All Clear: 2 Years On

Last Thursday I went back for my now-annual checkup with my favourite breast specialist in the world, Dr Hoe Ah Leong.

That was after nearly 4 hours of ultrasounds and X-rays and the mammogram and waiting around for my films and report.

The mammogram technologist that served me was so funny. Whenever I go back for my scans, I need to bring my old films so that the doctors who write up the reports have a comparison, and so would my surgeon. The technologist, a pretty young Filipina, shook my old films out, and stood, stunned for 20 seconds.

“Ma’am, you did your mammogram last year?”
“How come I only have your films for one breast, there should be films for two.”
“I wish there was two. I had a mastectomy in 2010, my dear.”
“OHHHHH!” Pause. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

I must have unnerved her because as she was positioning me for the mammogram on my left breast she kept failing to get my boob in the right position. She knocked my collarbone. She pinched my armpit. She raised the plate. She lowered the plate. Finally, she just squashed it as much as she could and took the darn shot. I could have told her she didn’t press the plates down hard enough. (True enough Dr Hoe later said, “Hmm, this mammogram is a bit fuzzy at the bottom.”)

Next was the ultrasound. My doctor had ordered up scans for my breast, my liver and my gall bladder. There’s something about an ultrasound scan that always makes me edgy. Especially if the technologist is scarily silent. Good thing i got another chatty PInoy girl. Still, the few moments she rolled over one spot from every angle made my heart skip a beat.

After the long wait for my films and reports, I hoofed it to Dr Hoe’s clinic on the third floor of the main medical centre.

Christine, the nurse who christened me Liang Po Po two years ago, took one look at me and said, “How about you go and take a nice long tea break?”

My buttocks were complaining that I was oppressing them with so much sitting down, but I took a look at the two poor teenagers asleep on the waiting area couch as their mother and father waited to see Dr Hoe, and I made an about-turn and went to get a coffee from Delifrance.

Finally at 5.45pm I saw my beloved doctor, looking as cheery as ever, with his ubiquitous blue shirt as neat as it probably had been at 8am.

“You look good, Theresa!”
“You too, Dr Hoe!”
We grinned at one another.
“Okay, so your reports look good. Come come, let’s take a look.”

One thing I love about Dr Hoe is how he operates like a teacher. My mammograms, chest X-ray and ultrasound scans were all clipped up on the lightbox for examination.

There is a single calcification in my left breast, which had been there last year too. Calcifications are not a good sign if they appear in a cluster. My right breast mammogram, two years ago, was peppered with large clusters of calcifications especially just above the nipple area.

“But this single calcification is all right, nothing to worry about,” he assured me.

For breast cancer patients, if cancer recurs, it would usually be in the other breast, the lungs, or the organs nearest to the breast area, like the liver and gall bladder.

All my scans were clear. The only thing of note was that I had a little cyst in my left breast, which also showed up in last year’s scans.

“Probably a fatty piece,” said Dr Hoe with such confidence that any worry I had melted away.

With the help of his nurse, I lay on the examination bed while he palpated my breast, neck and armpit areas. There are also instances where lumps form in the neck or armpit, “but your lymph nodes were clear—remember we did the test on the sentinel nodes. DCIS prognosis is excellent.”

I was deeply happy to hear all he said. Some days, I admit, I take my survival for granted. Some days, I forget, had I not acted on the weird pain my breast, I might be facing a very different today.

True, every time I see Dr Hoe I am reminded that cancer could recur. Some days, that casts a shadow over my heart.

But I thank God that I have Him—and truly, I am living on time that He has so kindly given me. I am determined to make the best use of it as I can, but I am also peaceful, knowing “to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

730 Gifted Days



Despite the pains of Internet connection in the middle of Healesville, Melbourne, I cannot let today end without a shout of joy and a holler of gratitude to my God who sustains me and keeps me alive to enjoy all I have…especially a family vacation, the five of us in the gorgeous Yarra region of Victoria.

Today marks two years since I woke up with that pain in my breast that would turn out to be cancer. Right now I am nursing a very different kind of pain: I am sitting in bed with a koyok stuck to my neck and shoulder, having strained my neck sleeping with two dancing princesses two nights ago ( or shall I say, kungfu…princesses)?

A better pain any day!

So happy to be alive!
So happy to be able to enjoy my family!
So happy to have the opportunity to cook and do laundry and eat popcorn by the fire with my 3 kittens!
So happy to listen to my hubby explain why Vibram Five Fingers are better than Nike anything (and not necessarily agreeing)!
So happy to know God loves me so much I get the gift of every day!

So happy I can blog from my iPad and express my gratitude.


Farewell, Emma, See You Again

Last night at 12.10am Emma Yong passed away.

Words are pathetic, ineffective, lacking, a rough-hewn tool to express what so many hearts and souls are experiencing now: the loss felt by her husband, her family, her friends, her community, her country — the lives, the stages, the atmospheres she lit up with her Tinkerbell voice and indefatigable hope.

