Better Be Good To Me

Breathe. Let go. And remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure. ~ Oprah Winfrey

I love Oprah. She is practical, frank and honest. With herself and with other people. She’s ending her talkshow — the final season of Oprah has just begun on US television — because times have changed, ratings are down, viewers are looking for something fresh.

When I worked at Vanilla, we had to find quotes for every “opening page” in the sections of the magazine. This was both a great and painful task. However there were two sources that never failed me: Eleanor Roosevelt and Oprah.

This quote from Oprah reminds me of the first time I read O magazine. It was such a new concept — this is Oprah in print and she is on the cover of the magazine every single month! (Unheard of in women’s magazines!) But it was the content that did it for me — she gave out wisdom on how to be good to yourself so that you are in shape to be good to others. If you can’t love yourself, there’s no way you can love others.

I always believed I looked after myself, but when my breast cancer happened, one of the most mind-blowing revelations I received was that I didn’t know how to be good to myself any more.

I didn’t know how to stop and do nothing, and simply rest.
I didn’t know how to say no to somebody asking for help.
I didn’t know where to draw the line in doing things for other people.
I didn’t know how not to give to others, mostly at my own expense.
I didn’t know how to express my feelings, for fear of hurting someone else.
I didn’t know how to write creatively anymore, because my mind was full of criticisms, comments, and the most famous retort of all “DON’T YOU HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO???” Like work for money, make more money so you have more money to give away to other people?

I had grown so fearful of being selfish that I was becoming one big blob of “selflessness”. I lost myself. I didn’t care about “stuff” — because “I’m a kind and generous person and that’s the only thing that counts.” The last time I went shopping for clothes was out of sheer necessity — I needed elastic-banded pants after surgery. I think manicures and pedicures are a waste of money. I used to cut my hair once a year and do home-colour — I reckon I saved at least $5000 in the last 7 years doing that. I used to think massages were the most wicked luxury (but now I need back and neck massages purely to ease the pain).

But being home after surgery, I faced a body that said to me, “STOP! I’m not going anywhere anymore. You. Have. To. Stop.”

And so, I was forced to stop. And consider my life. Yes, I had helped people for many years in a row. I had given most of my savings away and I’m not even Warren Buffett. Looking back the last 7 years, my bank account has dropped by 80%. Most of it had gone to a “bigger cause”. I don’t regret any of it, but it was quite stunning to do the sums. I can only pray I’ve “invested” in good ground, and that the people I put my faith and money in are now living better lives.

This year, because I had committed a certain amount to a project that is very dear to my heart, I told my husband we should forego our annual holiday. My kids need an increasing number of tuition classes and therapy, and our cost of living has escalated in the last two years due to growing children and aging parents. What we make, disappears before we get a chance to carve off a bit for saving.

Then the cancer happened. And I found myself regretting that I did not go on that holiday. I also came to realise I had put my self — my body, my mind, my personality — on hold for everybody else. I can’t bring myself to buy a designer item anymore: I was faced with a gorgeous Fendi snakeskin bag two years ago. It was a sample sale and it was going for a fraction of its original cost — a mere $1000 for a Fendi oversized hobo bag made from treated snakeskin that was iridescent in colour. It had my heart. I still can’t believe it but I walked away from that bag because I could use that $1000 for a shower head that my husband liked.

Practical Me won again. “I have too many bags already”, “How many shoulders do I have? Why do I need another bag?”, “It’s cruel to kill snakes for their skin.” i think I came up with 1000 excuses not to buy it.

I know how frivolous it sounds, but you’re looking at a girl who used to spend $3000 on clothes, shoes and bags every month. Being editor of ELLE meant I got discounts for everything – but it also meant I had to go shopping every month to make use of this privilege.

But while I am proud that I am no longer addicted to my Previously-Must-Haves — my YSLs, my Hermes, my Gucci — I didn’t realise I had swung the other direction and become Poverty Patsy.

Cancer has a way of waking people up. It may not be the most pleasant “wake up call” but it does make you stop and take stock.

