ignoring me on purpose, though they seem to be. I try to peek down at my gown – I see bloodstains on the blue gown cover my right chest.

Looks like I’ve had the whole shebang. The lumpectomy didn’t happen.

Still, I am thankful to be alive, and to be out of surgery. I wonder when I can see my husband. I creak my neck around to look for a clock but cannot find one.

After what seems like an hour, a nurse releases the lock on the wheels of my gurney and tells me “Okay, Theresa, we are going back to the ward okay?”

Familiar voices tickle my ear drums as the lift door opens and I am wheeled back to my room. I hear my husband’s voice – and my daughter’s.

The nurses who wheel me back to my room chuckle. “Theresa! Do you know how long you’ve been in surgery?” I shake my head – and regret it. Feels like an ocean between my ears. “13 hours! What were you doing in there?! Your children have been waiting for you for a long time!”

Husband’s face appears before me — it’s the most beautiful vision ever. He kisses my forehead. “You did good! You’re the champ! You were in there longer than me during my brain surgery!”

I know I am smiling weakly. Throat is so dry.

“The kids are here.”

I look to my right and there are my precious Big B and Middle B. I look up at the clock – gosh, it’s 11pm! My Little B is all tucked up in bed… I miss her.

Middle B holds my hand and asks me how I feel. Big B gives me his best grin. I feel my heart fill with love and gratitude that I get to see my gorgeous offspring! God is good!

Middle B’s eyes are wild with emotion but she can’t get the words out. Instead, she focuses on the small details. “Why is there blood on your gown?”

“That’s where the doctor operated, darling,” I whispered hoarsely.

After five minutes, their daddy rounds them up to bring them home. My father and mother-in-law pop their heads in — I’ve never been so happy to see them.

“You all right?”

I nod with a wry smile. At least, I think I managed a wry smile.

My head feels like a 10-ton water bed. My eyelids feel like titanium plates being held up by wood skewers.

“Sleep, my love,” said my husband. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

It must have been the combination of the GA and the painkillers, but all I want to do is sleep. I say “Thank you Lord”, and I pass out.

Pre-Surgery Rush Hour 2

Thursday 24 June

Today’s To-Do List:
1. Nanzinc stories to be uploaded for next week. Editing 6 stories takes me 2 hours! I must be losing my touch. Looking for photos takes another 1 hour 15 minutes. Either I’m slow or my broadband connection is. I think it’s both.

2. Pack books to read (see my “Booklist For Speedy Recovery”). Borders has a “25% off + 10% more for members” coupon. I’m so going to Borders.

3. Arrange for laptop and dongle – I want to watch the weekend service with Dr AR Bernard! Not missing that for the world. Call my buddy the S Man and he says he’ll bring it to hospital for me before service begins. With the S Man, friendship is uplifted several levels.

4. Pack my pillow. My personal secret to a comfortable stay in hospital! First, those plastic covers on those foam pillows in hospital are designed to drive you crazy and make you sweat. Second, you bring the soothing smell of home with you when you bring your pillow. (Okay, I’ll admit, this is the adult version of bringing my smelly bolster everywhere.)

5. Write cards for all my kids and hubby. I used to do this when I had to travel for work. I would write a tiny little card for every day I was away and hide it away so my kids would have to hunt and find all of them. This time… because I am feeling sentimental, and because my father-in-law, a man of few words who in a rare moment, came up to me this morning and put his hand on my shoulder and said “Don’t worry. You are going to be fine, okay?” So moved.

6. Pack outfit for going home in. Deciding what I’ll need to wear when I come out of hospital takes me nearly an hour. I had bought a pair of calf-length harem pants at the Mango sale. They’re perfect because they come with a broad elastic waistband. After a tummy tuck my abdomen is definitely going to be swollen and I can’t imagine squeezing into my jeans. What if I burst my stitches?! Okay, harem pants and a white shirt, that’s the eventual verdict.

In the midst of all the rush I decide, I want to bring my mother-in-law out for lunch. I’m blessed to have the best MIL in the world. She would do anything for me — and does, sometimes without my even thinking about it. If Love has a face, it’s my mom-in-law’s.

