The 49-year-old mother of two shared on social media in November 2022 that she was diagnosed with tongue cancer in late July that year.
She said then that she had two operations followed by chemo radiation treatments to not only remove any visible cancer, but also reduce the chances of it coming back.
“Near the beginning of 2022, I discovered an ulcer on my tongue,” she shared. “One of those things you don’t think very much about – a little painful and irritating, that’s all.”
Koh saw a general practitioner and then a dentist, who told her on her second visit to see an oral surgeon. She got a biopsy done immediately and was diagnosed with tongue cancer a week later.
“My diagnosis filled me with regret. Why had I wasted months in between noticing the ulcer and finally getting it checked out?” she said. “I had delayed proper medical attention because I was travelling, working and life had gotten in the way. It had never crossed my mind that it could be something serious.”
She sought a second opinion after receiving the pathology report from her first surgery, with her second set of doctors recommending a second surgery to make sure the margins were clear.
“You don’t just remove the tumour, you remove the portion around it as a buffer, so as to reduce the chance of cancer cells spreading,” she said.
More than half her tongue has now been surgically removed and the theatre thespian cannot help but have high expectations of herself when it comes to clarity and articulation.
“So I’m in speech therapy, and that’s been really good in helping me rehabilitate,” she said. “But I’m also very aware that physiologically, there has been permanent change and it’s undeniable. I’m not going to grow a new tongue.”
Koh is learning to accept that there is a limit to how perfect her speech will be, and that, to her, is part of the emotional recovery from the trauma of the illness.
“I try not to let it bother me. In fact, I try to talk to as many people as I can,” she said. “Rather than isolate myself due to embarrassment or fear, I feel it’s important for me to be social, to attend events or weddings, to meet friends and industry folk, so that everyone can get used to my new voice – and so that I can get used to it too.”
Koh said she has no expectations of going back to work in front of a camera or on stage, and it is something she is slowly letting go of.
“My husband had said something to me very early on in this journey, when I was wondering if I could ever act again,” she said. “He said: ‘We have so many other mountains to climb. Why do we feel the need to keep going back to this one mountain?’”
Koh is married to Mr Lionel Yeo, the former chief executive of Singapore Sports Hub, and they have two sons aged 19 and 17. His words made her question what she was clinging to and why.
“For those of us who are artists or creatives, our work is a huge part of our identity,” she said. “It might be time for me to figure out – who am I outside my work? Am I willing to evolve? Am I willing to let go?”
Koh, who has been performing for over 30 years, feels like she is making up for lost time as she has always felt like she did not have enough time with her sons, missing birthday dinners and important family occasions.
Speaking of her present lifestyle, she said: “I’m home when the kids come back from school. I have time to drive them to places they need to go. We sit down for dinner together and talk about how their days went. This time to be present with my family is a real luxury. Even if it is under these circumstances, it is a gift.”
She does not plan too far ahead of time as the first few years after cancer are delicate, feeling that it is important for her to live her days well irrespective of the outcome.
“If I can learn to love who I am and have become, then that acceptance, I think, is by far the most important step I have to make,” she said.
This article was originally published in The Straits Times.