• I have probably passed the mid-point of my life. I have less than half my life to go. And the hard truth is, cancer a second time is a very real possibility.
• I am going to be 43 — what legacy have I left for my kids (scary one, this one)?
• God gave me XYZ talents — what have I used them for (this one threw me into an abysmal depression and I am still feeling its effects). Am I living someone else’s dream instead of the one God gave me?
• Have I been a faithful steward and built lasting treasures (spiritual and physical) for my children and my children’s children? (A big NOT YET here. Terrifying. If I had died from this cancer, I would never have the chance!)
• If I had died from this cancer – would I regret not going on the holiday earlier this year? The answer is yes.

I watched Queen Latifah in the hilarious Last Holiday (2006). She plays a department store worker who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. She decides to cash out everything and “go out with a bang” — on her final holiday. It seems like a cliche — but right now, I can identify with that feeling. Finally, I deserve to be nice to myself, for once. (I still can’t say that without twinges of guilt, but hey at least I’m saying it.)

So I am going on that holiday at the end of the year. I know my money can be “better spent” helping others but … this time, the “needy person” is me. I just helped raise $600 monthly for a widow and her sons (it’s a 2 year commitment so she’s going to get at least $14,400 from the Women Make A Difference campaign we started) — and I’ve made sure I am one of the donors too. (Wanna join in our campaign for Madam Rokiah Bte Atnen? She lost her husband in a freak bus accident, and she has four sons to care for, one of whom has kidney failure. Click here to find out more.)

So, I think, spending $350 on a ticket to watch U2 — yes, for ME ME ME — is a small reward I can give myself for staying alive. I have put it off over and over again because it just seemed too much money to make myself happy. Well, TOUGH. I’m really doing it this time.

I'm going to watch U2 live! I'm going to watch U2 live!

I refuse to feel guilty about treating myself reasonably any more. I won’t have it. I don’t want to pretend that I am so selfless that everything I have is meant to be given away. I don’t hoard it, but I’m not going to kill myself for spending some of it on me and my own family for once.

The Bible says “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” (Galatians 6:9).

I’ve always read this passage as “doing good to others”. But “well-doing” is not just being good to others: it is being faithful to God, it is being consistent with my daily spiritual disciplines, it is to keep hoping when doubts come rushing in, it is keeping myself in a place where I will not be weary to keep doing what God wants me to do. I am weary — and it is because I am not taking care of myself so that I can run a long race. I am running on fumes, and that’s not how God wants me to run. I must be prepared to run the full race — I must be in good shape spiritually, physically, prospering in every way even as my soul prospers.

So why am I writing all this? Probably I am feeling guilty about doing something for myself, and need to justify it to myself. (I have to be honest, right?) But it’s a done deal. The tickets are booked. I am leaving on that jet plane and I am going to enjoy that U2 concert if it’s the last thing I do.

And I hope it is not!

The Making Of: My Breast Cancer Story In Lifewise Magazine

The cover of Lifewise, Sept/Oct 2010

My ex-boss Agatha Koh-Brazil (the woman responsible for encouraging me to be bold in the way I write, having been my boss at 8 Days, M3 and ETC magazines) came to visit me two weeks after my breast cancer surgery, together with my good friend and former colleague Joyce Lim.

I told them my gory story, and then Joyce told me hers (she had a bypass surgery done in January and showed off her scars to me — very macho I must say).

A week later, Aggie calls me and asks if I would agree to be interviewed for a custom magazine that she was helming, called Lifewise. It’s a publication for the National Healthcare Group.

Of course, one does not say no to Agatha Koh-Brazil. She has the skills of a hostage negotiator.

Assistant editor Nellie Tay emails me a list of questions, which I quickly answer, and then she warns me there will be a photo shoot soon.

About a month later, I am summoned to MediaCorp Publishing’s new office at the old radio building on top of Caldecott Hill. It was a highly nostalgic and dusty hike for me to go back there, seeing that I used to weave in and out of those studios during my rookie term at 8 Days. And having just left MediaCorp after Vanilla less than 2 years ago, many of my old friends could still be found in the hallowed hallways of Caldecott Hill.

The infamous (haunted) MediaCorp Publishing photo studio, where many of the 8 Days and iWeekly covers you see at newsstands have been shot, now takes up a large studio with a high ceiling. I really like it, but Steve Zhu, the head photographer for MPB, wrinkles his nose when I tell him. He then offers me some mooncake (I love Steve, he always has food).

