S'pore woman overcomes Stage 3 breast cancer while saddled with debt

Phang eventually confronted her fear of death, and she inadvertently discovered her love for life.

Syahindah Ishak | October 24, 2022, 10:56 PM

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Many people would see their 30s as the prime of their life.

Katherin Meganis Phang was a winner in her own right after battling with cancer and overcoming the emotional turmoil that came with it in her 30s.

In 2010, the Singapore permanent resident who is originally from Indonesia, experienced tightness in her left breast.

She subsequently visited the Singapore Cancer Society Clinic for a free breast screening and physical examination.

Much to her relief, doctors and nurses told Phang that they did not find anything suspicious.

But the doctors advised her to see a specialist, explaining that tugging sensations in the breast are "not normal".

"In spite of their advice, I avoided visiting a [specialist] as I was afraid of knowing the cause of my symptoms," Phang, who is now 41 years old, told Mothership.

She already had a lot on her plate

Phang's fear was kept hidden away as she was already preoccupied with a mountain of problems in her life.

Photo from Katherin Phang's Facebook page.

2014 was a particularly "challenging and stressful" year to Phang, at 33 years old then.

Fresh out of a break-up with her boyfriend, she was saddled with a S$30,000 credit card debt.

The debt came from purchasing "package after package" of hair restoration products and treatments to combat her hair loss, explained Phang.

She attributed her hair loss to stress and long hours of work as a graphic designer.

To repay her debt faster, she had also taken on a second job as a waitress on weekends.

In 2017, her world came crashing down

In 2017, Phang discovered a lump in her left breast while showering one day.

She knew that it was time to confirm her nagging suspicions as having a lump is a common symptom of breast cancer.

Then 36, she was still in the midst of clearing her debt. Furthermore, she had not gotten insurance coverage for critical illnesses.

Weighing her options, she decided to consult one of her friends from church who was working as a nurse.

Her friend privately examined her breast and suggested she consult a doctor if the lump did not resolve after her menstrual period was over, as it could be caused by hormonal imbalance.

"My period came and went, but the lump did not subside," said Phang.

Knowing that it was time to confront her fear, she went to a polyclinic and was referred to KK Women's and Children's Hospital.

Phang underwent a mammogram and biopsy and was informed of the bad news.

"When I returned to the hospital a month later alone to learn my test results, I found out I had Stage 1 HER2-positive breast cancer."

She added, "I was in utter disbelief and absolutely shattered by the news."

Forced to leave her workplace with one day's notice

With her personal life in shambles, Phang sought refuge in her work, thinking that at least her work life was somewhat put together.

She couldn't be more wrong.

Phang told Mothership:

"My employer had learned about my cancer through a colleague and had at first assured me the company had bought insurance for its employees which would cover my medical expenses. However, he was displeased that I often took sick leave and was unable to perform as well at work.

Unfortunately, I was forced to leave the company with only one day's notice."

With nothing going her way in Singapore, Phang decided to go back home to Indonesia.

Struggled to make decision on treatment options

Phang had to decide to go for either chemotherapy or surgery to treat her illness.

According to Phang, the chemotherapy would cost at least S$100,000 and the surgery would cost S$15,000.

At this point, she was still clearing the debt she had accumulated previously. Having lost her job, it was not an easy financial decision to make.

She decided to give alternative therapies a go after returning to Indonesia, thinking "they could do no harm".

That said, she also took in her friends' advice to continue to do regular ultrasound scans to determine if the therapies were effective.

Besides financial concerns, Phang was hesitant to undergo conventional treatments as she heard that they "impair fertility".

Photo courtesy of Katherin Phang.

S$80 herbal tea and other alternative therapies that did not work

In Indonesia, Phang's father introduced her to a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) "sin seh" (a term used to address TCM practitioners), who prescribed some herbs for her to brew into a tea.

The herbs, which her father paid for, cost S$80 per serving. On top of this, Phang also switched to a plant-based diet.

The tea did not cause any bad side effects, said Phang, but she "did not feel any different" after drinking it daily.

Three months passed and nothing seemed to be working.

She met with the sin seh again but much to her dismay, she saw him smoking a cigarette during their consultation.

