Breast Cancer (Stage 1)
Ng Mei Theng’s Story (34)
For Mei Theng, being diagnosed at the age of 34 with breast cancer when she was a young, breastfeeding mother of over 3 years, shocked her. The risks didn’t add up and yet there she was, sitting in Dr Ng Char Hong’s clinic at Sunway Medical Centre, Sunway City, processing the news that she was diagnosed with HER-2 positive breast cancer.
Had she not heard the news of her aunt who had passed on due to breast cancer, Mei Theng would not have done a self-examination and found the lump on her left breast. So many women, like her cousins, do not see the importance of doing mammograms because they don’t think they are at risk or are fearful of the pain.
This breast cancer survivor now shares her story to raise awareness among mothers about breast cancer. She also advises women to do their annual memograms, saying: “The peace of mind you gain from doing the mammogram is worth that few minutes of discomfort!”
Reduced Risk Doesn’t Mean No Risk
As a breastfeeding peer counsellor, Mei Theng has always promoted breastfeeding by sharing about how it reduces the risk of breast cancer. She thought that being a breastfeeding mother for over 3 years, her risk was reduced to zero.
However, this couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Dr Ng shares that to reduce breast cancer risk, there are a few methods. Breastfeeding, having children before the age of 35, and having more children, reduces the exposure of oestrogen to the breast tissue that causes breast cancer cell growth. However, not all breast cancers are caused by oestrogen and there can be other causes too. So at the end of the day, this merely reduces the risk, not eliminate it.
Cancer Treatments and Fertility
Having infertility issues, Mei Theng conceived her first child through In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). As she and her husband wanted a second child, she wondered whether the potential breast cancer treatments would affect her egg reserves.
“You never know how long the breast cancer treatments would go on for, and by the time Mei Theng can get pregnant again, 2 to 3 years would probably have passed. Plus, we don’t know whether the chemotherapy or radiotherapy would have effects on the subsequent new embryo,” Mei Theng’s husband Mr Wong Chee Yin said.
Dr Ng advised Mei Theng to see a fertility doctor at Sunway Fertility Centre, and Mei Theng was able to freeze her eggs before she was to undergo any surgery or treatment. This would ensure that she would be able to get pregnant again in the future. Both husband and wife advised that it’s always good to discuss concerns with the doctors. Doctors have the patient’s best interest at heart, so they will be able to prescribe the right treatment accordingly.
Higher Survival Rate if Detected Early
Thankfully, because of her early detection, Mei Theng’s cancer was only at Stage 1A, where the cancer was less than 2cm and had not spread outside the breast. Nonetheless, to ensure she would be clear from any other undetected cancer cells, she was also put through chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Detected early, there is a higher survival rate for breast cancer patients. This is why Dr Christina Lai advocates that women with a known family history of breast cancer, like Mei Theng’s daughter, should start doing a breast self-examination once she reaches 20 years old.
“I tell patients that even if you’re in stage 4, it doesn’t mean there is no hope. Of course, we try not to treat patients in stage 4. We’d rather treat you in stage 1 to stage 3. So no matter what, we still encourage people to get screening done so that we can detect you early,” says Dr Christina.
Finding Strength Through Family
Throughout this cancer journey, Mei Theng feels like she has become a stronger and firmer person. She credits having her family to journey with her that provided the most support. When she was weak from her chemotherapy, her mother would help her with the chores. Her husband on the other hand took over in caring for their 3-year-old daughter, so she could rest. Her sister, who also happened to be a doctor, was able to be there for her when she was going for doctor’s consultations and treatments, to help her understand her condition and treatments better.
The network of support from Mei Theng’s family freed her from the daily responsibilities as a wife and mother, and it allowed her to focus on undergoing her treatment. This truly enabled her to take charge of her own health. Mei Theng hopes that more women are able to prioritise their health and don’t wait until something happens.