You’ll Never Walk Alone

I started this blog in June last year after my mastectomy, following the discovery of a cancerous mass in my right breast.

Through it I have “met” so many women who have had to take the same painful journey as I. At one point I was getting three or four emails every week — women who were single and in shock that they had been diagnosed with breast cancer; women who, in the midst of a terrible divorce, received a second blow of a breast cancer diagnosis; women who are married with kids, and don’t know how to cope with running their household like they always have; children of women who are going through breast cancer treatment, whose love for their mothers drives them to find answers to the pain.

Every single one of you has touched me and amazed me. Your strength and positivity (even in the midst of great emotional stress) bear testament that women are built with an awesome inner strength.

I want to thank every person who has shared her story with me, and the ones who have left thoughtful comments. I have been as blessed by you all, as I hope this blog has somehow blessed you.

I want every woman reading this to know that you do not need to walk alone through your cancer. You can write to me and I’ll be happy to talk to you. Some of my friends, like Rosalind Ng, have been so open and willing to share their tips on coping with chemo and other treatments — I am continually awed by her, and grateful to have this “partner”.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me if I would speak to a friend of his. She is in her mid-30s and discovered a cancerous lump in her breast at a routine health check. Being single she was terrified not just at the prospect of a mastectomy (which her first doctor suggested), but also at the uncertainty of the future. What would she tell that potential new boyfriend? Could she have children? Would she dare?

I called her. We talked. Her doctor had really scared her — she told her the bare minimum, and simply said “You better have your operation done soon.”

I suggested she get a second opinion, just like I did. Her second doctor suggested a wide excision (partial mastectomy), but the nurse that did her paperwork started psycho’ing her into considering a mastectomy (WHY would anyone do that??! I mean, isn’t there enough evidence to show that a lumpectomy followed by chemo and radiation can preserve the breast and inflict minimal damage to the patient’s psyche?).

But on the day she was warded, the doctor did another ultrasound and found a “suspicious” lump in another part of the breast near the nipple. So she was discharged, having been told to decide if she wanted to do another biopsy to rule out a second cancerous growth.

She was pretty freaked out by this time. So when she called me, I suggested she get a third opinion from my surgeon Dr Hoe Ah Leong, who was the one who managed to calm me down so I could accept even having a mastectomy.

Dr Hoe checked the second lump using ultrasound, and thanks to his many years as a breast surgeon, could tell her pretty much for certain that it did not look “suspicious” at all. Also, he suggested an alternative treatment for her — chemo first, to shrink the lump, then a lumpectomy. There was even a chance the chemo would get rid of the cancer altogether. She went to see the oncologist (same one I did, Dr Tan Yew Oo) and Dr Tan started her on chemo.

When we last spoke she sounded good, relieved and thankful that Dr Hoe had a good alternative for her. I admire her courage and her quick acceptance of what chemo meant. I have to admit I have at moments wished I could have preserved my breast… but my mastectomy was a journey I had to walk through.

I’m grateful to God that somehow, through this blog, He has enabled me to help other women going through the same pain and the multitude of fears and unanswered questions. My prayer to Him had been “Don’t waste my cancer. Make something good out of it.”

I’m glad He heard me.

If you have questions about breast cancer, or know someone who’s going through this who needs to talk, email me at I’d be glad to help in any way I can.

In Remembrance Of My Mom, Ann Phua (4 Oct 1939-2 Nov 2003)

My mother with Big B, 1999. Her hair was just growing back from chemo after her 2nd mastectomy.

This is my favourite photo of my mother, Ann Phua. She was really terrible at having her photo taken, so it was the candid shots that were the nice ones. Here, my father had captured her laughing with my son, her absolute favouritest little person in the world — he was about 8 months old then.

My mom passed away 2 November 2003. She had been in a coma for five days before she finally gave up the ghost, on All Souls Day which is celebrated by Catholics to mark the “departing of the faithful”, just as the sun came up.

She died of metastasis of her second breast cancer. She had had two mastectomies by then, and even with no breasts left, the cancer came back and developed in her lung. Refusing chemo injections (she had had them twice already) she opted first for oral chemo, then as the cancer only raged harder and faster, she chose pain management and to spend her last months with me in my home.