My first memory of her will ever be my favourite. Emma in her RJC uniform standing behind the counter at her aunty’s comicbook shop on the second floor of Serene Centre, calling me “Aunty Theresa” (cough, sputter — I was merely 27 to her 18), asking if she should pursue theatre overseas or locally.

I am glad she brought her immense talent home. We never spoke much after that, but she made her dreams come true and for that I was so, so glad.

She gave of her face and her fame to an anti-trafficking campaign I ran for my women’s group, Women Make a Difference, together with the other two precious Dollies, Selena and Pam.

Cancer might think it’s won this round, Emma, but I believe you ultimately won the battle you so valiantly fought. I believe God heard your prayers, and I believe I will see you again, singing in your gorgeous Tinkerbell voice with the angels as your backup.

The Singapore Woman Award: Beauty For Ashes

It started with a Facebook message from my friend Sarah, whom I got to know as a volunteer writer for the church news website, which I serve on as editor.

She asked if she could nominate me for the Singapore Woman Award, a people’s award run by MediaCorp, this year headed, as it has for the last three years, by Radio.

I laughed when I saw her message – don’t get me wrong, I love Sarah, I was so honored and touched that she’d even thought of me – because what Sarah didn’t know was that I was on the planning committee for the very first Singapore Woman Award, when I was the editor of Vanilla magazine and we helmed the award.

I said yes to Sarah, making a mental note to have coffee with her soon, and forgot all about it.

A few weeks later, I was having dinner with my family when my phone rang. I never pick up my phone during dinner, so that itself was a miracle. On top of that, it was an unknown number.

It was Jo’An from MediaCorp, who chirpily congratulated me for being one of the three honorees selected. I didn’t know what it meant at first, until she said “You and two other nominees were selected out of over 100 entries to be our top three.”

Ohhh. Now I was in shock. Jo’An told me she would be in touch about the interviews that had to be done before the event night, which was on 22 March.

I hung up and looked at my son. “Hey, I’m one of the top three nominees for the Singapore Woman Award.”

He raised his eyebrows and gave me a lopsided grin. “Cool.”

When I told my 11-year-old, she said with confidence, “You’re going to win, Mom.”

When I told my husband, he said “Let’s go and celebrate!” (We went out for wings and beer that Friday.)

All this before I even knew who the other honorees were. I already felt like a winner to my family, and it was all that mattered. It didn’t even occur to me to ask who the other two ladies were.

But when I did find out, I was pretty much flummoxed by how I even made the top three. One was Bridget Tan (whom I knew as Bridget Lew Tan), the founder of HOME (Human Organisation for Migrant Economics), who passionately fights for the rights of migrant workers in Singapore, and the other was Cassandra Chiu, a woman who lost her sight at the age of eight but who now runs a counselling practice called The Safe Harbour.

I mean, hello! If there was a class lighter than “flyweight”, that’s what I felt like next to these women.

Over the next two weeks the three of us came together to speak on radio shows (Gold 90.5 and Class 95) and TV (AM Live), and as we did, I got to know my co-honorees better.

Cassandra in the Gold 90.5FM studio with Gurmit Singh (Mark and Brian Richmond were there too)

Cassandra in the Gold 90.5FM studio with Gurmit Singh (Mark and Brian Richmond were there too)

Cassandra’s story blew me away. She was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease at the age of 8 and began losing her sight. Taunted and teased by her classmates, she didn’t have an easy childhood, but her mother constantly reminded her not to focus on her one disability but on her many other capabilities. She represented Singapore as a swimmer, and busked for 10 years, earning enough to put herself through school to get her Master’s degree. When nobody would give her a job, she decided she would start a counseling practice to make a living helping others.

But the thing she said she was proudest of was the fact she was a mother. Her little daughter Cady is six, just like my Little B. During the commercial break at one of our radio interviews, we sat chatting about motherhood. As if she could read my mind, she said, “My mother never got rid of me when she knew I had this illness. Besides, if Cady has it (Stargardt’s), I’m the best possible mother for her because I can guide her through this.”

Those words just struck my heart like an arrow. Her deep faith, her mental strength, her ability to see the good in every situation — it truly amazed me! I’ll be honest — if I could vote, Cassandra would get my vote for the Singapore Woman Award.

(From left) SWA 2011 winner Bernise Ang with Cassandra, Esme, me and Bridget
Bridget’s work I was a little more familiar with. The first year I co-founded Women Make A Difference, a women’s group that got women together to raise funds to help those in need, we raised funds for women and children who were trafficked. Bridget had started HOME for about two years, and already she was helping women who had been trafficked into Singapore, including a young 16 year old girl who had been forced to service hundreds of foreign workers. The girl, when rescued, could not speak for months. Bridget and her team patiently worked with her, giving her shelter, friendship and security, till finally she opened up.

WMD gave its first year funds to HOME to help pay for its rental. It was only for three months’ rental but it was our small gesture to show our support for her work, which has grown into two centres — one for women and one for men. Her unflagging fight against trafficking was noticed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called her a “Trafficking-In-Persons Hero”.

