What would I do if I found out I had cancer at the prime of my life?
This is the question that I find myself pondering throughout my chat with 27-year-old Chan See Ting.
Seated in a tiny booth at MOS Burger on a recent Friday afternoon, the petite woman is brimming with energy. She gestures fervently and laughs with abandon — and she has every good reason to.
Just four days prior to our meeting, Chan was declared cancer-free; the culmination of an arduous fight with breast cancer that began in June 2019.
The discovery of a breast lump
It started, as with many other stories of breast cancer, with the discovery of a lump in her right breast in mid-June last year.
Truth be told, there are many reasons why one's breast might develop lumps. Not every lump is a sign of breast cancer and in fact, many turn out to be benign.
Besides, Chan reasons, she did not have other symptoms like nipple discharge or discolouration so she didn't think much about the lump.
"I wasn't like panicking or anything because my family has no history of cancer at all. Like, I mean, if there was, I would be a bit more attentive towards it. But there wasn't, so I didn't think very much."
A week later, though, the lump was still there and by early July, Chan started to feel some pain ("there was sharp pain, but it wasn't consistent") in her right breast.
By then, she had already received a referral from a polyclinic and had secured an appointment at Changi General Hospital (CGH).
Even so, she did not feel like it was much cause for concern because she was so much younger than the average age of a cancer patient.
"It finally felt like this was more serious than I thought"
On July 31, Chan's mother accompanied her to the CGH appointment. It started as expected with an ultrasound scan, before she was ushered into a mammogram screening.
As she was preparing for her mammogram, a nurse said to Chan:
"Usually we don't do mammograms for younger patients because there is radiation involved and if you're of reproductive age, then we try not to expose you so much to it."
However, the nurse continued, the doctor saw something in the ultrasound scan that warranted a closer look.
"It finally felt like this was more serious than I thought," says Chan.
And indeed, it was.
The mammogram revealed that Chan had not one but six lumps — a big one, three smaller ones around it, and two more at her lymph nodes— in her breast.
The doctor scheduled a biopsy, and while he did not confirm that it was cancer, he said something that made her stomach drop.
"He said, when you come back for your results next week, maybe bring another family member along."
It was too much for Chan's mother to take. Still struggling with the loss of her husband just three months prior, she broke down in the doctor's office and had to be escorted out by a nurse.
Chan herself tried to remain stoic, and only allowed herself to cry her eyes out back home in her room.
One week later, the biopsy report came out, but even before Chan went to the hospital, she knew she had cancer.
"So they have this app to tell you about your appointments, right? So I was just trying to check my appointment time. So I opened the app and then I realised they had already scheduled me for an oncology appointment."
"LOL, jokes," Chan says as she shakes her head.
It was a triple-negative breast cancer, she later found out, a more aggressive and uncommon variant. Because the tumours had reached her lymph nodes, it was diagnosed as Stage 3.
Even though she had tried to steel herself for it, the news still hit her like a sledgehammer.
Diagnosis couldn't come at a worse time
And as these things happen, Chan's diagnosis couldn't have come at a more inopportune time.
The GP tutor with School of Thought had promised to take her students through to their A-Levels. However, just a few weeks before their prelims, Chan received her diagnosis and had to hand her students to another tutor and resign in order to undergo treatment.
"I felt so sorry, so apologetic towards my students because they were very stressed," says Chan, who texted each of her 40 students to break the news.
Some cried, others wrote long messages to wish her well and their responses really heartened her.
"I love my students very much but I don't know whether it's a two way thing you know... You don't really hear a lot of appreciation from the students... It's really heartening."
And then there was the issue of a nice chap called Ian Ng.
In early July, Chan started going out with Ng, whom she met on Coffee Meets Bagel. Things were going well for them; both clearly had affection for each other.
Just when both had started going out together, the breast cancer diagnosis came right out of the blue.
Amid her anxiety from anticipating her biopsy result, Chan plucked up the courage to let Ng leave with no hard feelings.
It was a "difficult conversation" for both of them, she says:
"I told him that this is something very serious, and I would like you to take time and think about it because you need to think about how this affects family planning, how your parents are going to look at it."
Ng considered her offer seriously, and ultimately, chose to stay with her. Two months after Chan's diagnosis, he asked her to be his girlfriend.
Chemotherapy: Puking every few minutes
Because Chan's cancer was more aggressive, she needed stronger treatment, which took the form of 12 sessions of weekly chemotherapy, followed by four sessions of stronger chemotherapy medication fortnightly.
The latter sessions were difficult, to put it mildly.
"I was literally holding a bucket and puking and puking and puking every few minutes," Chan says, adding that she expelled so much until she felt faint.
