To the casual observer, it might seem as though Lum May Yee and Glenn Yong are nothing alike. One is a former model and actress who now does sales and marketing for a jewellery business; the other, a rising star in the entertainment industry.
Their personalities, too, are starkly different. May Yee is cool, calm and effortlessly elegant, while Glenn is energetic, friendly and animated.
May Yee, who has appeared in local movies such as 12 Storeys and Chicken Rice War, has zero plans to return to acting (“I enjoyed modelling much more, and still do,” she shares); Glenn is passionate about acting, and is currently in the midst of filming Singapore director Jack Neo’s new film The King Of Musang King, which is slated to hit theatres next year.
And yet, there’s a cause that links them together – and it’s a topic close to their hearts: cancer. May Yee is a cancer survivor, while Glenn is Singapore Cancer Society’s youngest goodwill ambassador.
Her story: Lum May Yee
On a seemingly normal day in September 2015, Lum May Yee, who was 42 then, woke up from what she thought was a straightforward surgery, only to be told that she had breast cancer.
The first inkling that something was wrong happened three months earlier in June, when the mother-of-two discovered a tiny lump on her chest. “It was not even on my breast, it was actually just here, see?” She points to a small scar located just slightly above her right breast. “It was very tiny, but it was hard and smooth.”
She assumed that it was a blocked milk duct as she had just stopped breastfeeding her son, but decided to book an appointment with her gynaecologist when the lump didn’t disappear. After a mammogram – which could not detect the cancer as the lump was on her chest – her gynaecologist concluded that it was likely a small fibroid cyst. To be certain, she sent May Yee to a breast surgeon specialist, who echoed her sentiments, saying that while it was “nothing suspicious”, it should still be removed.
May Yee felt reassured that the second medical opinion confirmed the benign diagnosis. “In my mind, everything was okay,” she recalls. “I even went on a family holiday first. When I came back, we scheduled a day surgery in September to remove it.”
During the operation, the surgeon removed the lump and did a biopsy on the spot. Alarmingly, they found traces of cancer in the lump. After notifying May Yee’s husband (“He was shocked, of course,” she says dryly about his reaction. “Nearly fell off the chair.”) and getting his consent, the surgeon then went on to remove 13 lymph nodes for further analysis, while May Yee was still under anaesthesia.
It was only when she woke up from surgery that she was informed that she had breast cancer. “It was frightening. My whole world came crashing down. I went in for a simple day surgery, but it became a cancer diagnosis.”
The next 48 hours were a blur. When the results finally came in, she was diagnosed with stage 2A slow-growing breast cancer. “The cancer only travelled to one lymph node, thankfully. Thinking back, I must have had it for years. It just didn’t show itself because it was a very slow growing thing,” she says.
Family is everything
May Yee spent the following four months with bags of chemicals dripped into her body as she had to undergo four rounds of chemotherapy and 30 days of radiation. “Chemotherapy was really horrible, but it was necessary, so I kept telling myself, ‘You just have to do it. There’s no way out, and the harder you fight it, the worse it feels. So if you stay positive, the chances of you getting out of it will be better’,” she says.
At the same time, her father was also battling acute myeloid leukaemia. She decided not to tell him about her cancer, and he passed away after her first session of chemotherapy.
“It was a very dark time for a while,” she admits. “It was painful, the most horrible thing anyone would ever have to go through, but looking back, I’m glad I pulled through it.”
She kept herself busy by forcing herself to exercise in order to regain her strength. Yoga sessions and gym workouts with a personal trainer filled her days throughout the four months of chemotherapy. Exercising was familiar and comfortable; she had always loved working out – whether it was kick-boxing or running – but she could barely find the time to exercise after giving birth.
Eating was also a struggle, but she pushed herself to swallow every bite. “I had no appetite due to chemotherapy and because of the drugs, my sense of taste was off. But I had no choice, because if I did not eat, I would not have the strength to fight back,” she explains.
Her mother-in-law, who lived in the same building, would often swing by with double- boiled soup, while her own mother would whip up nourishing comfort food like fish soup. “It took a whole village to get me well again,” says May Yee.