I know the next few weeks are going to be exhausting for her as she takes over my mommy-taxi duties. Not that a lunch could take away that stress but I just want her to know I love her and appreciate her.

So braving a crazy heavy shower at noon, we drive to Playground@Big Splash for a buffet lunch at Seafood International Market & Restaurant.

The ala carte buffet lunch is a winner at $22.80++ a head. The 12 premium dishes alone are worth more than the price of the buffet. These include a whole braised abalone, braised shark’s fin soup, drunken prawn in herbal soup, black pepper crayfish, sirloin steak in barbecue sauce, and the yummiest deepfried sea bass.

We were so stuffed after those that we barely had room for a tom yum soup and the signature Sakura Chicken in three sauces.

Dessert was a buffet range of nonya kueh and sea coconut soup.

I only wish we were hungrier because the dim sum and the crabmeat fried rice looked really yum but we were floaty from overeating!

I hope to go back there with some friends next round, and this time I would order slowly — we had all the dishes come at once so some grew cold as we ate…

But more than anything it was just worthwhile to hang with my MIL and chitchat on a rainy day, pretending like we’re two tai-tais. I’m not sure when we’ll get to do this again…

We head home and I start packing. There’s a certain “numbness” to this whole scenario. I find myself trying not to think about waking up without my natural born breast. The terror of the empty breast skin has subsided, but I gotta admit, it’s still not exactly something to “look forward to”.

I have to fast from midnight, but I eat dinner at 7pm, and have some tea and 8pm and don’t feel like anything after that. In bed at 10pm, Mr Threez asks if I want to be woken up at 11.30 with Milo and bikkies and I shake my head. I don’t know how death row prisoners eat their last meal. It just seems so pointless.

I pray with my kids and kiss them all to sleep. Middle B is anxious and teary and insists on waking up to “send me off” tomorrow.
I go to bed and pray.
I pray Jesus will let me have the peace that surpasses all understanding.
I pray I will feel His presence like He’s next to me holding my hand.
I pray I will see angels and know that my operating theatre is an anointed place.
I pray that as I come to the Lord and carry this burden, this yoke will prove easy and the burden light.

My Last Supper

Yummy seafood at Kuishin-bo

“Dinner, Bunnie?”

An SMS from my beloved! Instantly the weight of filing papers and writing cheques lifts off me.

We had initially planned to try out the lobster teppanyaki set at Sakae Sushi at Tampines Century Square.

But now, realising that once I’ve had my surgery I’ll have to be off shellfish for months, we decide to sup at Kuishin-bo at Great World City.

It costs about $50 a head. Wednesdays are ladies’ night, and ladies get like, 10% off or something.

The spread is awesome:

Chilled seafood: prawns, scallops in the half-shell, and Alaskan crab legs (best eaten with the sweet chilli sauce)

Grilled seafood: (the night we went, it was a haul!) lobster, giant prawns, lamb, beef slices (marinated with a beautiful soy sauce – awesome) and fish.

Others: sashimi, sushi, teppanyaki (beef, chicken, fish), paper pot, chawanmushi, salad, cooked Japanese dishes (eg Japanese “yong tau fu”, curry etc), porridge (a wonderful ginseng chicken or scallop).

Soft drinks, coffee, tea on freeflow, as well as soft Japanese ice cream (green tea and vanilla) and a dessert spread that includes chocolates, fruit, cheesecake, Black Forest, a “wet dessert” of the day (like a sea coconut with Konniyaku jelly pieces), and a chocolate fountain.

All that’s missing is the beer on tap. Haha. (If we feel indulgent, we order a Kirin each.)

I love coming here with Mr Threez. We share great conversations and a delight for every morsel and we always eat fit to burst!

It’s the perfect Last Supper. I leave, happy and full, arm in arm with the man I love.

Pre-Surgery Rush Hour 1

Wednesday 23 June

It struck me when I woke up this morning that I literally have 2 days to get everything in order before I go in for surgery.