My video playing in the Island Ballroom. Photo: Daniel Poh

My video playing in the Island Ballroom. Photo: Daniel Poh

The Awards Night, held at the Island Ballroom of the Shangri-La Hotel, was like a high school reunion for me. Having worked for MediaCorp three periods of my life — I was an Arts writer for 8 Days (1991-1994), the editor-in-chief for ELLE (1999-2002) and finally I was editor for Vanilla (2007-2009). I enjoyed meeting my old friends, like Hossan Leong and Charles Ho (both of whom I worked with on my last public play, ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky, with The Necessary Stage); Rose Tan, Mark Richmond, Georgina Chang, Pierre Png, Florence Lian, Vernetta Lopez… Lovely people who I have had the privilege of interviewing or working with in one way or another.

My kids and mom-in-law with Pierre Png, Gurmit Singh and Mark Richmond.

My kids and mom-in-law with Pierre Png, Gurmit Singh and Mark Richmond.

It was marvelous to see Laura Hwang, who was on our judging panel the first year and who remains on the panel, this year the head judge. Elim Chew, my sister-in-Christ and a friend I deeply treasure. Saleemah Ismail, my woman-power buddy and former President of UNIFEM, who opened my eyes to the atrocities around us and to the things we can do to help women and children.

With Mr Threez, Big B and Middle B. Photo: Daniel Poh

With Mr Threez, Big B and Middle B. Photo: Daniel Poh

But the people I was happiest to see were those seated at my table. MediaCorp so kindly provided each of the honorees their own table — we could invite 7 guests and our tables were each hosted by two MediaCorp personalities. My very special guests were my husband, my mother-in-law, Big B (looking so handsome in a brand new POA shirt I bought him that afternoon) and Middle B, my best friend Karen (what a rare treat! Our schedules are too crazy for regular meet-ups), Sarah my nominator, and Yung Shin, my colleague from City News, who did a wonderful interview with me after. I did consider bringing Little B but she wouldn’t have had the patience to sit all night, way past her bedtime. *I missed her*

She who started it all: Sarah Teo

She who started it all: Sarah Teo. Photo: Daniel Poh

Pierre and Georgina were the two MediaCorp personalities assigned to our table. I was chuffed to sit with Pierre — it seemed a lifetime ago when he first came to our ELLE office, intimidated by our (admittedly) beautiful, well-dressed and well-educated team of women. He was such a different young man then, before Singapore discovered what a model of true love he stood for, when he donated part of his liver to save his then-girlfriend Andrea D’Cruz, now his wife. Andrea I had known since my earlier days as editor of Female, when she was one of our 50 most gorgeous women. They are one of the most beautiful and loving couples I have ever witnessed. Andrea was one of the first to leave me an encouraging comment on this blog — I was truly touched by her words.

With my sweetest, deepest, lovingest best friend Karen Tan, the most talented actress in the world.

With my sweetest, deepest, lovingest best friend Karen Tan, the most talented actress in the world. Photo: Daniel Poh

To have my bestie with me was such a treat. She caught my eye and laughed when the videos were screened. It was so obvious to her too, that it was crazy to even be in the running against a crusader like Bridget and an overcomer like Cassandra. I mean, what had I done? I started a blog. I spoke about closing the gaps in insurance policies. It seemed to me… so insignificant, compared to my co-honorees. But I was glad, so glad in my heart, that God and the judging panel saw fit to put me there among the three. I didn’t think I was going to win, but it really didn’t matter, because I had already received such a reward, which was this night!

So it came as a complete surprise — shock! — to me when the judging video came on. It was Laura, speaking about this year’s competition, and how stuck the panel was when it came to selecting one winner, and so… THEY SELECTED THREE!

My brain hadn’t caught up yet, but I was staring at Karen and she was mouthing, “You won!” And I remember frowning and thinking, “Huh? What’s going on?”

Mr Threez said, “You all won!” And it dawned on me, that there were THREE winners of the Singapore Woman Award!

As I got up, my husband kissed me. Then Pierre took my hand and said, “You have to hold my hand. I’m freezing!” And we walked to the stage together with Gurmit Singh escorting Bridget and Tay Peng Hui guiding Cassandra and her seeing-eye Labrador Esme.

I know it sounds cheesy but my heart really did overflow with thanksgiving. I knew God and only God could have worked this out that all three of us were the winner. Because each of us is so different, and the work He has given us to do and the strength He has given us to do it with is worth celebrating. Standing there on stage, I prayed that my words would glorify Him.

Three winners for this year's Singapore Woman Award - praise God!

Three winners for this year's Singapore Woman Award - praise God! Photo: Daniel Poh

Each of us got to say a few words, clutching the glass trophies that Guest-of-Honour Madam Halimah Yacob presented to us. Cassandra was ever eloquent, expressing her thanks that all three of us won. Bridget held her award up and said, “This is a political statement. It is not just an award for me, but for all the women in HOME, this is your award!”

I was, honestly, still stunned, and said so. Then I thanked God I was alive today and standing here. To my surprise, the room cheered and clapped.

When I got back to my table, Karen was weeping (and smiling). Later, she said, “You know, when you thanked God you’re alive, I remembered how scared I was when you told me…”

It’s been nearly two years, but some memories are as vivid as the moment they happened. I am grateful that God has given us more years to be besties — I pray we’ll make the most of it!