Nellie brings me to meet two other lovely breast cancer ladies: Veronica Ang and Linda Ng, both of whom are Pink Paddlers, members of the dragonboating team of the Breast Cancer Foundation. (Hmm… I think this is destiny calling me. More on Pink Paddlers later.)

We all sit to have our makeup and hair done by Manisa Tan — we used her a lot for Vanilla so it was lovely to see her again. Then my ex-colleague and partner in my writing agency Michelle Bong comes to chitchat with me — we NEVER meet for fun so this was a real treat.

Suddenly I’m told, this is for the cover.

Yikes, nobody said anything about a cover. Secretly, I hope they have picked nice clothes for me! For all of us!

Stylist Gina Koh is a whip-thin, tall young lady who looks like Patti Smith in her younger days, so I was quite hopeful. However, I have to say the clothes were rather… safe. But still, the idea was, all shades of pink for the cover of Lifewise’s Sept/Oct issue, with different colours on the inside pages telling each of our stories.

I love photo shoots because you never come out looking like you feel. I quite like being “surprised” when I look at the shots on the hooked-up computer as we progress — it’s such a departure from the days when we had to do a “test shot” with a Polaroid camera, and walk around the room waving the Poly to dry it so that the image would come out. These days, you can shoot and delete on the spot, no surprises.

Linda and Veronica are very photogenic, and so game. They are changing poses like pros. I, on the other hand, am what you call a “kayu” during photo shoots, ie I find a position and hold it, just like my stocks. You would think after working so many years in fashion magazines I would know how to pose, but noooo…

Photographer Roy Lim (a real sweetie) gets us to squeeze together for a Charlie’s Angels shot (sans guns). This works best with Linda in the middle – she is such a good-looking girl. I’m shocked later to find out that her oldest daughter is 23 — and Linda is only 43! Good grief, my eldest is only 11! So it’s true that women who have their children early will always maintain their youth.

Roy works hard making us laugh and look like we’re best friends. Really, photo shoots are hard work — for the models but most of all for the photographer.

After our cover shot, we do our individual shots. Gina puts me in a diaphanous blue blouse from Dressy (it’s really cute). The colour looks good on me, so it’s all over very quickly, chop chop curry pop.

The photo crew & I, from left: photographer Roy, designer Frances, Gina (in hat), me, makeup artist Manisa, and asst ed Nellie.

Before I vamoose I visit Aggie and Joyce in their new office. It’s true, there is not a single window to be found. So I am quite relieved that I am no longer working at MPB. I’m a living thing – I need my sunshine to grow.

We sit and mock each other and laugh about old times, and our other pal Phyllis appears, looking like a million dollars as always. These are three of my oldest friends, and just being with them really made my day.

I love it that having had this cancer has allowed me to spend time with the people who mean something to me, who have left their marks on my life. In many cases, I might have quite happily gone on living from day to day, and missed every chance there was to connect with them again, to talk, to share, to be friends. That I’ve had the opportunity to stop and reconnect, to me, has been one of the greatest gifts to come out of this whole experience.

Joyce aka Xena (left), Aunty Aggie (middle) and I.

Lifewise’s full feature on Breast Cancer is an informative piece. You can read it here.

Time Is Short: Live Hard! (Or: “Have You Lived Your Dreams Yet?”)

Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture

I chanced upon this book at Kinokuniya two months ago. It’s called The Last Lecture, and it’s literally the last lecture by a college professor named Randy Pausch.

The title of the lecture was “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”. He gave it on 18 September, 2007.

Thing is, Randy Pausch was dying of terminal pancreatic cancer when he stood before that audience at Carnegie Mellon University, showing them images of his CT scans, and telling them he only had a few months to live.

But he didn’t talk about cancer in his lecture. Instead, he talked about his childhood dreams (among them, experiencing zero gravity, becoming Captain Kirk, and working as a Disney imagineer), and how he lived (or did not quite) each one.

The closing words of his book will haunt me forever. Pausch died on 25 July, 2008 at the age of 47, leaving behind his wife and three young children. Plus hundreds of thousands of fans of his book (probably thanks to Oprah, who had him on her show).

