S'porean mother underwent double mastectomy only to have breast cancer return

A rollercoaster ride.

Fasiha Nazren| November 24, 09:40 PM

Janet Ng, 44, is one admirable woman.

On top of being a loving mother and wife, she is also a makeup artist and boss lady of her own bridal boutique, The Red Wedding.

When I thanked her for taking the time to speak with me, she humorously brushed it aside, saying that she always "eats snake" (a term that means to skive at work) anyway.

Who would have known that someone as busy and bubbly as she is has had a rollercoaster of a life, after finding a benign lump in her breast and facing cancer twice, all within a span of 12 years?

Photo by Fasiha Nazren

Lump in breast

Ng was only 32 when she first felt a lump in her breast.

Well, technically, she didn't discover it herself.

With a sheepish grin, she said: "It was actually my husband who felt it. It was pretty obvious to the touch."

And while she could laugh about it now, the situation was much more serious 12 years ago.

She explained that as breast cancer awareness wasn't as widespread back then, and she was a little worried and almost clueless as to what that lump was.

"Initially, we were a bit worried. It didn't occur to us that much that it could be cancer."

But after visiting a doctor and going through a biopsy test, Ng could finally heave a sigh of relief as the lump turned out to be benign.

It was especially relieving for the couple as they were trying to have a baby then, which they successfully conceived later on in 2007.

Missed check-up

Following the discovery of the benign lump, her doctor advised the mother of one to go for regular check-ups.

She would diligently go for her annual check-ups up, but missed one in 2016.

The following year, her doctor found another lump in her breast.

Ng thought it was going to be another harmless benign growth.

But she was presented with bad news: Ng was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.

"If you have something bad, cut it off"

Although she was taken aback by the diagnosis, Ng did not want to grief for long, and began to think of the next course of action.

As she didn't want to go through chemotherapy, she took the brave step to undergo a double mastectomy.

"Of course, I was sad for a few days. But after that, me and my husband we made the decision to do a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery."

For the uninitiated, a double mastectomy is the removal of both breasts.

This procedure is said to reduce the risk of recurrent breast cancer.

As a woman myself, I couldn't help but ask if the double mastectomy was a difficult decision for her to make.

Her response was wise enough to answer for a lot of different situations in life: "If you have something bad in your life, you need to cut it off. Rather than having a lumpectomy, my idea was to clear it once and for all."

While most people would take any time between four to six weeks to recover from a mastectomy, the businesswoman shared that she was already "up and about" within a couple of weeks.

Spread to liver, lymph nodes and bones

Ng thought she could leave her cancer episode behind and live life normally again.

In March this year, however, she received upsetting news once again.

When she went to her annual scan earlier this year, the doctors discovered that she had a recurrence. The cancer had already spread to her liver, lymph nodes and her lower backbone.

This came as a surprise to her because she did, after all, went through a double mastectomy in 2017.

"When we did the positron emisson tomography (PET) scan (before the double mastectomy), it didn't show that it spread. It was only contained within the breast."

This time, the news hit her harder and it made her question her past decisions.

"I was upset. I had questions running through my mind like, if I had chemotherapy the first time round, maybe this wouldn't have happened."

Have to live for daughter

But once again, she bounced back and decided to take on chemotherapy head-to-head because she said she couldn't die just yet, especially since she has a 10-year-old daughter to live for.

Beaming while talking about her only child, she said that she has been filled with gratitude to have an understanding and "cool" girl for a daughter:

"I had to explain to her what I was going to go through and what she has to expect of her mummy. She took it quite well, my daughter is quite cool about everything."

And it helped that she has always been the type of person to think of a glass as half full: "When you are diagnosed (with cancer), you will always think of death. But when you realise that there's a treatment for you and you're not dying yet, it always calls for a celebration."

Hair loss not the biggest problem

However, she did have some reservations before she started her treatment, including her fear of hair loss.

She said, "(Losing) hair was a little more difficult (than losing breasts) and wearing a wig is honestly, just torture. It's very hot, especially with our weather."

But a month since she first started chemotherapy, she took control of the matter by shaving her head.

While she typically sports her shaved head, she wears a wig whenever she has to meet a client.

She also realised that cosmetic changes like losing her hair and breasts were not the biggest problems she had to face — it was the chemotherapy itself.

Photo courtesy of Janet Ng

Ng even went as far as to describe going through chemotherapy as "going to hell".

"Chemotherapy is considered like going to hell. For some, it's probably worse than surgery itself. I can't stay up as late as I want, but I also couldn't sleep. I could really see and feel my body deteriorating from the treatment."

Still, Ng considers herself lucky as she feels her side effects (including lethargy, insomnia and hair loss) weren't as excruciating as compared to the other cancer patients that she has met.

Support system

While battling cancer, she signed up for the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF) Education and Empowerment Program, otherwise known as BEEP.

BEEP aims to help breast cancer patients and survivors like Ng to regain their optimum lifestyle after breast cancer.

Part of the program includes meeting other patients like herself, whose support has been of immense help to her:

"Not everybody without cancer is willing to listen to you because they can never feel the way we do. So it really takes your mind off things when you talk to like-minded people, they are in a better position to advise."

Ng at this year's Pink Ribbon Walk. Photo courtesy of Janet Ng

And apart from the fellow patients, she is especially grateful to her husband who had been there for her since the very beginning.

"He has been my chauffeur, ferrying me to every doctor's visit and accompanying me for most of the chemotherapy sessions to the extent that I had to chase him out so he could do his work. Even the nurses at the hospital said, 'Ok, here he comes again.'"

Her turn to be part of support system

After riding an emotional rollercoaster ride for a few years, Ng finally received some good news in July this year.

She was declared NED, otherwise known as "no evidence of disease".

Even though she is already in remission, Ng still goes for BEEP with her shiny pink ribbon pin and hopes to be part of a support system for other breast cancer patients and survivors.

"Give yourself some time to be upset, but don't dwell on it for too long because there's always something that you can do. The time that you have lost dwelling on it is time that you will never get back."

Ng proudly showing off her pin. Photo courtesy of Janet Ng

If anything, her experience has taught her that cancer can happen to both the young and old and left some useful advice to me: "Before you buy your next handbag, make sure you buy your health insurance. Cancer treatment is very expensive. "

Top image by Fasiha Nazren