Middle B, looking so beautiful, was so proud of me. I have to say that’s one of the best feelings in the world, when your children aren’t embarrassed you’re their parent! “You should have been the only winner,” she said, in her innocence.

Receiving my award from the authentic and brilliant Minister of State, Madam Halimah Yacob

Receiving my award from the authentic and brilliant Minister of State, Madam Halimah Yacob. Photo: Daniel Poh

The rest of the evening was a time of mass hugging and photo-taking. I was glad to have time to chat with Madam Halimah — who surely must become one of our women Ministers soon, now that we are severely lacking one — and to introduce her to my husband.

We came home, all happy, kids all sleepy but in a good mood. As I floated off to sleep, I thanked God for His lovely present. Truly the words of Isaiah 61:3 came true for me tonight.

“To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.”

He gave me beauty for my ashes; joy for my mourning.

For every woman who passes through this blog, who is suffering in one way or another, I dedicate this award to you.


The following week, Bridget, Cassandra and I returned to 938 Live to do a radio interview with Howie Lim and Keith De Souza. As the ladies and I sat in the waiting room chatting, we discovered we were all convent girls — Bridget was from KC, Cassandra from IJ Bukit Timah, and I was a Canossa Convent-St Anthony’s girl. They are both Catholic, I a Christian, and all we do — we realise after sharing — we do for God. It tickled me as much as it warmed my heart to know that God was working through the three of us, in such different yet such similar ways.

I Love WordPress For This: 2011 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 24,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 9 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Farewell To “Rose”

Tonight I went to the wake of my friend “Rose”.

I can’t name her because I haven’t asked her family for permission. But maybe when I do I can change her name here and add a photo. Which I really want to, because Rose was one of the most astounding-looking women I’d ever seen. Tall, slender, with that perfect haircut that Mia Farrow made famous in Rosemary’s Baby, and green-grey eyes, she kind of “killed” you even before she opened her mouth. And then, when she did, that commanding flow of perfect English—the very sign of a convent girl upbringing, further polished in the US and UK—rendered you speechless. Mostly because suddenly, you became very conscious of your singsong Singaporean English.

Rose and I discovered our cancers in the same year—she a few months earlier than I. She had an inoperable tumour on her pancreas. I had a large mass in my breast that necessitated a mastectomy. When I first saw her after my surgery she chided me for being all bent.

“Your brain tells you you can’t stand up straight, but you can,” she said to me. “I went through that abdominal surgery and I thought I couldn’t but you know, I just decided to sit up straight, and I could!”

That was Rose — no nonsense, no self-pity.

We were never very close but she supported the social causes that I championed through my women’s group. And she always had a witty comeback every time we spoke. She loved fine wines, fast cars, and Michelin-starred cuisine—always an interesting topic to me.

But when we were struck the same year, a bond was forged. When she began chemo, I was home, recovering from my surgery. I visited her one day with a basket of organic honey and fruit, and we chatted and prayed, and before I left she hugged me tight and kissed me on the cheek. It was the greatest show of affection I had ever seen from her.

We text-messaged each other occasionally, just keeping tabs on each other. She sent me delicious recipes which contained some anti-cancer ingredients (but more importantly, were yummy), and we discussed cooking over emails.

The day she came to my place with a basket of goodies after her chemo had proven resoundingly successful and she was well enough to eat, go out and pretty much be herself, I sadly wasn’t home.

She was well for a good 10 months before things began to unravel. I was, admittedly, devastated to hear that her cancer markers were up and she was feeling quite despondent.

It became quite hard to get hold of her, as she got sicker and sicker and the simplest forms of communication—phone calls, SMSes—proved difficult for her. I got used to getting a reply two days after my last text message.

Finally I got to see her, with our friend Ros. She looked a shadow of what she used to be. At that point, she was pretty depressed. She said she told her doctor, no more chemo. But the pain was getting to her, and she was concerned that she wouldn’t get the care she needed at home, as her helper also had her nonagenarian mother to look after. We located places she could have gone to stay, but for some reason, she remained at home. We took her for a short “stroll” in her wheelchair, and sat amidst the greenery at the bottom of her block and listened to her dream about all the food she wanted a final taste of: babi pongteh, a perfectly grilled lobster, marron (she pronounced it like a French word, without the “r”s), the perfect wine…

As we both worshiped at City Harvest Church, and she was in my zone, I told my zone leader about her condition. He arranged for Pastor Kong Hee to visit her that weekend, and went along with him. Knowing how crowded it would be if there were so many visitors, I stayed home and SMSed her to arrange the time and check that she was okay for the visit.

Rose was most excited to have Pastor visit her. It seemed to me that having seen him, having had him pray with her and encourage her, lifted her spirits tremendously.

After he had left, I SMSed her to ask, “How did it go with Pastor? Are you feeling okay?”

She SMSed back immediately, “It was wonderful. He’s yummy!”

I laughed out loud. That was good old Rose and her sparkling wit—I hadn’t seen that Rose in a while.