Her husband was there for her every step of the way, and her friends would help her with her son’s school runs so that she could rest. “I’m eternally grateful, and I would do the same for them, if they should ever need it.”
Her children, who were only four and one then, were the driving force behind her will to get better. “I wanted to make sure that my children could grow up with their mum around,” her voice quivers as she holds up her left wrist, where a gold bracelet engraved with her children’s names – Aiden and Kinley – hangs delicately.
“This bracelet was given to me by a very good friend of mine when I was going through cancer treatment,” she chokes out her words, before taking a moment to compose herself. “She would tell me that if I have doubts, to just look at my hand, for these are the two people that I live for. I haven’t taken this bracelet off ever since.”
This particular source of comfort helped anchor her through the darker days, including the moment when she experienced a very real fear of relapse.
In April this year, she went for a mammogram that identified two little dots on her left breast. She had to undergo a painful needle aspiration biopsy, and she describes the wait as “a week of horror”. Fortunately, her results were clear.
“It was terribly traumatising, and I’m very grateful that it cleared, but it really gave me a scare. Once you have breast cancer, the fear never goes away. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about it, at least for a couple of seconds.”
Although her journey has not been an easy one for her to recount, she hopes that sharing would help others.
“Every year, I get messages asking if I could do an interview or front a campaign. In the beginning, I was not willing to do so, because it was just too painful for me to remember,” she says.
She makes it a point to help anyone who comes calling, whether it’s a friend of a friend, or a cold contact through Instagram and Facebook. “I try to help ease their fears and to tell them to keep going,” she explains. “I tell them that they have to be strong, to push through and to look at what’s worth living for.”
Through the different business ventures she manages, including jewellery brands The Canary Diamond and its younger offshoot ByCanary, she also raises funds for different cancer- related charities.
Does she view herself as a fighter after going through such a battle? “Yes, I am a fighter,” she answers resolutely. “A really big one.”
His story: Glenn Yong
Glenn Yong was four years old when he had his first brush with the C-word. His grandfather, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“I was very close to my grandfather. The funny thing is, I can’t remember anything else from [my toddler years] except for the times that I spent with him,” the 26-year- old actor and singer recalls. His grandfather doted on him and would often take him to the playground, parks, as well as neighbourhood mamak (sundry) shops.
Following the cancer diagnosis, his grandfather passed away shortly after removing one lung. “I can’t remember much from [his funeral], but I remember thinking he was asleep,” he says, describing a moment where he stared at his grandfather’s body and tried to call out to him to awaken. “After a while, I realised that he was gone, and that’s when I started to feel sad.”
Then, when he was 15, a close mentor at church was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. “She’s a strong figure in my life, somebody that I look up to a lot,” shares Glenn.
He was shocked to see how cancer can eat away an individual. “When I saw her going through cancer, I didn’t know it could take up so much of the person. It was tough, because when she went through chemo, she lost her hair, and looked really weak and fragile.” Thankfully, he says, she recovered after a year of treatment, and 2022 marks her tenth year as a survivor.
In 2021, a close childhood friend was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Glenn shares that it was his “first time seeing someone [his] age go through cancer and it was shocking”. Prior to his friend’s diagnosis, cancer in young adults had seemed like a distant reality, and it was difficult seeing his friend lose his strength during chemotherapy.
He recalls how despite battling cancer, his friend was present during Glenn’s performance at the National Stadium for Singapore Cancer Society’s Relay for Life fundraising event in March 2022. “That performance felt extra special for me.” His friend has since recovered, and is now cancer-free.
Performing at the fundraiser ignited a spark in Glenn, one that spurred him to become an advocate for cancer awareness. In May this year, he was officially appointed the Singapore Cancer Society’s youngest goodwill ambassador.
“It ties in with why I wanted to be in the industry in the first place.” He shares that being an activist has always been a childhood dream of his. “Acting and music are my passions, but being an activist is a calling. Beyond finding success, I want to find significance in the things that I do. It’s different when I can make real change in a person’s life, and actively participate in a cause that I believe in.”
Part of his responsibilities as ambassador include embarking on school tours to raise awareness about cancer and the importance of sticking to a healthy lifestyle. He would usually perform a couple of songs, accompanied by a talk that encourages the students not to smoke and drink, and to exercise.
