True Stories

What she's truly thinking: Cancer survivor in her 20s

At 29, Esther Khong discovered she had cancer, and she had a masectomy. With humour and self-awareness, she tells us about her journey, not just of recovery, but of how she found strength by redefining everything around her
 

woman with cancer

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I was diagnosed with stage one cancer in April ’17 when I was 29. I was very blessed, because when the doctor tested it, it had already turned aggressive, so if I had waited longer, it would’ve proceeded to other stages immediately. You don’t really have time to process it. You don’t really have a choice because if you don’t do anything, you’re going to die.

I didn’t tell a lot of friends. I just told a close circle of friends. I have three siblings, I’m the second child. It’s a big family so the last thing you need to do is worry about five other people; my dad and sisters were crying.

To lose something that is an identity to most people - do a mastectomy was because it was the right thing to do for my survival but emotionally it was another thing. The fact is no one can understand what you’re going through or feel your pain  or encourage you in a way that will make you feel better. But what they showed me in that process was that no matter what happened, they’d be here for me.

 

DIAGNOSIS

woman depressed

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The doctor gave me the option of doing lumpectomy. I’d still have some sensation which is important to many women my age, but I had many considerations: lumpectomy would require me to be exposed to radiation, and could give rise to a second cancer. If you still have tissues, the fact is you could get cancer again, and it would be even harder to detect; and I really didn't want to leave fearing that I could have it again 30 or 40 years down the road. I just felt like the wise thing to do was to do a full mastectomy. This would take away potential risk to less than one per cent.

I told my parents that I wanted a second opinion, and asked who they thought was better, but at the end of the day, the doctor was going to be operating on me, I had to be comfortable. The second opinion confirmed my worst fears, and I scheduled an operation for the next month.

 

OPERATION

operation

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On the operating bed, you won’t think about material things or money. The only thing you think about it is , if I don’t make it, how would my family feel? It’s so painful for them. I started thinking I should’ve spent more time with them and said ‘I love you’ more. It made me realise that when you are at your lowest of lows, the only thing that matters are people who matter to you, it’s about spending time with people you love. I wish that people could see that the only things that matter in this world are relationships, someone you can be 100 percent yourself with.

 

POST OP

hospital bed

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After the op, I was in intense pain. When they transferred me from the operating trolley to the bed, I can’t even describe it. You’re awake and have scars all over your body. I felt pain for days and was put on drips. The first time you got to see it is when the nurses clean your wounds, but even then it’s bruised and swollen all over – in-your-face stitches. The nurses just tell you that the swelling will go down.

I didn’t change my dressings because I didn’t care; changing the scar doesn’t change the way you look. You can still look beautiful with 20 or 30 scars. I just believe that ultimately it’s about acceptance and seeing the good that came out of it – I’d say I’ve grown from this journey. I learned to take life without such a tight hand. In the past, I’d demand perfection. Like I expect this and that from you. But I realised life should be enjoyable; to be able to experience relationships and love.

The scars are imprinted in your body and when you touch it, it’s just a piece of silicon. There’s no feeling. It’s artificial. I can’t do anything to make the scars disappear, and since nothing can change it, why should I be ashamed of it? Beauty is subjective. Yes, many can say scars are ugly, that perfection is defined as someone who is flawless. But why should I be defined by what the world says? Everything is a social construct anyway.

It made me more tenacious and stronger in terms of character and personality. No way going through cancer was going to make me go down a downward spiral. Also, a year on, most of my scars have healed quite nicely, I have a really good plastic surgeon.

 

THE EX

couple breakup

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But I broke up with my boyfriend pretty soon after the op. It was a very painful period in my life – a double whammy. I think it was because he wasn’t ready to take the journey with me. It’s easy to put up a front with your friends and family, because your family is so close, they’re super affected by it. So as an individual, the last thing that I wanted to do was put up a tough front, just to say things that make you look tough on the outside. I mean, who isn’t scared?

A relationship only gets tested when you go through the lowest of lows, and many times relationships don’t last cause they haven’t been tested in that sense. I took it very personally. I would just say crap things like ‘the business is going to fail’; ‘the vendors are going to drop out’; ‘I’m never going to look pretty again’.

The scars looked swollen for the longest time. I kept asking, ‘how am I going to show my body in public?’ He was encouraging for a while, but you realise it through the person’s reactions. It got to the point that he snapped at me. “Just stop it. I already told you it’s not true.” 