She had learned of a doctor in the US who had, through a radical program, helped another pancreatic cancer patient to go into remission. I helped her send her scans and reports to this doctor, and after two weeks, I received a positive reply that suggested that she fly there—the doctor believed he could help her.

That’s when things got worrisome. I couldn’t reach her. My SMSes, emails and calls were met with deafening silence. In my paranoid moments, I thought she might have gone to a hospice and not told me. Finally, after nearly a week I got an SMS from her helper to say she had fallen down but she’s okay, that she was very tired and we shouldn’t visit yet.

After that, another stretch of radio silence. Ros got as worried as I did, and tried to call. Finally she said, “let’s just show up at the door and tell her we need to pray for her.”

Hating to impose, but grateful that Ros had the nerve to suggest this imposition that Rose would surely not appreciate, we went and knocked on her door. The first hint I got was the absence of her wheelchair. Rose’s mother opened the door, and said, “Rose has gone to hospital.”

By God’s grace, her mom had the number of Rose’s brother, who had accompanied her to the hospital. Finally, another human being we could call, someone who knew what was going on. When he picked up the phone and talked to Ros, he explained that she had not been able to eat without vomiting, and that she was in a lot of pain, hence the hospital stay. Ros then heard him asking Rose if we could come and see her, and she heard Rose say no, she was too tired.

In my heart, I knew things weren’t good. I had watched my mom being unable to hold down even one sip of water–it was an indication that the cancer had progressed. It became even more urgent for us to see her, to pray with her, to comfort her. But it seemed she was pushing us away.

In desperation, I contacted my zone leader, who was traveling. He—being the superhero he has always been—immediately contacted Pastor Kong, who immediately said he wanted to see Rose the next day.

I couldn’t reach Rose directly, but her brother had given us his son W’s number. W was helping to keep his aunt company while she was in hospital, and so I arranged for Pastor and I to visit Rose. Of course, Rose was delighted to see her favourite pastor again.

When we walked into her room, I took one look at Rose’s now-jaundiced face and memories of my mother flooded over me. She looked just like my mother when she was in her final days, sitting in her hospital bed, waiting for me to massage her feet. The rush of emotion was unexpected and overwhelming.

Rose couldn’t stop grinning. It was wonderful to see. She had her full wits about her, and she was even flirty with Pastor.

“It’s so good to see you smile,” he said.

“Your smile is so infectious, Pastor,” she drawled. “I can’t help but smile looking at you.”

W and I laughed, listening to them banter.

As Pastor read Psalm 23 to her, she completed the verses. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” she said. Tears came to my eyes. I pretended to yawn.

She had such a fighting spirit to live, and Pastor encouraged her. I felt ashamed of my dread and certainty that, humanly, she did not have long to live. I guess my experience with my mother has “fixed” me this way. Where was my mustard seed of faith?

I shared with her the US doctor’s emails, and she became excited at the possibility of a cure. She sent me off to find out how much the flight would cost, and I left the printouts for her to show her oncologist and get the green light to fly.

Four days later, just as I was discussing with my zone leader who might accompany Rose to the US if the doctor allowed her to fly, I received a call from W.

“The doctor says aunty only has 30 minutes more. Can you and Pastor come?”

I dropped everything, grabbed my wallet and ran to the cab stand and arrived at the hospital in 20 minutes — but I was still five minutes too late. Rose had left us.

I stood and gazed at her face, so peaceful, like she was sleeping—she had gone in exactly the same way my mother did. Heartbeat slowing, then irregular, then stopping. She had floated into the arms of Jesus, to a place that knows no pain, to an everlasting body, to her reward in heaven.

Pastor arrived after me, having also dashed out of a meeting and rushed to the hospital. As we gathered around Rose’s body and prayed, tears defied me and trickled down my face. She had gone through such pain, but her faith was so astonishing. She held on to her dignity, her calm and cool collectedness, all the way to the end, trusting God.

Tonight I listened to her friend talk about their days in convent school, that her final meal request was babi pongteh, that her faith in the Lord carried her and filled her with joy toward the end.

And I think, our lives are given us to make full use of. Do I spend it loving God? Preparing myself for eternal life? Or am I running through my days just trying to “survive”, worrying about the everyday matters?

I made a promise to God to write my book. I didn’t want to blog about it before because, to be honest, I wasn’t sure when I was going to finish it. I’ve started, but it’s taking much more out of me than I initially imagined. But now, knowing Rose fought the good fight, and finished her race, I have to run my race and part of the obstacle course is this book.

There I’ve put it out there. Now I have to keep my word, and make it happen. For God and for Rose, who set me a brilliant example.

I miss you my friend. See you in heaven.

The Good Year: Reflections Of Gratefulness

It is the last day of 2011. Happy New Year, everyone.

I have to admit, as I grow, I get more sentimental. Can’t let a year slip into the next without taking stock.

It’s been a good year, I thank God for all of it. When I started 2011, my frame of mind was still very much on my recovery from breast cancer. At that point, I felt I had and would always be redefined as “Theresa Tan, breast cancer survivor”.