I’m dashing about trying to get all my stories fixed up for next week — the 6 stories that will go live on Nanzinc.Com. I’m suddenly realising I do have to tell some people about what’s happening to me, like my freelance editorial team. They send me a beautiful arrangement of cheerful gerberas from Greeting Cuts, and better yet, assure me that everything will go smoothly while I am in hospital.

I tell Nanz, who bursts into tears and prays like a hailstorm for me. This woman was once my cell group leader, and really, it was her faith that inspired my faith and brought me thus far. “I see this black cursed thing at the foot of Jesus,” she Blackberry-Messengers me. I, too, pray the cancer falls out of me like a black lump — I’ve read it in books about Smith Wigglesworth and Kathryn Kuhlman. Surely the God who healed those people is the same God who will heal me.

I tell my partner from my writing agency WORD, Michelle. She is shocked into vulgarities, but quickly composes herself and jumps to offer help in 109 ways.

I tell the head of City News, a newspaper at which I work part time. She’s utterly shocked, and immediately tells me not to worry about the paper. I’m grateful for the team I work with, they are more capable than they give themselves credit for.

Okay, so now all the ongoing work is kind of sorted out, I move on to bills. Pay all credit card bills. Check that there’s enough money in the account for the GIRO payments. Cash for the tutors. Allowance for the kids. Pay for the maid.

I think for a moment about my will, last drawn up in 2003. Perhaps, foolishly, I decide against looking at it again. I am sure I am going to come out of this alive.

I’m exhausted after hours of “admin” work. It’s really not my strength. But better to get it over with. I can’t imagine stressing over paperwork when I’m home trying to recover…

Cancer is proving more of an inconvenience than I first imagined.

What’s On My Surgery Menu… Hmm…

Tuesday 22 June

Mr Threez and I see Dr Hoe for the last time before the scheduled op, which will happen this Friday, 25 June.

Once again we discuss the possibility of saving my nipple (man, I tell you, the number of manhours spent discussing my nipple, you’d think it was insured for a million dollars).

Dr Hoe sees anxiety written all over my face, and assures us he will try for a lumpectomy first, and only in the event that he (as my expert surgeon) deems it’s too dangerous not to remove the nipple, will he do so.

He writes down on the surgery “order sheet” that I’ll bring with me when I come for my operation on Friday: “Lumpectomy, KIV full mastectomy followed by TRAM flap reconstruction.”

This means it’ll be a longer procedure than a straight up chop-and-go, but it does put my heart at ease a little, knowing this good man is going to try his best to save my femininity.

As we leave Dr Hoe’s clinic, an inexplicable sombreness falls over both of us. There is an air of finality about today. We walk quietly to the car. Words that are bubbling near the surface dissolve into silence.

What My Breasts Looked Like 10 Years Ago

This is one of my favourite photos of me. It was taken the first year when the new ELLE Singapore team was formed — 2000 I think. (Hachette Filipacchi reclaimed the title from ACP in 1999. Later it went into a joint venture with MediaCorp, and now MediaCorp owns the title in Singapore.)

I can’t remember if my favourite fashion photographer Wee Khim took this photo… but thank you, Mr Photographer who took this. And thank you Xylia for the loan and Jenn for the scan!

The ELLE team, 2000

That’s me in the middle, in my Gucci gown (past season but who cares? As long as it makes you look and feel good, it’s a keeper), which I have only dared to wear twice, but both times, felt beautiful. That’s because it’s a booby gown – the boobs are the main attraction in this dress.

I was kinda chubby here — Big B was a little over a year old and I hadn’t lost all the post-partum weight yet. But I love this photo anyway because the ELLE girls and I were the dream team and we were all gorgeous. The men in our building used to part like the Red Sea when we walked through the lobby during lunch break — we were pretty inseparable.

Thanks to the extremely adventurous President of Hachette Asia-Pacific Christine Brendle (definitely one of my career heroes), I was brought on as editor-in-chief and allowed to hire the perfect person for every single position, and we were a rockin’ team. The magazine entered an era of new possibilities — a challenge because ELLE has a formula that you don’t mess with, but we did… (And it didn’t win me no brownie points with Hachette! But our Prez did not find fault with our numbers at the end of Year 1, which was well into 7 figures.)