I thought I’d share this YouTube video with you. It makes me tell myself: “Life is short – live each day as if it’s my last. Make every minute count. How am I living my purpose today? Have I fulfilled my childhood dreams?”

“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12 (NIV)

Zoe Tay Plays Me! (Not)

I’m kidding, of course! What human could be more luminous than Zoe Tay?

But the beautiful Ms Tay does play a breast cancer patient in her new movie Love Cuts. She is a friendly seamstress whose positive nature touches lives all around her, from acquaintances to foreign workers.

I admire Zoe Tay greatly. When I began my writing career at 8 Days, she was already the Queen of Caldecott Hill. I remember our best-selling issue of that year was the one with Zoe on the cover in black and white. The photos were shot by Derrick Tay, and in the (then-rather-scandalous) spread within, in one particular shot, she wore a really sexy corset and fishnet stockings.

In the accompanying interview, she talked about getting whatever she wants — she was, then, the very picture of a Material Girl.

But today’s Zoe Tay is soft and gentle, a mother of 2.5, an actor who has in the last 15 years worked hard to push herself beyond the cozy comfort of being the biggest fish in the Singapore acting pond.

For her to take on this unglamorous role of being a cancer victim, I think it must have taken guts. (I adore Fann Wong but I doubt she would ever play a character that has cancer.)

I’m also happy to say the script was co-written by my churchmate Danny Yeo, who also goes beyond his own comfort zone in this effort.

Critics have mauled it for being schmaltzy, but most cancer movies sort of are (Beaches, The Bucket List, Love Story… and not just movies but reality shows too. Who can forget Jade Goody, the British “Big Brother” reality show star who died of cervical cancer in 2009).

If you ask me, I’d rather that movies about cancer were suitably sentimental, than over-truthful. The fact is cancer is an ugly, painful disease. It robs families of mothers and fathers, even children. It causes unimaginable stress not just to victims but more so to caregivers.

Love Cuts reveals the best sides of living with cancer — especially the longsuffering husband. He reminds me of my late father, who tirelessly cared for my mother and who stopped at nothing to make her feel his love.

And when you have someone who truly loves you, I guess, even a cancer victim can feel beautiful.

Catch Love Cuts now before it ends! Click here to buy tix.

Back To B-Cup: The New Breast Arises

With my beautiful friend Shabnam. My breasts look nearly normal now!

The past week has been an emotionally exhausting one. And the reason it took 6 days for me to write a new post, is because I’ve had insurance agents (mostly friends) talking to me endlessly about my case… and I’m, frankly, tired of it.

I just want to know that my case can be used by agents and policy-buyers alike, that both sides realise the loopholes that must be addressed, and that more women get comprehensive (and I MEAN comprehensive, not “comprehensive” as per my 1992 Prudential policy booklet, haha) coverage and safeguard themselves financially in the face of tragedy. I really believe my sharing my insurance story is win-win for both agents and policyholders — knowledge is power (and “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, as evidenced by me).

Because, honestly, after you have been through the shock of getting cancer, and the devastating psychological trauma of losing a breast, and the painful physical recovery, and the mental stress of realising you are no longer the “Superwoman” you thought you were, the absolute last thing you want to deal with is not being able to claim on your insurance. Do yourself a favour, please, while you are in good health.

Okay nuff nagging. NEXT!

Today marks 74 days since my surgery. Seems like a long time… but every morning I continue to wake up feeling like I am wearing a seat belt in bed. The tautness across my chest hasn’t gone away yet, but I am happy to report that the swelling has gone down.

Last fortnight, due to the stress (I think) of the New Paper story coming out and the mass hysteria that followed on my mobile and email, I developed a hard 5, 6-inch lump on the inner curve of my new breast. It felt like someone put a bumper under my skin. It was slightly inflamed, and felt tender.

I made an appointment to see Dr Andrew Khoo. It’s good to have a surgeon who is truthful and reassuring at the same time. He took a look at the hardening and said, “Hmm, that’s necrosis of this part of the flesh, which means I trimmed off some of the blood supply to create this slope here to match your left side.”

What I needed to do was to massage it with some moisturiser or to sit in the bath and massage it.

Today, after about six days of massaging the lump is just 2 inches long. Also, I realised with great delight this past weekend, that the swelling has gone down about 80 percent!