One of the highlights of 2011 was watching my best friend Karen Tan being brilliant as the Wizard in Aladdin.

Time heals all, as the saying goes. While I can’t say I’ve forgotten that I had breast cancer and went through a major surgery last year, I can say now that that fact is no longer so raw to me. Whether it’s acceptance, or merely a dulling of the senses, the thought of having gone through cancer no longer reduces me to that emotional creature from a year ago.

While I am writing this, my friend—I’ll call her Rose—is going through a relapse of liver cancer. I haven’t been able to contact her. She’s left her mobile with her maid, who valiantly attempts to answer all my frantic questions with her limited English. Ultimately, it’s boiled down to this: Rose is very ill, she had a fall last week, she doesn’t want to see anyone, and no, thank you, she has no appetite for turkey and ham.

Yesterday my best friend Karen Whatsapp’d me to join her in praying for Emma Yong, who is going through a relapse of stomach cancer, an illness she was first diagnosed with early this year. I haven’t been in touch with Emma since she and the Dim Sum Dollies agreed to be part of Women Make a Difference’s anti-trafficking campaign in 2008. I wish I knew her better — we first met when she was a JC student helping out at her aunt’s comic book shop in Serene Centre. She asked me how she could get into theatre in Singapore. Such a beautiful, sweet girl who turned out to be one of Singapore’s most luminous talents. When I hear her name, I think of that JC girl, and I cannot imagine cancer touching her. It’s a travesty.

Cancer — it kills, steals, destroys. It is an abomination. I hate it. We need to find a cure—if not in my generation then in my children’s generation. If not in theirs, then in their children’s generation. We must not stop looking for a way to beat this thing.

The lovely Emma Yong who kindly supported WMD's anti-trafficking cause as one of our poster girls

But I am constantly amazed and moved by the ones who go through cancer determined not to let it ruin their day. I’m told Emma remains cheerful and positive, and she is going for treatment. It is my deepest prayer she comes out of this wholly and completely healed. Miracles can happen! They will!

This year was really a test year for me. I had made a promise to myself to live life as fully as I can. I know it sounds like just another one of those things to say — but I was pretty determined to do it. I failed in some areas but I succeeded in others.

One of the things I have always wanted to do was to bring my children on a trip to help in a Third World country. It’s been on my mind since 2004 when I was editor for Tiger Tales, the magazine for Tiger Airways. Looking at all those budget flights to neighbouring countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, I dreamed of the day my children would be old and independent enough for me to expose to how the other half of the world lives. When my cancer happened, this, oddly, was one of the things that I didn’t want to leave undone for too long.

My wish came to pass this December, when I brought Big B and Middle B with my mother-in-law to Phnom Penh with a group of her church friends. They do a yearly Christmas cookout for children in the villages. I was told we would be serving 900 kids, but that number grew to 1000 and then to 1200 by the time we left for Cambodia.

Middle B (left) with a fellow visitor and a Cambodian youth leader

By the time the cookout actually happened it was close to 1500 kids—good news travels fast. I was touched and proud to see my children chipping in to help give out the packets of food, the sweets and balloons to the little boys and girls, many of them looking after their younger siblings. My daughter’s compassion was evoked as she distributed the goods. “You mean they only get one sweet?” she said, horrified. “Why can’t we give them more? And don’t we have toys to give them? Why just one balloon?”

But soon she understood the charm of having just one balloon. She blew up a pink one and spent a long time tossing it around with a delighted three-year-old girl. That balloon would be lovingly deflated and brought home to be inflated for play another day.

Middle B and her little balloon-loving friends

My 12-year-old son, while not as smitten as his sister, was taken aback with the fact some of the children didn’t even have pants to wear and were running around half naked. “They need money, Mom,” he noted wisely. “They need a lot of help.” So, I asked, are you going to be the one to help? He smiled grimly, his brain clicking into motion.

Tragically, I lost the little Sony camera I had brought—most of my precious photos of the trip are gone. What you see here I took with my Blackberry camera. It’s sad but as Middle B reminds me with a wide grin, “It just means we have to go again next year, Mom!”

The fact she declared Cambodia the “best holiday ever” warmed my heart. Still does.

Another goal I found myself setting this year was to run. But really this was by accident. I was running about 2 to 3km three times a week at the start of this year, just round the block and back to my place. But as it got more fun, I thought maybe I should sign up for a race, and the Nike Goddess 5K just happened to be the first thing to pop up on my computer screen. I signed up and that turned out to be the first of seven races I ran this year.

I’ve always had jersey envy for the Standard Chartered blue-and-green running top. Forgive the bimbo reason: it just looks nice. Plus it’s obviously the race of the year we’re talking about.

Chris, my physio, didn’t think going from doing a series of 10K runs to a full marathon was a good idea for my body. I agreed. So initially, I had logged in to sign up for the 10K Stanchart run but the slots sold out in 4 days! Ridiculous!

I asked Mr Threez if he wanted to do the half-marathon with me, and he LOL’d. But that was in September. We both ran the half-marathon in the end, and he finished half an hour before I did! So much for LOL!