Anyway, back to my boobs!

I loved them after childbirth. Before 1999 when Big B was born, my left breast was a good 25% larger than my right. So I had one boob that could fit in a soup bowl and another in a champagne glass.

But when the milk came in, RB (right breast) caught up in size. I failed at my first attempt at breastfeeding. My mom was convinced I was going to starve Big B by trying to breastfeed him when there was perfectly good formula waiting on the table. I caved after a week, and settled for pumping out what little breast milk I had for him, for a month.

(Incidentally, Mom wasn’t wrong. Big B is perfectly fine despite the fact he was not *gasp* a breastfed baby, and he is also rather brilliant.)

While I beat myself up for not “bonding with my child” (also bollix, because Big B and I are still very close now after 11 years and I hope it will be so for the next 50 years or however long God gives us), my boobs grew rather nice and big and round, and were, for the next 10 years, thoroughly appreciated by Mr Threez.

Incidentally, the rest of the ELLE team had really nice boobs too, especially Patsze Teo, my sales & marketing director. (The girl with the short hair on the ladder on the right). Plus she has big brains to match.

And of course Anita Kapoor (right of me in the photo), whose bosom was and still is legendary (upon which Big B as an infant fell asleep).

Looking at this photo, I so miss my team, boobs and all.

From left:

Xylia Lim, then sales manager, now mother-of-two and handling MediaCorp accounts.

Claudette Peralta, then The-Best-Dep-Ed-In-The-World, now Straits Times sub-editor

Alfrayda Ayob, then fashion stylist, now head of Womenswear team and Divisional Merchandising Manager at Lane Crawford Hong Kong. And pregnant with her first child!

Linda Lim, then marketing executive, now mother-of-three and the last I checked, a marketing director of a telco (Linda if you read this, please update!)

Tracy Lee (on ladder), then features editor, now Mrs Tracy Lee-Elrick and writer-at-large.

Stephanie Tay, then sales manager, now mother-of-two and working tai-tai.

Me, then editor-in-chief, now … just me.

Elizabeth Szepsy, then Luminous-And-Ultra-Gifted-Fashion-Director, now married to a duke (I hear) and mommy of two, with a new skincare line for babies, Planet Peach.

Anita Kapoor (laughin), then beauty editor, now Body Shop-ambassador, TV host and diva-about-town.

Joan Lim (with the red hair), then senior graphic designer, now mother-of-three and the last surviving member of this ELLE team!

Daphne Tso, then art director of ELLE, now art director of Harper’s Bazaar Singapore.

Patsze Teo (on ladder), then sales & marketing director, now very-important-executive (sorry sweetie, please update) at Diageo Hong Kong, and from what I see, blissfully married.

Marlina Aziz, then my sweet-and-very-precious PA, now a marketing honcho (I hear! Update please!)

The “I Have Breast Cancer” Meltdown

Last night I finally had a complete and utter breakdown, with uncontrollable sobs and all. A smorgasbord of grief.

The images of breast skin being propped up by belly skin and fat, of the eerie Barbie doll-like nippleless breast (worse, one and not both — it’s like Toy Story meets Chucky) played over and over in my mind like a looped tape of Carrie being screened inside a fairground haunted house.

I loved my nipple very much.

I wanted to keep my nipple.

I couldn’t imagine life without my nipple.

My nipple that had seen so many bras, nursed two (and a half) babies, served as plaything to Mr Threez … it was going to go.

I tried to think of all kinds of ways around it: maybe I could get a second opinion. Maybe Dr Hoe was wrong and miraculously the cancer was far away enough from the nipple to be spared.

Maybe God will take this extremely bitter and unfair situation from me.

I got down on my knees and prayed. I opened my Bible and cried into its pages. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane was so tortured at the impending pain He was about to face that He wept tears of blood and begged God: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

I can tell you, at that moment, I felt like I was transported into that garden. I smelt the moist denseness of the ground. The prickly shrubs scraped my skin as I walked but my inner pain was far more intense. Darkness pressed down on me, crushing the breath out of my lungs. My heart ached like it was going to drop out of my chest like a large rock. I cried out to God, feeling sorry for myself (let’s be honest). But yet, wanting to accept whatever is His will. I’m no hero — I wanted my nipple, I would fight for it. But at the same time, if it was God’s plan that I should walk through this then…

… I would have a meltdown right now and grasp at straws before I come to the place of peace.