"[It] was not only shocking but also why we lost trust in him," said Phang. By then, her father had already spent S$7,200 on the treatment provided by this sin seh.

Following that episode, Phang stopped drinking the tea and searched for other forms of therapy.

She told Mothership:

"A friend who had graduated with a degree in medicine but worked in a multilevel marketing company had convinced me to buy S$9,000 worth of 'cancer-curing' products which included oral supplements, a water filter, and a bra containing stones that could allegedly absorb toxins from my breasts."

None of it worked.

A change of mind

Phang's family and friends grew increasingly worried for her, and they pleaded for her to go for medical treatment.

What made Phang change her mind was also the death of some members from a cancer patient support group, she said:

"[I] came face to face with many members [from my cancer patient support group] who quickly deteriorated and passed away after choosing not to undergo medical treatment. This was the wake-up call I needed to finally undergo medical treatment."

Phang with a friend from her cancer support group. Photo courtesy of Katherin Phang.

Her cancer went from Stage 1 to Stage 3

Phang returned to Singapore in October 2017, and she visited an oncologist at Farrer Park Hospital.

After having a CT and MRI scan, she was advised to undergo chemotherapy and surgery immediately as her tumour had grown from 1.9cm to 3.5 cm, and worsened from Stage 1 to Stage 3.

The cancer had also spread to her surrounding skin.

"The pain, resentment and disbelief I felt following my diagnosis only got worse after learning that my tumour was getting larger," Phang told Mothership.

"I was furious at God because I could not comprehend why He would allow cancer to happen to someone like me who has always strived to be good, kind and cheerful."

Phang didn't dwell on her emotions for long as she began chemotherapy the very next day after meeting the oncologist.

Received unwavering support from her loved ones

The treatment still posed a financial burden to Phang as she had to pay a deposit of S$10,000 with a credit card for the chemotherapy sessions.

Having said that, the fight against cancer no longer feels as lonely as before, with her loved ones lending her a helping hand whenever she needed.

Friends at church were a strong pillar of support to Phang.

"Thanks to the unwavering support of friends and loved ones, I did not have to pay for any of the treatments out of pocket. The insurance company covered 90 per cent of my medical expenses, while the remaining 10 per cent was raised through a crowdfunding event at my church."

Phang had a total of six chemotherapy sessions over six months to reduce the size of the tumour.

Once it was small enough, she underwent a lumpectomy, which enabled her to preserve the remaining healthy breast tissue.

After her lumpectomy, she went to the National Cancer Center Singapore (NCCS), where she underwent six more monthly sessions of chemotherapy, as well as radiation sessions daily for a month.

"Although I was physically weak and had lost my hair from chemotherapy, I was relieved these treatments worked. I was also blessed with unconditional love and support from my church friends and friends and family from Jakarta, some of whom accompanied me to the hospital when they could. My neighbour also cooked me meals to take to chemo."

Phang undergoing chemotherapy, supported by her loved ones. Photo courtesy of Katherin Phang.

Making the most out of her life while in remission

Within the same year, Phang was certified to be cancer-free and is now in remission.

She has since made some improvements to her lifestyle.

In addition to practising raw veganism, she sets an hourly alarm to remind herself to drink water.

She also goes for a run on the weekends, an activity she thoroughly enjoys.

Phang told Mothership that she will be participating in Run For Hope 2022 under the 10km category.

"I will also encourage my friends and family to support crucial, life-saving cancer research at the NCCS by contributing to my running profile."

Registration for the run is open now.

Phang and her nephews. Photo courtesy of Katherin Phang.

Focus on mental well being too

On top of maintaining her physical health, Phang has also made more time for her mental wellbeing.

She shared that keeping in touch with friends who have a positive outlook on life, as well as journaling, help her stay grounded and grateful for many blessings in her life.

In particular, journaling helps her in her self-discovery and to be aware of her feelings, thoughts, and actions.

In fact, Phang admitted that if it wasn’t for cancer, she wouldn’t have truly realised how lucky she was to have had so many loved ones by her side.

"Although cancer is terrifying, you must never give up. With early diagnosis and timely treatment, you can get better and come out the other side wiser and stronger."

Phang and her father. Photo courtesy of Katherin Phang.

Top images courtesy of Katherin Meganis Phang.