I finished the race! I can't feel my legs!

I’m not sure if I can ever do the Stanchart full marathon—the heat is too much for me—but I’m glad I completed the next best thing. If I had a Bucket List (which I refuse to call this – “kicking the bucket” isn’t the most dignified reference!), this would be one of the items I strike off with glee.

It’s been a good year. I’ve been back to the US with Mr Threez, eaten the Maine and Boston lobsters we always dream and talk about, watched Spider-Man the musical, run a 10K race in cold weather in Brooklyn, eaten duck confit at Balthazar’s, and simply enjoyed each other’s company thoroughly.

My brother and sister-in-law were gifted with their first child — a beautiful girl! I cannot express how happy it makes me see their greatest wish come true!

We’ve caught up with good friends, old friends — tonight, the first group of my husband’s friends that I met when I was 19 and we had been dating two weeks. Now, 26 years later, we are still here, still friends, still laughing at the same silly jokes and spending New Year’s Eve together.

The three individuals responsible for a large percentage of the smiles and laughs I enjoy daily.

And I’ve had many chances to spend time with each of my three children. I’m proud of Big B for working and praying hard to get into his dream secondary school, and for setting a great example for his sisters. We’ve discovered new loves together—I had bought the BBC Sherlock series and felt like watching something one night while the rest of the house was asleep, and Big B accompanied me. It turned out to be our favorite Sherlock ever, and we have watched it over and over again with Middle B and Mr Threez.

With Middle B, I’ve had the most fun this year. It was a bumper crop of concerts and shows this year: Taylor Swift’s concert in February, Justin Bieber in April, The Lion King, Aladdin and just this week, Wicked. It was really fun sharing the songs I love with my little girl, and going to a gig with her was definitely a high point of this year.

For Little B, this has been a year of great growth for her. Her language has improved by leaps and bounds in these past 365 days, her sense of humor has developed nicely, and she is doing something I never thought would happen — she is learning how to swim. In my mind, if you can’t understand instructions, you can’t learn how to do something. But she’s understanding it, and she’s learning it. And I’ve learned a lot from her this year too—that pigs are charming and every Lola deserves a big brother like Charlie.

I’m blessed. Each day I have is a gift. Sometimes I think we’ve got it all wrong — we’re not all “forced” into this world to “make the best of it”. We’ve got the Golden Ticket. We get to live this life, smell these smells, see these sights, fall in love with our spouses, discover the little people that are our children, eat and drink the most amazing things…sure there’s cancer and hard work and stress but to me now, those don’t outweigh the good bits—not one bit.

Here’s wishing all of you a wonderful New Year’s Eve evening as you usher in 2012 — may the new year bring fulfilled dreams, laughter and love.

2 Nights To The Standard Chartered Half-Marathon!

The coveted green-and-blue race tank! My first!

It’s less than 48 hours to the race I’ve been psyching myself up for since August: the Standard Chartered Half-Marathon on 4 December.

I’m hearing that everyone and his grandpa is running this race — and oddly I guess that’s what the attraction is: The sense of “doing it together” has a strange appeal.

I can tell you it’s not an easy time for me—I’m coming off two terrible infections. One was a weeklong virus that caused me to have crazy vertigo. And then last Wednesday I came down with a 40 degree fever that didn’t break for 3 days, and I’m still experiencing the tail-end of that infection. It’s fine when I’m home but being in a cold office or freezing shopping centre will spark off a headache and a hacking cough.

To tell you the truth I seriously thought about not running this race. I’ve always been taught that if you are still coughing, sniffling, sneezing etc, you shouldn’t risk a second infection. But the thought of having not showing up for the “ultimate” end to my very first year of road-running … that was harder to take.

I thought, okay I will visualise the route. I do this for every race. If possible, I drive there to check it out, or run part of it. It helps me to visualise finishing the race, and if I can see it, I can have it.

Fortunately (or not), in my inbox there was an email labeled SCMS Newsletter 5, and in it, was a Youtube video of the 21K route (courtesy of BMW, who is a sponsor of course — but this is brilliantly made).

I use the word “Brilliant” loosely. When I first watched this video on Tuesday night I nearly peed in my pants. Not only will I have to basically run across Sentosa, I have to run up the slope that joins up the West Coast Highway, leading to the ECP and Benjamin Sheares Bridge.

Hello, I am used to taking this route — IN A CAR.

Sorry but I have to be honest — comparing this route to the full marathon route is like comparing the Cylon Battlestar Galactica Ride to the Shrek canopy ride at Universal Studios Singapore. The full marathon takes the racer from Orchard Road (okay so there is a very mild dip at Ion but no serious elevation) to East Coast Park which is nearly entirely FLAT GROUND. So it’ll be a further distance but offers hardly any elevation.

Where’s the challenge???

But I have to admit watching that video with the West Coast Highway slope and the undulating dinosaur-like humps of the ECP-Benjamin Sheares Bridge gave me a sleepless night.

The next day I could stand it no longer — cough or no cough I HAD to run up one slope just to psyche myself for the monsters I’ll be facing on Sunday.