May I have a complete healing miracle like all those people I read about in Benny Hinn’s or Smith Wigglesworth’s books?

May I have the cancer just fall out of my body like a black wet lump, cursed to its roots?

May I go for another scan and have the doctor tell me there’s no cancer at all?

Slowly, surely the answer came.

God always answers prayers, as they say. But His answer may not always be the one I hope to hear.

By bedtime I knew in my spirit that I was going to lose this breast and my nipple.

I told God, “Jesus, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross. Where is the joy set before me?

“Will there be any? Please say there will. Because I don’t want to go through this in vain. I don’t want to lose my nipple for nothing.”

I went to bed, tortured, the image of a gaping hole in my breast etched in my brain.

Of all nights, Mr Threez agreed that Middle B could sleep on the floor in our room. I didn’t want my daughter to see me lose it. For me, watching my mother weak and grieving over the way the cancer had ravaged her body, was one of the most painful and fearful experiences of my life. My mother had always been a very strong person. She could take a lot of crap and still carry on. I think I am the same to my kids — I am Mom and no matter how bad things get, Mom gets it’s all fixed. So that Middle B could see me not dealing — I didn’t want that at all. I didn’t want her to see me weak.

But as I tried to sleep the tears rolled down my face and trickled down my neck. Pretty soon, I started to suck back the phlegm dripping out of my nose, and that turned into sobs. First small ones that I tried to quell, but suddenly, they came like a wave of hiccups.

Mr Threez got up, alarmed. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t want to lose my nipple!” I wailed.

He paused for a moment. And said absolutely the wrong thing in a cross tone: “Then what do you want? Would you rather live with the cancer?”

Of course not! That wasn’t what I was talking about! But his words did strike me; perhaps I was being a tad vainglorious. I was fearing the cosmetic results of a procedure that had the power to save my life.

By then, Middle B had woken up and seen me sobbing. Her face was a mask of terror. She crept to her daddy and whispered, “Is mommy okay?” Finally, she climbed on the bed and gave me a big hug, bursting into tears. “I want my mommy to be okay! I want my mommy to be okay!”

That had a sobering effect on me. I hugged her back and said, “Mommy’s going to be just fine. I’m just scared about my operation, that’s all.”

Mr Threez looked at his two sobbing girls and wondered how he had gone to bed and woken up in a Nora Ephron movie. He tucked Middle B into bed, then climbed back into bed and kissed me.

Now that I got it out of my system, I fell soundly asleep.

Out Of My Hands

Going to service tonight was bittersweet.

I confess I don’t remember much of the sermon, without going back through my notes. But I remember singing “Out Of My Hands” during praise and worship.

It was like each word was a word God spoke to me, just me.

And each word was a word I spoke directly to Him.

“Out of my hands, I give my all to Thee.”

I know I am going through this really difficult time, and He has a purpose for letting it happen, and He is going to make something beautiful out of it.

“And now I live each moment serving only You, Jesus my Lord.”

Wept like a baby. And when service ended, I took a deep, deep breath. This would be the last time I would be able to go to church for many weeks. I was going to miss this place, this presence. But I will never be forsaken or left alone by Him.

OUT OF YOUR HANDS (City Harvest Church)

Out of Your hands
Into my heart
You gave it all for me

A love that is real
My emptiness filled
That’s when I first believed

Out of Your hands
Into my heart
You put Your songs in me

Rivers will flow
Healing me whole
That’s when my soul will sing

My heart can never comprehend
Love crucified the Man
Whose open hands were nailed for me
And now I live each moment
Serving only You
Jesus my Lord

Out of my hands
Back to Your heart
I give my all to Thee

Words aren’t enough
For me to start
To say what You mean to me

I surrender to Your love

\”Out Of My Hands\” by CHC Band

From the album Reign (2010).

