Hoping for a miracle: S'porean, 27, gets terminal disease after trumping hair loss, breast cancer & brain tumour

Stories of Us: To say that Chan See Ting has been dealt a bad hand is an understatement. But the 27-year-old tells us why she is able to find joy amidst all the pain that has come her way.

Joshua Lee | November 22, 2020, 12:33 PM

What do you say to a woman who — within the span of seven years — has battled alopecia, breast cancer, a mastectomy, a brain tumour, and now, gets diagnosed with leptomeningeal disease?

Looking at 27-year-old Chan See Ting, I struggle to articulate what I feel: an overwhelming sadness that is tinged with pity, yet undergirded by admiration for her resilience.

We met earlier this year in a tiny booth at a MOS Burger outlet, where the spirited Chan recounted her journey and subsequent victory over her fight with breast cancer.

This time, the cramped fast food restaurant has been replaced by Chan's sparse kitchen.

The clamour of the lunch crowd then, given way to a midday lull now.

And the young woman, once brimming with excitement, is now much more subdued and measured.

Finds brain tumour, then cancer in cerebrospinal fluid

About six months after Chan was declared cancer-free — in the evening of September 14, to be exact — tragedy struck again.

Chan, who was out shopping with a friend, suddenly lost all feeling in her right side. Her right hand lost its grip; the item she was holding slipped.

Her companion panicked and bundled her into her car, setting off for the National University Hospital (NUH). Along the way, Chan realised that the right side of her mouth was drooping.

"You had a stroke?" I ask.

No, she says. It wasn't a stroke.

These stroke-like symptoms manifested because, as doctors at NUH found, Chan had a small but swelling tumour pressing on blood vessels in her brain.

"I mean, I'd have preferred a stroke to y'know, a brain tumour," she says candidly. "Lesser of two evils, right?"

Thankfully, the tumour could be taken out with gamma knife radiosurgery. After treatment, Chan was discharged on September 19.

Yet, barely a month later, she found herself back in NUH. This time, it was for debilitating head and neck aches. The pain had been bothering her for weeks but she thought nothing of it.

Perhaps they were just aches from bad sleeping posture, she thought.

They weren't.

After a battery of tests, one of the hospital's oncologists delivered the bad news: It was leptomeningeal disease, a condition that occurs when cancer cells migrate from other parts of the body to one's cerebrospinal fluid.

Once cancer cells are in the cerebrospinal fluid, they can settle and grow in the brain and spinal cord.

"And then [the oncologist] was like, oh, I'm really, really sorry and stuff like that. I said no, don't be sorry.

Then she left and then I began to cry."

A grim diagnosis with no timeline

It is a grim diagnosis, to be honest.

Google "leptomeningeal disease" and the common phrases that come up — low survival rate, terminal disease, poor prognosis, and palliative care — don't exactly inspire hope.

As if that isn't enough, Chan doesn't have an inkling of how much time she has.

Her doctors are hesitant to provide a timeline because her condition is — in their words — a "diagnostic dilemma"; they know what isn't causing it but they don't know what is causing it.

"So then the frustration is wah piang, like, how do I plan my time?" she lets out a hearty laugh before lapsing into a thoughtful pause.

There's also sadness, she adds quietly. Sadness for the unfulfilled desires in her life, like marriage.

A still from a production based on Chan's story. Visuals by David Liu @david_films. Directed by Angie Lim @outonalimwithangie.

Chan met her partner, Ian Ng, on Coffee Meets Bagel before she discovered her breast cancer. He stood by her through her fight with it — the chemotherapy, the relentless puking, the mastectomy — and shared her joy when Chan's cancer went into remission.

Though Ng had yet to formally propose, the couple had plans to get married next year. In fact, they were in the midst of house-hunting when she discovered the leptomeningeal disease.

And just like when she received her breast cancer diagnosis, Chan gave Ng another chance to exit the relationship with no hard feelings.

"I said if you propose and I agree, actually, I feel like that's unfair for you...I did mention that I don't know how long I have to live, it can be very short...And I don't want you to propose and then maybe ROM, and then I leave."

But Ng remains unflinching in his decision to stay, Chan says. It's immensely comforting in the midst of so much bad news, but still, it's bittersweet.

Three days after our chat, Ng proposed to Chan.

Credit: @redhawtchillipadi/Instagram.

Slipping into a 3-day coma

"Physical pain. Intense physical pain in my head and in my body."

Those were Chan's lowest moments — encountered during her treatment for leptomeningeal disease.

Following her diagnosis, she was fitted with an Ommaya reservoir, a plastic device implanted under the scalp to deliver medication (like chemotherapy in Chan's case) to the cerebrospinal fluid.

The device also enables doctors to take samples of cerebrospinal fluid for testing.

Chan reacted badly to the initial chemotherapy. After bouts of vomiting and headaches, she went into a three-day coma, shocking her doctors.

"When I woke up, the nurse said, 'I'm so glad you're awake!'" Chan recounts.

After that incident, she switched to taking oral chemotherapy and steroids.

"When is this going to end?"

To many (including myself), Chan is an example of what it means to be brave and strong, especially in the face of tribulations.

But no, she says. "Brave" and "strong" are not words she would use to describe herself.

"I'm not strong, y'know? I'm actually very, very, very cui (weak)...I do struggle with thoughts like why is God so unfair? When is this going to end?"

There were even times when she struggled with thoughts of ending her life, but it was her faith (though thoroughly shaken and battered), her family, as well as her community of friends — especially her church friends — that kept her going.

"They came together, and they loved me, and they went above and beyond."

Photo credit: redhawtchillipadi/Instagram.

Chan lets on that she also struggles immensely with the thought that "if I'm not useful to somebody, they wouldn't love me".

Yet, time and time again, through her different medical conditions, when she was at her lowest and most dependent, Chan's church and her friends came together to support her in various ways.

They bought her Grab vouchers, so she could avoid the risk of public transport for her many hospital visits, with her compromised immune system.

Her friends rallied themselves to daily fasting and prayer for her for 40 days — a significant period for Christians — until Chan's birthday on December 6.

Moved by Chan's plight, a home baker who didn’t know her sent this beautiful cake depicting the ray of hope that shines through turbulent waters.

Credit: Ten Butter Fingers/Instagram.

Another stranger wanted to send her flowers every week.

While she feels completely undeserving, Chan says that she has been blessed and encouraged by the "extravagant" giving from friends and even strangers who have shown love.

A renewed relationship

If there's another thing that Chan is grateful for, it's her renewed relationship with her mother.

The estranged mother and daughter were brought together during Chan's battle with breast cancer and this latest diagnosis has brought them even closer.

Where previously both couldn't even stand to be in the same room, now Chan feels comfortable enough to welcome her mother into her personal space and share about her struggles.

"Actually now, she would come into my room, lie on my bed and chat with me," she laughs.

Chan will be going back to NUH on November 23 to see if the oral chemotherapy has been working.

There's a lot of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear and of course, Chan is hoping for a miracle, that somehow, this would not be the end.

Yet, there is no denying that there has been so much good that has come out of her leptomeningeal disease, she says.

It's radical to hold such a perspective, to be able to see the silver lining and find joy in the midst of so much pain, literally.

It's a rare quality that shines in her and she acknowledges it.

"That's the beautiful thing about the faith — that in the same breath, you can hold both grief and hope, and disappointment and wonder."

A still from a production based on Chan's story. Visuals by David Liu @david_films. Directed by Angie Lim @outonalimwithangie.

Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.

Quotes were edited for clarity. Top images via @deeleow/Instagram, redhawtchillipadi/Instagram.