My mother discovered her first lump at the age of 49. Even back then, that was considered very young — breast cancer was and still is more of a disease that strikes women 55 and above. I remember the fear that gripped my heart like an icy hand when my father paged me with a “999” message. It was the day my mother had to go back to the doctor for the diagnosis after her biopsy. I had never, up to that point in my 19 years, heard my father sound so vulnerable as he told me “Your mother has breast cancer. Can you come home now?”

I was terrified. I had seen cancer take the life of my uncle, my mother’s brother, only a few years before. It was so swift and brutal — he had retired and was exercising and staying fit when boom! The cancer hit and within months, he was gone.

I wasn’t prepared for my mom to die. I was in my second year at university and my brother was still in secondary school. I mean, yes, I could cook and clean and do the laundry, but I wanted my Mommy to see me graduate, to be there when I got married, to carry her grandchildren. I didn’t want to be robbed of all that.

The biopsy showed Stage 1 cancer. When my mother had her operation a month later, the histology showed Stage 2, and her lymph nodes were affected. She had a mastectomy and lymph node removal, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

I remember the day I saw my mom’s mastectomy scar. It really scarred me for life, pardon the pun. Because of her lymph node removal she had problems lifting her arms and getting her shirt off. I helped her and when I lifted up her shirt, the left side of her chest was flat, with a scar diagonally across it. I did all I could to help her wash up, tuck her into bed and kiss her goodnight — then I went to my room, shut the door and cried for hours. It felt to me like my mother’s womanhood had been destroyed by this horrible cancer, and it was so painful and unfair for her to endure this.

The operation wasn’t the worst of it. The chemo and radiation started a few weeks later. I watched my mother turn from her pink-cheeked elfin self to an exhausted figure whose skin turned darker shades of grey by the week. Her nails turned black and brittle. Her beautiful head of hair started to shed — clumps of hair would fall off. That broke her heart the most. Finally when nearly all of it had dropped off, I remember one Saturday morning trimming off the few longish rogue strands that remained as if to mock the memory of her former beauty.

She had a special bra in which she could fit a prosthetic breast. It used to make me sweat just watching her put it on because golly, that bra was warm. On some days, when it was too hot and humid and Mom had been fidgeting, her prosthetic would pop out of place. She also had a wig — my hairdresser Ashley Lim created a fabulous one for her when he heard she had cancer — which she wore religiously. I think, if I had had to have chemo and my hair fell out, I would wear a cool bandana and be done with it (actually I already planned for it when my doctors and I were discussing the possibility of a lumpectomy). The wig too, would tilt in all kind of funny angles when it got too warm and Mom wiped off her sweat. It was terrible. I was so happy when her hair started growing out after the chemo.

Chemo changed my mom’s tastebuds forever, she said (okay, she was given to exaggerating but I have to say it’s true that she never quite enjoyed her durians after that). She said everything tasted like cardboard. Water was the worst thing – she couldn’t even drink a mouthful without wanting to vomit. So I made her Ribena and Milo round the clock. She hated the thought of eating, especially those first few weeks of chemo. But she would get terrible hunger pangs and then be yelping for me to quick make her something. My first meal for my mother during chemo was mee sua with prawns and an egg. I remember she gave me a tired smile and said, “At last, you have to cook for me.”

Radiation brought its own set of pains. The “sunburn” feeling was so acute some times Mom found it hard to sleep at all. We bought an aloe vera plant and I would cut off the sheaths and put them in a plastic bag in the fridge. Every day I would cut off about an inch or two of the cold sheath and scrape out the pulp and mash it up to apply over my mother’s scorched skin. It helped to relieve the pain.

I also learned to boil bird’s nest for her. Every day I would put 7 pieces of whole bird’s nest in the crock pot fill with water, along with a few pieces of rock sugar. By the time I came back from campus 5, 6 hours later, it would be ready for her. The bird’s nest seemed to help a lot — the chemo effects seemed to wear out faster and faster by the week.

My mother’s cancer brought our family close together. We were eager to see her get better. My dad really rose up as the head of the household and every night we gathered together to pray.

It was the cancer that also revealed to me the depth of my father’s love for my mother. He would come home on the dot at 5.30pm and she would be lying on the couch, exhausted or in pain, and he would scoop her up in his arms and carry her up to their room.

