In February, she discovered a hard lump on her breast and experienced fainting, and feverish spells. Two months later, in April, after consulting a specialist, accountant Oh Mei Qi was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. She’s only 29.
“I’m anaemic, so I never thought these ailments (fainting spells and fever) were pointing to breast cancer,” says Mei Qi, who’s currently undergoing chemotherapy.
“I’m barely 30… I never thought I’d have a tumour nearly the size of my whole breast, and be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.”
Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for about 10 to 15 per cent of all breast cancers. It’s a type of breast cancer that does not have any of the three receptors commonly found on breast cancer cells.
Mei Qi adds: “I was really feeling down and emotional. At times, I cried myself to sleep. I worried about my work, my family…”
Mei Qi has been going through chemotherapy treatments for five months. The tumour has to be shrunk before she undergoes a mastectomy. Although Mei Qi had come across the breast self-examination information, she admits that she didn’t take it too seriously.
“It was during one of the rare occasions where I was casually examining my breasts when I discovered the lump,”she recalls. “But I didn’t think too much about it. I thought (then) that breast cancer only affected women in their 40s and 50s.”
This is one of the common misconceptions that many young women have, resulting in more being diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer, says breast surgeon Dr Esther Chuwa of Esther Chuwa Breastcare.
She adds: “Many are unaware of the severity of breast cancer, and how cancer cells can also form in younger women. In the past, breast cancer was associated with post- menopausal women.”
Like Mei Qi, marketer Yvonne Chua, 30, didn’t expect to be diagnosed with HER2-positive stage two breast cancer in April last year. The HER2-positive breast cancer is a result of the presence of a protein called the Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2 (HER2), which promotes the growth of cancer cells.
Yvonne shares: “I had just given birth, and as I was breastfeeding, I thought the hard lump in my breast was due to mastitis. So I scheduled a visit to my gynaecologist.”
Last May, she received the bad news when her breast surgeon (who was overseas) texted her to speak in person.
Yvonne remembers: “It was Mother’s Day week when my doctor told me it was cancer. Everything was a blur to me… with so much information to digest and options to consider. Despite so, one thing was very clear to me – I have to get myself ‘fixed’ if I want to live and grow with my family.”
Yvonne says there was no time to wait or cry. She quickly went ahead with what her doctor had arranged for her (PET/CT scan and mammogram screening) to make sure the cancer didn’t spread, before she went for a lumpectomy.
Skipping out on Self-examination
Dr Chuwa highlights: “Breast cancer in women under the age of 40 tends to be more aggressive as they’re more susceptible to specific types of cancer that spread more readily and quickly. They also get diagnosed during the later stages because they think it won’t affect them.”
Yvonne, for example, wasn’t informed of breast self-examination, and had thought that mammograms were the only way to detect the cancer.
The mother of one tells Her World: “Since mammograms were only for older women, I had the impression (then) that I was safe from breast cancer.”
Road to recovery
Battling cancer has put a lot of stress on Mei Qi and Yvonne. Mei Qi was recommended by her doctor to “freeze” her eggs, as there was a risk of infertility.
“I was told that one can store their eggs forever, she says. “The hospital will ‘freeze’ it. Actually, I wasn’t planning to get pregnant any time soon, so it’s more like an ‘insurance’. In case the chemotherapy causes me to be infertile, and in case I get married and want a child in the future, I have a Plan B.”
Her strong will to live led her to start treatment within two weeks of her diagnosis.
But Mei Qi remembers being afraid of the side effects. “Chemotherapy was pretty scary to me. When I knew of my illness, my impression of chemo was that it would take away every definition of beauty,” she recalls.
Mei Qi was really worried about losing her hair and experiencing other skin changes.
“I found various way to minimise my hairfall during chemo, such as cold caps and using a gentler shampoo,” she says. “I also discovered wigs. But then, I decided that I should be brave to face my illness and not care about other people’s opinions.”
At times, Mei Qi even went out of the house bald. The whole ordeal, she adds, didn’t really change how she views herself. It has changed her perspective about body confidence.
“I used to think body confidence is about what you wear and how you look,” she says. “But now, I think body confidence can also means portraying who you are as a person, and what you are going through.”
For Yvonne, walking around with a bottle (to drain excess fluid) attached to her left breast post-surgery was just the beginning of another ordeal. After her lymph node surgery in May last year, her oncologist discovered another two more groups of cancer foci in her left breast.
“By that time, I was so emotionally drained,” recalls Yvonne who is undergoing chemotherapy treatments. “My doctor told me that I could opt for just chemotherapy. So I did, and began treatment last June. I saw myself becoming someone else entirely.”
Apart from her “battle” scars, she was prepared to look bloated and bald. However, she admits that there were days when she couldn’t even look at herself in the mirror.
But the young mother wasn’t about to let the cancer beat her. She was prepared to go bald and even got some head scarves to match her outfits.
“I remember thinking how ‘empty’ my face looked without my brows and hair,” she adds. “I looked a lot older and tired. On those days, I would remind myself that this is all temporary and necessary for me to live and grow with my family.”
Finding support in tough times
Yvonne weathered the worst times, with the support of her “boob-sisters” – a group of fellow breast cancer survivors, whom she got to know through the Breast Cancer Foundation BCF). She chats with them on a Whatsapp group created by BCF.
She has since gone back to her active lifestyle of attending HIIT classes every other week. “I used to exercise very often before the diagnosis,” says Yvonne. “Once my oncologist cleared me for exercise, I went back to the gym.”
Mei Qi’s circle of friends checks on her regularly, giving her moral support whenever she feels discouraged.
“I diverted my attention while working from home to read up on upgrading my work, playing games…“ she adds. “I also research on how to recover faster from chemo, like exercising, and the type of food that I should eat more.”
Mei Qi is transitioning to her usual routine with some slight adjustments. “I’m currently working from home, it’s actually been good to go back to normal,” she shares.
“I’m also in the process of arranging my meal and workout plans to speed up the recovery process!”
Their advice to women: Always be vigilant of the signs of breast cancer and practise self-examination regularly. “All women should self- examine their breasts. Do not take it lightly just because you are young,” Mei Qi states. “The earlier an illness is detected, the earlier it can get treated.”
Yvonne adds: “Anyone can get breast cancer. I don’t have a family history of breast cancer, but I got it. So pay attention to your body.”