Looking at my chest, Mr Threez nodded his approval. “They look equal now.” Dr Khoo seems still a little put out that my new breast is 10-15% smaller than my right but it’s barely noticeable. Provided it doesn’t shrink anymore, so that’s my prayer of vanity this season.

So now when I wear my bras, I don’t look like I forgot to take the padding out of the right side. Thank God!

This was taken about 8 weeks ago (mirror image). My new breast (left in this photo) was very outsized.

I have a lot to thank God for — that I am alive is the number one thing. That I still get to enjoy my children, that I get to wake up next to the man I love, that I still get to go to church, that I get to bake biscotti to destress, that I get to write… all the things I love to do, I still get to do (except maybe eat barbecued food but that’s a small sacrifice).

And so when I look at my nearly normal breast, it is one more thing to thank God for. It seems like a promise from Him to me that, though I am still feeling the physical effects and complete healing seems so far away now, I am slowly returning to normal. I’ll get there one day.

The Vampires Strike Back (And Some Umpires Too)

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No, that’s not the vampire who called me. I wish!

The last 48 hours, my mobile has kept ringing. I am almost thankful my Blackberry Bold is on its last legs and the battery zaps out around 12 noon if I’ve engaged in more than 30 minutes of talk time.

The callers: friends or friends-of-friends who are insurance agents, determined to set me straight after reading the New Paper article yesterday about my failed claim for DCIS under my critical illness policies.

“You should have read the fine print” was quite a common (exasperated) response. “Everybody knows DCIS is not covered.”

I guess I am not everybody, then. And if you walk down the street and ask 10 people, if you can get 1 who can tell you what DCIS is, I’ll buy you two pints of Haagen Dazs Caramel Biscuit And Cream.

Other priceless responses from insurance agents included:

• “But this other plan covers you for DCIS what.” (erm, hello, that’s not the plan my agent sold me despite knowing my risk for breast cancer. That’s my whole point. Why did 3 agents sell me the same thing knowing I should buy something that covers me for every stage of cancer? And now that I have had DCIS and a mastectomy, can you get your other plan to cover me? If not, shut up.)

• “DCIS where got mastectomy one? No need lah, chemo and radiation can already, for DCIS and Stage 1.” (Okay lah, you get cancer across 5cm of your breast tissue and tell me if you want to take the risk of chemo vs removing the d*** cancer from your body.)

• “I can’t speak for Prudential but if you had bought from my insurance company you would get blahblahblah…” (Where were you when I was draining my hardearned cash into dud policies?)

But to their credit, some friends who are agents were upset for me, and gave me some great tips, including:

• Don’t surrender my policies yet. Surrendering is a sure way of losing out because the break even point is something like 15 years or above. I am only considering cashing out one policy, but we’ll see how it goes, now that I have sincere advice, I am not rushing into anything just yet.

• Make sure my hospitalization plans (Medishield Plus) are auto-renewed. Any lapse in payment will make your policy null and void. And don’t be too confident that your GIRO/CPF “automatically” went through. My friend Karen (from Great Eastern) gave me an example of a CPF-deducted plan in which CPF did not automatically transfer the annual premium to the insurance company, and this lady who had cancer could not claim for her hospitalisation.

• Looking out for my children’s plans. Make sure your children are covered for hospitalisation. My Three Bs are all included in my Medishield Plus policies. I will be going through them with my financial planner to make sure they’re water-tight.

But the call I didn’t expect that came, and made me glad, was my woman Prudential agent. She explained that the terminology that doctors use in their post-surgery reports is the only source upon which decisions are made for payouts (or not). I’m not 100% sure what she means, but I’ve sent all my lab and histological reports to her, and she’s making an appeal.

Even if it doesn’t happen, I am just happy she made the effort to call me, touch base, make the effort to repeal the rejection.

But she was the only one out of my three agents who were notified by Prudential that my claim was rejected, to do this.

So, not to sound sexist, but if you are a woman reading this, I would suggest that you buy your life/health policies from another woman. Only a woman can truly comprehend the severity of losing a breast. Not that male agents cannot be sympathetic, but they would not feel for it the way they would if their client had testicular cancer.