The stronger medication also wiped out a good chunk of her white blood cells, to the point where she had to be warded over her birthday weekend.
That weekend was spent nursing a fungal infection in her mouth and a fever that kept spiking.
While the latter part of her chemotherapy experience was "completely sh*t", Chan didn't feel the least bit resentful about her cancer.
No — that, she says, came just before she had her mastectomy.
There are many stories out there of women who cut off their breasts to save themselves from recurrent cancer (or in the case of Angelina Jolie, to prevent cancer). Most agree that the procedure affects women in a visceral way because of how their breasts are intertwined with their identity.
It was a realisation Chan felt keenly when she met her surgeon to discuss reconstructive surgery options.
"What if I wake up and I'm trapped in a body I cannot love? I think that was when the resentment came in and I was like, God, I'm so young and I have to go through so many things. I just wish I didn't have to."
That night, she cried as she called Ng who tried his best to comfort her. "I don't have the answers for you, but I'm here for you and I love you," he said over the phone.
It was that "difficult conversation" they had in July, Chan says, that assured her of their relationship, and in turn, the mastectomy.
"I know some women struggle very hard, they don't feel deserving of love. They don't feel like they're woman enough, but Ian has never made me feel that way and so I never had that fear that he was going to leave me or love me less."
Thankfully, the reconstructive surgery was more or less a success.
She tells me that if she was forced to nitpick, her quibble would be that it is almost symmetrical, but even that to her is not a big issue ("Please lah, even your normal breasts are one big one small right").
"I'm just very, very grateful because this thing could have gone wrong in so many ways, and I count my blessings," she says.
Moving back in with her mother
One of Chan's greatest concerns about getting cancer was her mother, who, in her words, was not "emotionally resilient".
In some ways, it was surprising for her because as she puts it, their relationship was "quite strained" to the point that at the time of her diagnosis, Chan was living apart from her mother.
"We don't communicate very well, we have very different views on things so we have a lot of conflict. I think the relationship was like civil but very tense and very careful, like walking on eggshells."
Even so, Chan needed a caregiver and moving back to live with her mother was the most logical choice.
The fights started within the first week thanks to, of all things, a mattress.
Moving into a spare room in her mother's house, Chan decided to change the room's mattress because it was too hard to sleep on.
It earned her a scolding from her mother.
"I was like what the hell, where is this coming from? I just want a good rest!"
Thankfully, the easygoing Ng was there to be a buffer between mother and daughter and defuse tensions. "When Ian comes in, he changes the dynamic. He brings lightness into the situation," says Chan.
Over time, Chan began to see her mother's little actions and love for her through new eyes, especially when she was going through chemotherapy.
Chan recalls how her mother boiled soup regularly for her when she was weak from her medication.
When Chan experienced intense vomiting, her mother took to sleeping next to her with a pail.
"Somehow over time, we started to understand each other better. It made me realise that my mum is not who I remembered her to be."
Support from friends, church was her "biggest blessing"
Chan credits a big part of her fight against cancer to her "super duper supportive" friends who made sure that she never walked her cancer journey alone.
They set up a Google calendar, put in all her appointments and then rostered themselves to accompany her for chemotherapy, doctor's consultations, and even her CT scans.
Even when Chan had to move back to her mother's house, her friends supported her by buying new bedsheets, hand sanitisers and masks.
Even acquaintances and strangers helped in the little ways they could.
At the time of Chan's diagnosis, she was attending a small church.
When they came to find out about her breast cancer, the church rallied around her to pray daily for the first week post-diagnosis.
"Every hour from 7am to 7pm, someone would be praying. A lot of them, I don't know who they are, I don't know what they look like," says Chan, adding that she was just bowled over by their kindness and support.
Finding the good in the bad
While Chan's doctor has declared her cancer-free for now, her fight with cancer is not yet over. She will be starting radiotherapy in April to make sure the cancer is really gone.
Even then, there's always the chance of it resurfacing in her other breast. Given how young she is, one would expect her to think life has dealt her an unfair lot with this very intense brush with cancer.
But she says no quite resolutely:
"Fairness means equality. It means everyone gets the same lot in life. But we don't! [Asking why things are unfair] is a pointless question. You'll end up missing the good that can come of it because you're so fixated on the idea of how it should be."
And so in that sense, there was so much good that came out of Chan's breast cancer — the assurance of a new relationship, the generosity and kindness of people, and most importantly, reconciliation with her mother.
"Even if it looks like sh*t now, even if it looks like a complete disaster, there's a good that will come out of it," she smiles, "You just got to hold on to it."
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or making the world a better place in their own small way, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Images courtesy of Chan See Ting.