True Stories

True story: “Breast cancer transformed my wife into someone I no longer recognised”

Man up, and speak up for breast cancer. This Breast Cancer Awareness month, we’re calling on men to get involved in the fight against the disease in a two-part series that shines the spotlight on the cancer battle we don’t often hear about. Let's hear it from the guys
 

Photo: Zai

“At what point do you know you want to marry somebody?

In my case, it came down to a matter of life and death. The precise moment is up for debate. Maybe it was when I found out Branda was crying hysterically in the office that day in January 2015. She’d just gotten a call from the doctor to tell her that the lump in her breast meant she had Stage 2 cancer. Maybe it was when her family in Hong Kong insisted she return home even though her options here in Singapore were better, particularly with the oncologist that she was seeing. Maybe it was when she indicated that she thought I might leave her when the going gets tough.

But I knew that I had to prove to Branda that I was here to stay, so I popped the question. She said yes, and began treatment.

 

Skeptics questioned my motives

We kept Branda’s situation quiet as we didn’t want pity from other people. Because of this, many people assumed that there must have been a baby on the way. Others who knew about the cancer eyed me with suspicion.

I received threats from her friends and colleagues, warning me to treat her right or else. Showing Branda that I was serious about this commitment wasn’t enough. I had to prove myself to everybody else who cared about her.

Part of the reason for their doubt was that at 24 years old, I was five years younger than Branda and a mere child in their eyes. I didn’t have the financial stability or career trajectory as many of her friends’ husbands. Fresh out of national service, I was still applying for university at the time that she got her diagnosis.

Photo: Zai

I was confident I could take care of her better than anyone else. Just two years prior, I’d seen her through another health crisis. I was in at the airport ready to fly off for a friend’s wedding when she called me sounding extremely ill. Immediately, I grabbed my suitcase and rushed to her house to take her to the hospital. She was warded with a severe kidney infection that lasted two grueling weeks.

Back then, we weren’t even a couple, yet I was at the hospital every day to make sure she was alright. Now that we were together, there was no way I was leaving her side.

 

Cancer made her mean

I was prepared to be Branda’s sole caregiver. I put my plans for university on hold and told my family I couldn’t spend much time at home anymore. The roles of nurse, chauffeur and housekeeper fell on me and my life henceforth would revolve around her needs.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how Branda would change. My best friend and confidant of the past five years had suddenly become hostile and bitter.

Negative thoughts crowded my anxious mind so despite my physical exhaustion I wasn’t getting more than an hour or two of sleep. The night before her very first chemotherapy session in February, I hardly slept a wink. The next day, she noticed that I was groggy behind the wheel of the car and snapped at me, “Why didn’t you just sleep more? Don’t you care about me at all? What’s the point of us fighting for my life if we’re just going to die in a car crash?”

It was the induced menopause, meant to protect her reproductive organs, that caused this shift in her personality. She couldn’t seem to feel empathy for me. Everything could set her off, even something as simple as me asking her what she was doing could trigger an outsized reaction. “Am I doing something wrong?” she’d bellow at me.

 

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The illness wore both of us down

I never expected that cancer would hurt our relationship in this way. To make matters worse, every visitor who came during the duration of her treatment was only concerned about Branda. As she grew weaker with each cycle of chemotherapy, not once did anyone ask how I was doing nor did they notice that I was on the brink of collapse.

Although I never felt that any attention should be on me, it was difficult for me to keep going because I didn’t have anyone to turn to for emotional support. Underappreciated and weary, the only time I got some relief was when her family members came over to Singapore for a few weeks to share the burden of care.

My health took a hit from the prolonged period of around-the-clock caregiver duties. For one, my  childhood asthma returned. I developed chronic bronchitis. My back also suffered, and this wasn’t helped by the long hours I sat on hard stools in the chemotherapy clinic. This gave me constant stress as I knew I had to be well enough to care for Branda.

Photo: Zai

In June, we finished with the chemotherapy and Branda had a successful surgery to remove the mass. All that was left was 33 sessions of radiotherapy. Every day, I would ferry a lethargic Branda from home to the hospital. One thing I never forgot was to remind her how beautiful she was despite her baldness and the painful boils on her thighs caused by the treatment, which I carefully drained.

At this time, we discovered the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF) support group. The other women’s stories buoyed Branda’s mood and she grew more positive. We both saw the light at the end of the tunnel. When the treatment was completed, the doctors did a final scan and pronounced Branda officially cleared of the cancer.

 

The long journey back to normal begins

Things never returned exactly to the way they used to be. Branda still had a short fuse, though she’s slowly working on changing her attitude towards me. We’ve got a lot to work on but we finally get to enjoy married life.

Branda has become the centre of all my plans. Though I initially wanted to go to the UK for university, after her illness I decided to study in a local private university so as not to be away from her. I accept that she will always be the main breadwinner, and I am happy helping out with her family business.

As the husband of a breast cancer survivor, I feel that it’s extremely important to raise awareness about what to expect and what resources are available.

Photo: Zai

Branda and I share our experiences at the regular BCF meetings and are very involved in other activities. Branda’s part of BCF’s dragonboat team called the Paddlers in Pink. My hope is that others will reach out for support so they won’t have to go it alone.”

 

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