I’m grateful for all the knowledge that has come flooding into this blog. I hope whoever reads it will gain something from it, pass it on, link this to a friend’s FB/Twitter/email, and make a difference.

While you are in good health, make sure your insurance coverage is really sufficient. It’s worth the while to do your homework, and I hope this blog will be effective “required reading”.

Let’s Go Fly A Kite (And See If We Can Pee Our Troubles Into The Wind)

Little B brandishing her kite-flying chops today.

When the going gets tough, the tough go kite-flying.

This past week has probably been one of the craziest, busiest of my life — and yet I did not do a stitch of work.

Of course there’s the whole critical illness insurance debacle, which has caused equal amounts of anger from friends who couldn’t believe that I had a mastectomy but didn’t get a payout, as it did from insurance agents who weren’t so happy that I was ripping CI coverage apart with my bare hands (or pens). See my next post “The Vampires Strike Back”.

Then, faced with the frustration of not being able to sit and work at my laptop for more than 90-120 minutes at a go (I set an egg timer on my desk to remind myself to get out of my seat every 90 minutes), I went to see my partner to tell her the bad news that I couldn’t carry on. Being her, she jumped to a solution that bought us both some time. I don’t know if I can get over this in time to move on along with her, but God has given me a partner who really is in it with me, and I thank Him for her.

On top of it all, my mother-in-law’s maid (who does the cooking) asked to go on home leave these 2 weeks (school hols! Murder!). But her father is undergoing an operation and she wants to be home, so she left last night, and we won’t have her back for 16 days.

To add on to that, my maid (who helps me with Little B) got a job in the Netherlands, thanks to her sister who lives there. So she’s leaving us in three weeks, and Little B’s heart will be just a little bit broken… I am very very NOT looking forward to that.

Plus I pulled my back on Sunday, catching Little B before she leaped over two chairs.

So … fed up with staying home stewing over my list of “issues” I packed the Three Bs, the maid and the mother-in-law and we headed for Marina Barrage, which I had only experienced at the Social Entrepreneurship Awards last November.

There is something liberating about flying a kite. You just have to be ready, and when the wind catches your kite, it pulls it up, up, up into the heavens, and all you are staring at is your moth/face/Doraemon (or in my son’s case, a sotong) and God’s big blue sky.

But it takes patience. Often I try to run around catching the wind, like I’m catching a break. It doesn’t work — the kite flutters and spins and then, plooop, falls nose first to the ground.

But if I stand and wait, holding my kite ready, feeling for the moment that the wind willingly sweeps it up and draws it higher, higher, it’s like my kite could fly on forever.

Yesterday my cell group leader’s wife called me. She has been through her own horror story of DVT, a broken leg, PTSD, but by God’s amazing grace, she is up and at it today, fit as a fiddle, travelling for mission work. I guess it really makes a difference when someone speaks to you who has walked that road before, who knows the moments you feel so hard done by you just break down and cry, who understands the depths of the emotions that are triggered by something as simple as a hug.

She reminded me that God saved my life. That I was rescued for a reason. That my blog has helped many in various ways. That I have been given a gift — that is, to write — and that I must use it.

It made me think, I have used my writing skills less and less as the years went by. I’ve entered into “editing mode”, and now that I think about it, it’s the editing that stresses me out. The reading, the correcting, the restructuring (the vomiting…). It offers me no joy; it is a job to be done. Period.

Which is not to say I don’t enjoy the planning and the thinking part of being an editor. I love it. But maybe, as her words sank into me, it’s time to go back to my gift: To write.

I joked that I am having writer’s block, and she snorted. “You just need to be the vessel. God will speak through you. The Holy Spirit will bring the anointing. You just need to be willing, and to obey.”

I just need to be that kite, waiting for the wind beneath my wings to carry me up, to raise me higher, to do in me what I am created to do. I cannot do it in my own strength, like a kite is useless without wind and an anchor.

But with Him all things are possible.

Big B's sotong in the sky.

Of course, my Three Bs did not have such an epiphany as I, but they each had their turn at bringing that kite up, up, up into the sky, and — like any proud mom would say — they were real naturals.

Finally, sunburnt, and with the breeze becoming intermittent, we called it a day and headed for lunch, and finally, a well-deserved ice kacang at Terminal 3.