The relationship fell apart, I was physically and emotionally in pain. But I believed something good would come out of it – it’d make me stronger… because not everyone comes out of this.

 

WORK

woman stressed at work

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I used to be a banker (corporate loans), and before the operation I was also working to launch my app: Date Out would be an app that helped couples find ‘couple-y’ things to do in Singapore. Most people in Singapore end up doing the same things, we wanted to give couples many more options. They can pick from over 130 activities and pay. It’s not an app for singles to meet!

So I was already meeting vendors to drum up business. But after the operation, I had an epiphany. I realised I only wanted to focus on launching the app, I wanted to do something bigger than myself – I wanted the app to make a difference in people’s relationships. I was ready to give up my finance work.

I kinda started working about two three months after the operation, after passing on my finance clients to other people. For the app, I wanted to make sure that the first few vendors I met could understand my heart and vision; I was the only one handling it.

Some previous vendors weren’t happy cause they didn’t hear much from me (I had gone MIA after the op); more than a couple of them dropped out. It was almost like one year of work went down the drain; that was very tough for me, when you have a goal and it doesn’t happen because of circumstances that you can’t control.

But I didn’t feel comfortable telling vendors about my op. To even acquire vendors at the start of my app launch was very hard. Before the op, I would meet eight people a day, just cold call and meet them. It slowed down to two people per day. The body was tired and still recovering, so progress dipped. I realised I couldn’t do it alone and needed a team of good people. I had to spend time nurturing people and getting them to believe in the vision.

 

REBUILDING

solo trip

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I needed a break, to see beautiful mountains and valleys and lakes. In September 2018, a year after my op, I went on a solo trip to Auckland and Queenstown, New Zealand. I enjoy driving because there is so much time for contemplation. It was just me and the beauty which surrounded me, and as I drove, thoughts of everything that I had gone through flooded my brain, and with it came about a huge sense of gratitude.

And I realised something cool too: I realised that beauty comes from ashes, it’s pain (techtonically speaking) that created the beautiful landscape. If life throws you circumstances and you have to climb over mountains, the experiences will mould you into who you are. There’s no way you can’t come out of it stronger. Although I can never understand why and have chosen not to question why, I’ve chosen to see the good.

Yes, physically I still can’t do a lot of sports, though I’ve always been an active person. I used to play contact rugby, but now I feel the strain even from swimming. My strength is maybe 40 or 30 per cent of what it used to be. If I sit in a chair for a very long time, it’d get uncomfortable. I am slowly trying to build my strength back, and eventually I do hope to get active again; I have been swimming and walking.

 

PRIORITIES

prioritise

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I think won't exactly say learn not to take life with such a tight hand, but rather learn how to appreciate things even when its not perfect. When you look back, you are only going to realise what an uptight frustrated person you were, which is totally not how life should be. You miss relationships that are important or relationships that could have bloomed (but didn’t) because you demanded perfection.

I also had to prioritise, not so much about meeting eight people a day, cause I couldn't run about as much as i could since my body was still recovering from the op, but it's more of being very targeted. I constantly asked myself, what I must do to get this app launched. Who I must speak to, who should I spend time with, what were the kind of vendors I wanted on board, who can add value to the business, etc.

And I did look back on my 29 years of life. This ordeal really made me reflect, and it made me think of how I had been living my 29 years of life, and I realised I had so much to be grateful for, so much to be thankful for. Life will never be perfect; it can never be perfect. It’s the little wins in life, the good you see out of the bad, the lessons you learn from problems, choosing to see good, being grateful and thankful, it makes you appreciate life a lot more.

 

LIFE

woman alone

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As the saying goes, you can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose your response. I could be bitter and angry and give up, or I could see this as a second chance, and see it as how blessed I am.

I want to make something matter in my life. Not everyone has the opportunity to go through what I went through, and I am not gonna let it restrict me. It made me stronger, and I want to make a difference in other people’s lives. We all have the same 24 hours a day, and what you do with those 24 hours defines you.

 

“I choose to see beauty in a different way. I choose to see beauty as strength. Beauty as being tenacious, beauty as fighting back against odds and not letting life's lows throw you down. So I have come to see my scars as beauty, in its own ways. It tells of a story that I went through and came out of it better.”

 

Esther Khong’s Date Out app launched on August 2018 (https://www.dateout.co/). She’s planning for a regional expansion in the future.

 

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