I can’t say I am very prepared but God knows I run for His good pleasure, and I have made the decision I will finish this race.

So, check in on Monday when, hopefully, my fingers are still working and my butt will let me sit down to key in my race report!

What’s Another Birthday?

My name is Theresa Tan and it has been 64 days since my last post.

I figured today being my 44th birthday, I should at least say something.


A friend texted me at 5.30 this evening and asked “How is your birthday going?” It’s been, to tell the truth, a non-event. I had work to do, as the paper goes to print tomorrow, but I didn’t have to go into the office. Middle B has had a 39 degree fever since Sunday, so wanted her mommy. And last night Mr Threez came back with severe diarrhoea and was in the loo all night. We had plans for dinner tonight but the bug’s hit him pretty bad and I think he’s better off in bed.

Last night, in between visits to the toilet, he presented me his birthday present: a running top with all the races I have run this year listed at the back. He had it specially made.


I know it seems like a strange gift but anyone who knows how much running has become part of my life, will know this is the best present ever, that only the one who is my better half would think of creating.

My best birthday gift from Mr Threez

Tonight we got to do the birthday cake. But in case we weren’t going to get a chance, Little B had already sang my birthday song to me earlier today. And she made me a card that I am going to keep forever.

My very first non-school-made card from Little B! *super heart*

You may not believe me but it’s fine. I don’t mind. In this household, we tend to celebrate birthdays across days and weeks. And in cases like today, whenever it suits, we simply have a Do-Over.

Beyond that, as my friend reminded me, every day I am alive is better than a birthday! Every day I have one more day to talk to God and watch Him do marvelous things in my world. Every day I have 24 more hours to enjoy my husband, my three children, my friends, my work.

When Mr Threez asked me what I wanted for my birthday, there were loads of things I didn’t mind having (iPad 2 with wireless keyboard, or new iPod Touch, or an H&M gift card) but nothing I couldn’t live without. I already have all I will ever need: my God, the people I love, a meaningful life.

If there is one thing I really, really, really want, it is more time. I want more time to do more things that will impact more lives. I have been given a second chance at life, and now I really need to use time to do the things that God wants me to do, not the things I want to do to feel accomplished, successful, recognized.

So I am 44 today. A couple more wrinkles, too many grey hairs, but bring on the years. The more the merrier.

Fruit Of My Labour (No, Not The Kids)

Yesterday my friend Serene SMSed me with this message:

“Threez I’m buying the GE insurance policy that u r ‘fronting’ :)”

It made me really happy to read her message, because this was a friend who had not really thought about insurance or health checks before seeing me go through what I did. She’s in her twenties, a lovely, well-accomplished girl with a great future ahead of her. She deserves to be properly protected for any hiccups in life — nothing should stand in her way.

When I receive calls or emails or SMSes from friends and readers of this blog who are in their 20s and 30s and who have been diagnosed with breast, cervical or ovarian cancer, it crushes me. I have gotten over my initial shock that I was just 42 when I was diagnosed (I realise now, many, many women are diagnosed in their late 30s and 40s), but it still upsets me when a younger person gets the dreaded “Big C”.

I’ve been sharing with close friends about the products available out there — not because I get commission (though quite a few people have asked me to become a life planner, which makes me laugh out loud! I can’t even understand the documents!), but because if I can in some small way prevent anyone from having to go through what I did because of insufficient insurance, that would be a great reward for me.

In June, Great Eastern invited me to speak to their special group of planners who focus on families and women. The plans they promote help women to protect against health crises (not just cancer but heart disease, stroke and other common health issues), and also helps them plan for their children’s future.

Talking to Great Eastern's planners about the important role they play in helping women and families.

Catherine Ho, the lovely VP of marketing at Great Eastern, had me talk about my cancer experience and what I went through with my insurance. The core of the talk was 10 ways to handle cancer positively. I presented what I hoped was a funny yet honest account of what I experienced, and urged the planners to really get to know and understand their clients, because it is only through a real relationship that they can help these women.

Catherine Ho of Great Eastern (left) has a true passion for helping women that I greatly admire.

After the talk, I was very moved by the women and men who came up to talk to me. One lady told me, with tears in her eyes, that I was very blessed — her husband had not survived his cancer. A few asked me to explain what DCIS or Stage 0 cancer is, and why is it not always determined by the size of the tumour. They demonstrated a real desire to understand the disease — quite a number said they had clients who called them after a DCIS diagnosis, and they had no clue how to help. But after my sharing, they had a better idea.

Talking about life after cancer — major in the major stuff, like your family and kids.

Great Eastern’s Early Payout Critical Care was one of the first — if not the first to address this problem of early stage critical illness coverage. Before them, I had not heard of any other company having the cojones to insure against this — these days I am even more impressed because of the sheer number of DCIS and Stage 1 cases I come across through my blog and friends calling me. And once GE started, it seems the other insurance companies followed suit.

Serene’s not the first one to buy the EPCC plan since I started blogging and talking about it, and I hope she’s not the last. Just bridging that gap can make such a difference to a cancer patient. It’s peace of mind I would happily pay to have, if I could.

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