Breast Cancer (Stage 2)
Mary Ng’s Story (58)
I had started doing checkups every year since I was in my 30s. People might have thought that I was overcautious, because some had asked me why I started the habit so young. I have a habit of doing yearly body checkups, because I have known women around me who discovered their breast cancer late, only because they did not do yearly checkups. In my opinion, it’s for a woman to have yearly checkups when she is past the age of 40. This was also how I found out I had breast cancer at stage 2.
I found a lump in July 2019, on the same spot of my previous lumpectomy. Prior to that I had undergone 3 lumpectomies in my life to remove benign tumours. I was thinking if I should get the surgery for the fourth time. My surgeon told me that it was my decision to make. I had begun my retirement at that time, and a peaceful life was finally becoming possible, so I did not want to believe that the lump could be a malignant tumour. That was why I had foregone the surgery.
But the lump this time was bigger than previous ones. As mammograms and ultrasounds were unable to check tumour activity, they could not actually tell me if my lump was a growing cancer or just a dormant object.
A year after that, in September 2020, I realised the lump had become bigger and harder. Even then I remained undecided about lumpectomy. Notwithstanding all those, I went for my routine yearly mammogram and ultrasound. Oh god. The radiologist immediately told me that the lump didn’t look good, and after referring me to an oncologist, I was told that there was an 80-90% chance that I had cancer.
I was admitted to the hospital on 31st October 2020, and had surgery the next day for a lumpectomy. My surgery this time involved a frozen section procedure, where the tumour sample would be sent to the lab during the surgery itself, while I was still sleeping, so that the pathologist could test for cancer. The result came back to be cancerous, so my surgeon performed the lumpectomy and took out 16 of my lymph nodes. When I woke up in the recovery room, I knew what I had was cancer by seeing that there were two scars on me, my surgeon said that he would remove my lymph nodes along with the lumpectomy if the report came back to be cancer. As I saw my surgeon pass me by in the recovery room, I called out to get his acknowledgment of the bad news. He was shocked that I woke up from anaesthesia so quickly, but also told me honestly that it indeed was cancer. I fell back into sleep after receiving the news.
My biopsy result showed ER and PR positive breast cancer. I had yet to do the fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) test to determine if my cancer is HER-2 hormone positive. I was told that if it came back negative then I did not need to undergo chemotherapy, but only radiotherapy, Herceptin, and subsequently hormone therapy for a minimum of 5 years. My FISH test result eventually turned out to be HER-2 positive, which now meant I had triple positive breast cancer. I had no choice but to accept chemo, and 12 cycles of them.
Frankly speaking, I did feel scared when I got to know the cancer diagnosis, but I did not show it because I did not want my family to worry about me. I wanted no one to know that I was actually in a state of unrest. I was contemplating my strategy to go through the long ordeal of treatment. This is because I had witnessed myself that chemotherapy patients were very likely to receive disapproval and discouragement here in Malaysia, that whenever someone said they had decided to receive chemo, they would receive a lot of negative feedback. I knew that I wanted to get chemo, and I did not want to have that negative feedback in my life, so I did not announce the news out loud. I also did not want my family to have to worry about me.
During the course of my treatment I did not follow any online community groups, as they often attract unhelpful comments and naysaying to whichever route a patient chose to take, which was disrespectful. The chemo controversy was a good and popular example. I wouldn’t mind the knowledge sharing, but I did not want to allow external opinions from strangers to affect me. My own principle was to trust my doctors completely, and to check whatever doubts I had with them, and only them.
My late father was an ex-army, so you can imagine the strict household in which we were brought up. Along with my two older brothers, I was raised to be tough. When I was younger, everyone would say that it would be good if I was born a boy, with my kind of character.
I wasn’t there for my father when he had lung cancer. His cancer was at an advanced stage when he found out about it. Since he was too old to receive aggressive treatment, he decidedto not do anything about it, and passed away 3 months after his diagnosis. Even as his health deteriorated rapidly towards the end of his life, he wanted us to not tell our mother about his cancer, because he did not want her to worry about him.
Anyway, I have been visiting traditional and complementary medicine practitioners since the year 2019, around the time of my retirement. My physical health had not been optimal for some time, and I was weak in general, from the malaise of my work stress and my depression. When I still had a work life I didn't really have the time to look for solutions that could improve my general health. After my retirement, I found Dr Lim Ren Jye, who was a TCM practitioner as well as an oncologist. The first time I saw him, Dr Lim told me I was in such a bad state that he couldn’t even read my pulse. He prescribed some Chinese herbal medicine in powdered form for me to be taken regularly. I was under Dr Lim’s care for 6 months after my retirement; gradually my immune system got back to a normal level, and my health improved. When I stopped feeling tired, Dr Lim discharged me.