Once, a few years after my mom’s first cancer was over, she told me that after her operation my father would make love to her, and always told her she was beautiful and how much he loved her. I believe it was his love and unconditional support that made her determined to get well. And it made me determined to marry someone who was going to love me like that (I did! Thank God!).

My mother took about a year to recover from her cancer. She went back to work but requested for lighter duty — she had been a very hands-on nurse at SGH. She was posted to the old (haunted) Changi Hospital for a while, and then later, to Changi Women’s Prisons (many exciting and depressing stories from that posting that we don’t have space for here).

Mom was cancer-free for 10 years. She had been given a clean bill of health. She was eating healthily, drinking a lot of green tea, and exercising regularly.

She discovered the second cancer — this time in her right breast — when I just became pregnant with my first child in 1998. I was editor of Female then, and it nearly killed me having to deal with a high stress job, my first pregnancy and a mother in hospital. But the good thing was that Mom, knowing that her first grandchild was on the way, was determined to make it. She dreaded the chemo, but she didn’t put make a fuss. She endured it all, focusing on the vision of carrying her grandchild in her arms. In fact, she was most worried that after her operation she wouldn’t be well enough to hold him, but boy, she was determined!

Many times I felt pangs of guilt at now not being able to fuss over her and cook for her and boil bird’s nest for her, now that I had moved out of my parents’ home, was married and (extremely) busy with work. But Mom really didn’t complain. She just focused on getting well.

On the day I had to go into hospital to have my emergency C-section to get Big B out (yes, stress will cause your placenta to malfunction. Be warned. The liquor level in my amniotic sac had dropped to 2 — the norm is 12), my mother was in the same hospital seeing her oncologist, who had told her she was recovering well. Husband and I bumped into her as we were rushing to go home to pack and come back for surgery — I recall the rush of relief when I saw my mother, and the excitement of telling her “Baby’s coming out today, Mom!”

My mother was rewarded with the best grandchild ever (her words). Big B was a cheerful bouncy bundle of joy that ate everything Mama put in his mouth (or hand). Over the next three and a half years, my son grew up in my parents’ home (I would attempt to finish work by 6.30 and pick him up, just in time for his bath, bedtime story and lights-out). I often think my mom was responsible for Big B being the bright boy he is — she read to him and he started recognising words at 11 months (“exit” was his first word). They sang together, they counted, they chased each other at the airport where she would bring him to watch planes take off and land.

In November 2002, three months after I quit my job at ELLE, my mother collapsed on the MRT. Good thing she was with my brother, who dramatically carried her out of the train like it was a Bruce Willis movie. She had been telling me for months that she felt the cancer was back again. I told her she was being silly, but if she was so worried, to go for tests. She had CT scans, X-rays, blood tests — nothing showed any signs of cancer. But when my brother rushed her to the hospital this time, they found her right lung was filled with fluid (always a bad sign).

There was no mass but her cancer had come back as little dots all over her right lung. Her doctor at Johns Hopkins did all he could — he suggested chemo again and she flat out said no. So she went on oral chemo but that did nothing much.

I guess we all knew this was the end. I didn’t want to know it, but there it was in my face. She told me, “I just want to go Home.” I wasn’t a Christian then (born a Catholic but long story…), so I had no idea what she was babbling about Jesus coming to receive her when she died. I just thought it was morbid. I moved my mother in to live with me – I could not bear the thought of leaving her at home. My father was by then also in late stages of Parkinson’s Disease and could not even go to the toilet by himself or feed himself. I was forced to put him in a nursing home near my place, while I looked after Mom at home. It was far from ideal, but I knew I couldn’t look after them both.

Plus, they fought ALL THE TIME towards the end.
Dad: You mustn’t die and leave me.
Mom: Stop talking rubbish and eat your kway teow.
Dad: You are so bad you know – how can you leave me? How can I live without you?
Mom: I’m not dead yet okay? Eat your kway teow! Now!

Dinner on Sundays (I would go to the home and wheel my dad over to my place) was both emotionally and physically exhausting. But still, I could not bear for my parents not to have time with each other. Though, I have to say, as the months wore on, my mom wanted to see my father less and less, thinking (rightly or wrongly, I can’t tell) that the less he saw her, the easier it would be when she finally passed away.