And I Said I Would Never Have Plastic Surgery

Saturday 19 June

When I was a teenager, I swore I would never have plastic surgery.

It seemed to me a superficial and disrespectful thing for any woman to do (my version of women’s lib). Bigger boobs, fuller lips, higher cheekbones … what’s the point if it’s fake?

See, I should have known my words would come back one day and bite me in the ass.

I have watched friends go for breast augmentations (ah, the old silicone vs saline debate), breast reductions (always happier than the breast augmentation cases), butt lifts, tummy tucks, liposuction (the most unhappy of the lost), nose jobs, double eyelid additions, Botox, and (arguably not plastic surgery but hey, since we’re listing procedures) IPL, Lasik and Fraxel.

I’ve had famous plastic surgeons tell me “You’re very nice looking but I can make you prettier with just a little insertion here that will make your nose sharp like a Korean movie star.” I’ve had ambitious GPs tell me “Wah, you got a lot of skin tags on your cheeks, I can laser them out for you. It’ll cost $4,000.”

Okay, so it is more than a little ironic to me that this morning I am going to see a plastic surgeon. Dr Hoe works closely with Dr Andrew Khoo from Mount Elizabeth.

I had a chat with Karen’s hubby Swee Chong the night before. Have I told you he is the most soothing doctor after Prof Tham?

He tsked and gasped at all the right places as I told him my story. He asked, “So who’s your plastics doctor?”

Turned out he knows Andrew Khoo. “Tell him you know me. You are Quek Swee Chong’s friend.”

I laughed, “Does that mean I get a discount?” I am such a skintflint. But I’m jesting — my hospitalization insurance should cover it. What price a good doctor, huh?

Mr Threez and I turn up at Andrew Khoo’s cool-looking clinic (he has WIRED, Conde Nast Traveler and Vanity Fair for waiting room reading material. Win already). It’s a short wait and we’re ushered in for the consult.

I have a curiosity about plastic surgeons — some of them have really bad skin (which makes you think, “Hmmm…”) and some of them have super-taut, shiny skin like a plastic bag stretched over an orange (which sometimes doesn’t match their crepey necks or backs-of-hands). Andrew Khoo has good skin, neither pock-marked nor supertautandshiny. I take it as a good sign.

Like Dr Hoe, Dr Khoo takes out a sheet of paper and draws us our options, following a skin-sparing mastectomy by Dr Hoe.

1. Mastectomy without reconstruction. For that, he won’t be involved at all. I would come out of surgery with one breast and a minus sign.

“No,” I say to Mr Threez firmly. “Remember, I need to come out of my GA with TWO breasts. I don’t care how it’s done, you make sure it happens.”

2. Mastectomy followed by Latissimus Dorsi reconstruction. This method takes skin, fat, and tissue from the long muscle running the your armpit diagonally across the back, and tunnels it under the skin to form a breast. This is a pedicle flap, meaning that the blood supply from this back muscle will continue to service this area even when it transforms into a new breast.

“As there won’t be enough fat to fill the whole breast so I’ll insert a small silicone implant. It will be cushioned by the flap, so it’ll look more natural.”

Dr Khoo asks, “Do you do any sports?” Nothing strenuous: gym work, running on treadmill, yoga and Pilates. He says for women who play tennis or do dragonboating (which I hope to one day) he would rule out this method of reconstruction altogether.

Plus I would have a long scar across my back. “We normally try to make the incision where your bra strap would be,” he says, but I think my mind’s already waiting for another option.

*For a kosher medical explanation of how latissimus dorsi reconstruction works, click here.

3. Mastectomy followed by TRAM flap reconstruction. This method isn’t too different from #2 except for the location of the donor site. A TRAM flap is basically a tummy tuck-turned-breast. He would cut off the skin and fat from my lower belly (that paunch that never leaves you after your third child no matter how many body combat or Pilates classes you take), tunnel it under the skin together with the blood supply, and form a new breast under the breast skin.

I’m thinking: “A tummy tuck and a new breast! Two for the price of one!”