After I got my cancer diagnosis, I went to see Dr Lim again. I showed him my cancer report, and he advised me that I should receive chemo right away, and he would assist me in getting through it via complementary medicinal support. So after each of my chemo sessions, I would meet with Dr Lim, and he would give me Chinese medicine to bolster my immune system. He emphasised that his complementary methods would not cure the cancer. It’s function was to make me feel stronger and more capable of withstanding conventional cancer treatments.
Thanks to the combination of Western and Chinese medicine that was responsibly planned for me by both sides’ practitioners, I did not experience the nausea, vomiting, sleeplessness, and headaches that frequently troubled chemo patients.
For my chemo, from my 1st to 5th cycles, I did not experience any symptoms or side effects aside from hair loss. Sometimes I would have a bit of temporary joint pain, which lasted only for a couple of days each time. Since I had underlying heart conditions, my chemo doses were set to be mild, which weakened me less. I was strong enough to go on a Christmas family trip in the middle of my chemo period. As I was looking good, my relatives couldn’t guess that I was having chemo at that time.
However, the numbness on my hands and legs came as the chemo cycles went on. From my 6th cycle onwards, the joint pain lasted for a few more days each time, became more painful, and sensitive even to light touch.
After chemotherapy, I was then put on a break for 3 weeks before beginning radiotherapy. My radiotherapy treatment lasted 23 days with daily sessions, consisting of 15 main sessions with 8 boosters. I completed them on April 28th 2021. The radiotherapy used a precise technology that did not affect my heart a lot, and the best part was that I didn’t have to hold my breath during the sessions. The targeted booster sessions gave a bit of a burning sensation, but it was not as bad and scary as many people touted.
I had my final radiotherapy cycle on April 28th, 2021. I am now doing my 10 rounds of Herceptin as a maintenance treatment, which will end in December this year. The hormone therapy is ongoing; I have already taken it for one and a half months, and will continue to take it for the next 5 years. Some common side effects of hormone therapy, such as mood swings and hot flushes, did not happen to me.
As a cancer survivor who has gone through a lot, I now have the realisation that we really must see our body as the top priority, and listen to it. Before we got diagnosed with anything, it was very likely that there were already warning signs showing, which we complacently ignored. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I was having fevers a few times a year, but I did not see those fevers as a premonition that I should do something about.
When I became an adult, I went into the corporate world of banking. I stayed with the same company throughout my whole career, climbing my way up from a menial clerical position. I truly liked the work. However as I went higher on the corporate ladder, responsibilities multiplied, and things around us were always changing too fast: the constantly advancing technologies, the increasingly perfection-demanding customers’ expectations, and superiors’ expectations. The stress became overwhelming.
I developed depression in 2013, which lasted for at least 5 years. I was on psychiatric medication throughout this period. I gained a lot of perspective from my psychiatrist, who was also responsible for advising me to retire early. I noticed that because of work, I had become a very angry person at home, and always threw temper tantrums on my family members, especially my husband, towards whom I actually felt very grateful for staying with me through thick and thin. I was so depressed that I would burst into tears upon hearing well-intentioned people asking me about how my work was going. My heart condition was also getting more serious. It caused me to have two fainting spells in the office, and made me feel that further episodes would only cause more unwanted trouble to other people at work. After 5 years, I felt better with the psychiatrist’s help and the medication, but the work stress remained, so I decided to retreat myself from it.
I was very lucky to have been able to concentrate on my career, as my children were being taken care of by my mum, and I only saw them a few times a year. In hindsight, I did sacrifice a family for a career. But as we can’t go back in time to change the past, I’m now catching up by cherishing my family time, and feeling happy to watch my granddaughter grow.
I would like to reassure new cancer fighters to not be worried about oncology treatments, as they are always less scary than what the scaremongers with ulterior motives would have us believe.
I would also like to encourage all women above 40 to do yearly body checkups, not only mammograms, but also pap smear tests and so on, as screening is one of the most effective ways to detect cancer early. Early detection will make the cancer very much easier to cure, in clear contrast to late realisation. But even for advanced stage cancers, survival is still possible, so it’s important to never give up on yourselves, and listen only to professionals, that is, your oncologists, surgeons, and physicians.