Having Mama in the house was a treat for Big B. I would find the two of them sitting on her bed singing “How Great Thou Art”. He was four then, but in his bright little mind, he already knew Mama was going to go to Heaven to be with Jesus. There was one night, I woke up to check on him and Middle B, but couldn’t find him in his bed. Finally, I discovered him curled up, asleep under Mama’s bed. I burst into tears.

Mom’s condition got worse by the week. We had some palliative support — they brought her oxygen tanks and masks for the nights she felt as if she couldn’t breathe. A nurse would come and check on her pain levels. She had to take more and more morphine, which sucked, because it would make her hallucinate. Okay, there were funny moments from the hallucinations. Once, I walked into her room and she said, “Why did you keep ringing the doorbell, don’t you know I’m bathing the baby?” And then, she snapped out of it and said, “Oh! I’m awake! The dream was like real you know!”

The day Big B got chicken pox was the beginning of the end. Mom couldn’t be in the house with him, because chicken pox could kill her. At the same time, she had developed a chest infection. That year – 2003 – was the year of SARS. I brought Mom to hospital and had to queue six hours to get her registered. She collapsed after the third hour and I had to scream at somebody for a bed to lie her down on — all very drama! Anyway, Mom eventually ended up staying in hospital for nearly a month. It was exhausting for me as now I had to travel to see her every day (queue, take temperature, put on sticker) and then after I left her, I had to go and see my father.

Just as Mom got better, I was looking forward to having her back in the house again, she told me she had got the social worker to get her a bed at Assisi Hospice. We fought over this so much — if she hadn’t had cancer I would have fought much harder, but I didn’t want her to get too upset.

“I cannot die in your house, do you understand?” I didn’t, but you don’t argue with a dying woman.

Assisi turned out to be the best thing that happened to Mom in her last days. She had her own room in the lush compound — Assisi is located next to Mount Alvernia and the whole place just smells greener and lusher than other parts of Singapore. There was a nun who would visit her every day and pray with her, and that Sister must have had some kind of super anointing because my mother would be so cheered up and joyful it was as if she wasn’t even sick at all.

The doctors and nurses at Assisi were also so caring and concerned for me and the family. They would tell me funny stories of what my mom got up to, and I could confide in them that it was hard for me that my brother lived and worked in Melbourne so I pretty much had to care for both parents.

This whole journey with my mother having cancer led me to seek God with all my heart. He arranged it so that I met someone who met someone who could answer that one question that stood between me and Jesus Christ. On 6 October 2003, two days after my mother celebrated her 64th birthday, I received Christ.

The final week of October, I was preparing to bring Mom home. She was so fine on Friday that the doctor called me and said, “I think you can come and get your mother on Monday, we’ll pack all her things and get her ready.” Then on Sunday night, they called me and said, “Her breathing and heartbeat have become irregular. I think it’s time to get your brother home.”

On Monday I called my brother in Melbourne and said, “It looks bad with Mom.” He was in a dilemma because he had applied for his green card and if he left Melbourne now, he would not get it. But God really started revealing Himself in our lives — when my brother called his lawyer to see how he could leave Australia on compassionate grounds, the lawyer said, “Oh! I forgot to call you! You citizenship was approved on Friday!”

By Tuesday morning he was back and we went to see our mother together first thing in the morning. She made us join hands and promise we were going to look out for one another always, and never to fight. We did it. And by Tuesday afternoon she slipped into a coma and never woke up again.

The doctor took her off all the supports and fluids, but she lasted all the way till Sunday morning. My Catholic aunties quipped that Mom wanted to die on All Souls Day so that in the event we forgot her death anniversary at least some people at a Catholic church somewhere would be praying for all the faithful departed like her.

But I haven’t forgotten — I never will. I thank God for my mother, who bravely battled cancer three times. I thank Him for the woman who stood me in front of a mirror and taught me how to do my breast self-exam and who always told me to take my health seriously. I thank Him for my late father, who demonstrated what a Godly husband truly is, who loves his wife as Christ loves the church. And just as my mother fought, I will also fight the good fight against this terrible disease.

Love you Mom. I miss you.