Dr Khoo speaks my thoughts out loud. “So you basically get a tummy tuck at the same time. For this, you wouldn’t need to have any implant in your breast, and if you need radiation treatment, you won’t have to worry about the implant hardening.”

I mean, come on! Who wouldn’t choose this if insurance covered it?! SOLD!

He names the downside factors: I can forget about ever getting a six-pack (my friend, that dream left when I had my firstborn), I might get hernia after surgery, I will find I cannot do everything at my Pilates classes…

Blah blah blah. Gimme the tummy tuck already.

There is a fourth option which takes just the skin and fat from the tummy area without the blood supply. But surgery is very long as he would have to cauterise all the blood vessels. “But,” says Dr Khoo a little grudgingly, “the end result is the most natural.” Obviously, he didn’t relish all that micro work.

So now Mr Threez and I know our options, and it’s clear that TRAM flap is my preferred method of reconstruction, Dr Khoo has to check and see if I have enough belly fat to make a new breast.

“I assure you,” I say, “I have enough fat.”

“You really can’t tell,” says Dr Khoo. “Some women have very little belly fat and the breast turns out 10, 15% smaller. What cup size are you?”

Gosh, I think I haven’t been asked that since some sleazy guy tried to pick me up at Zouk in the early 90s.


“Okay, let’s have a look.”

I go behind the curtain with Dr Khoo and a nurse, and take off my top and bra and pull down my pants and underwear to below my C-section scar.

“You are not a B cup lah,” Dr Khoo snorts. “You are a Japanese C-cup.”

“I don’t wear Japanese bras,” I sputter. I buy Elle McPherson underwear from Australia, sorry!

“You are definitely a C-cup,” he says.

“Honey!” I call out over the curtain. “Guess what I’m a C-cup!” I hear Mr Threez chortle.

“Oh dear,” Dr Khoo is now bunching my belly fat under my bellybutton. “I’m not that sure we have enough to make a same-size breast. You might have to be prepared for a 20% smaller breast.”

WHAT??!!! I worked hard dieting and exercising to get to this size six months ago and now I’m going to be penalised for it?! Unprintable thoughts enter my mind.

“You are large-breasted with a small waist,” declares Dr Khoo. Tragically, he is the absolute last person I wish to be hearing this from. My life is a black comedy. Glumly, I pull on my clothes.

As if to make me feel better, he pulls out post-op photos of previous patients. One thing I don’t think I quite realised up to this point is that, once you have reconstruction, your new breast will never look or feel or behave like the old one. It is, despite the fact it tries to look as close to the old one, just not the same.

We discuss the possibility of nipple reconstruction, which can be performed four to eight weeks after the initial reconstruction, or even later. Nipple reconstruction involves more surgery, and skin is taken from darker areas. “We would take a portion of the areola from the left breast,” he names, “Or behind the ear, and commonly the labia.”

I instinctively cross my legs. Ow. I would have to undergo genital mutilation to put back a “fake” nipple that will have no feeling. Is it worth it? Is it?

Having asked all our questions, I tell Dr Khoo honestly that I am hoping for a lumpectomy. He doesn’t seem to think I have much of an option but to have a mastectomy. “Your cancer is quite big already, it’s 3cm. And it’s close to the nipple. Anyway, you can discuss that with Dr Hoe. I will be on standby in any case.”

Standby fee: $2,000-$3,000. But I figure, worth it to try for a nipple-saving procedure first.

As we go out to pay for the consult, I suddenly remember.

“Oh! Dr Khoo, Quek Swee Chong says to say hi.”

Dr Khoo appraises my face. “You’re not his sister?”

I wish! Swee Chong’s sister is a great beauty. “No, I’m his wife’s friend.”

“Ah… now this is called ‘putting pressure on your surgeon’.”

We laugh, and say goodbye.

As Mr Threez drives me home, I can’t get the images of the nipple-less post-op breasts out of my mind. It’s really quite depressing.


The following articles have really educated (and entertained) me on the topic of reconstruction after mastectomy:

Life After Mastectomy: Adjusting to Reconstruction by Jeanette Vagnozzi

The Peg Procedures by MD Care

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