“I’ll invite the students up on stage and we’ll do push-ups together – here, let me show you,” he excitedly picks up his phone and pulls up a video of a recent school tour. Screams and cheers resonate from his phone, and I watch as excited students jump up on their feet to catch a glimpse of the actor doing push-ups.
“It’s so funny because they’re always freaking out as though they have never seen push-ups! I won’t tell them to go to the gym, because they’re so young, but I share such simple exercises that they can do at home,” he says.
Rise to fame
On the topic of childhood, the actor shared that he was a “rather naughty kid who loved gaming”. When he was in primary school, he watched Singapore film director Jack Neo’s film I Not Stupid (2002) and swore to himself that he would never drop to the EM3 academic stream, where “weaker” students in primary schools were banded in Singapore’s former education system.
“The funny thing is, when I was 10 years old in Primary 4, I was in the best class. And after telling myself I’ll never be in EM3, I found myself in EM3 the very next year in Primary 5, after I developed an addiction to MapleStory,” he says with a chuckle.
Besides serving as (ineffective) motivation, the film left a deep impression on him – it was the first time he ever cried during a movie. “It left a deep impression as I realised that movies can move people’s hearts.”
The clincher, however, came when he watched crime-comedy film Catch Me If You Can (2002). It was then that he knew he wanted to be an actor. “I saw how Leonardo DiCaprio could play so many different roles, and it made me realise that as an actor, you can play out different lives. I think it’s so exciting compared to living one life in itself.”
And he has since lived many fictional lives, in his various acting roles. He made his acting debut in a supporting role in 2019 television drama The Good Fight, followed by an appearance in television series Victory Lap in 2020. Those two years were difficult as he was pursuing a university degree in marketing at the same time.
“I would film my takes, and then during my breaks, I would be working on group projects on set,” he recalls. He also paid for his university tuition fees himself, so he took up odd jobs including ushering and waitering. He recalls the awkwardness of waiting on celebrity friends at an event, but he says that the experience galvanised him to work even harder and succeed.
His big break came when he was unexpectedly cast as the male lead for director Jack Neo’s Ah Girls Go Army movie in 2021. He had auditioned for a smaller role, but to his surprise, the director called the next day and offered him the male lead. “I was over the moon and screaming on the phone,” he recalls, laughing. “It’s surreal to work with Jack. All I can say is that it’s a dream come true. I would have never expected it as an 11-year-old watching [his film] I Not Stupid.”
Glenn may be one of Singapore’s hottest young talents now, but he had his fair share of detractors as an aspiring actor and singer. “Reality is harsh, and not everything is a bed of roses. The [entertainment] industry isn’t all glitz and glamour,” he says.
In an interview with online news site The Mothership, he revealed how he had been back- stabbed and gossiped about. A well-publicised dispute with actress Eleanor Lee had also made local headlines, which he declined to elaborate on during this interview.
Instead, Glenn has shifted his focus on one of his biggest sources of motivation: his family. He wants to be able to support his parents financially – his father is a tour guide and his mother a home baker – and offer them a more comfortable life.
In the whirlwind of the past couple of years, he has barely had time to take a break. These days, he tells me, he has been thinking a lot about mental health. “I wouldn’t say I have depression, but I do feel depressed from time to time. There are nights that I can’t sleep because I have so many negative thoughts. I remember there was once when I just woke up and I suddenly teared,” he sighs. “This has never happened to me before.”
Is it the stress that’s getting to him? “Yes, and also the expectations. I feel like I have to succeed in everything I do, or else I’ll disappoint [everyone].” He gestures to his phone. “With social media, everything looks so perfect, right? There will be times when I think: What if I meet a fan or a person and I don’t meet up to their expectations of who I am? What if they feel disappointed after meeting me?”
I ask how he has been learning to get past this hurdle, and he takes a quiet moment to contemplate his answer. “I guess, well, what I usually do is to convince myself that I don’t have to please everyone. For every one person who doesn’t like me, I have 10 others that maybe do. So I should just be confident in myself.” A strong support system, consisting of his family, close friends, as well as his manager and team, also helps.
Through the different endeavours he undertakes, he seeks to address mental health issues and raise awareness. Glenn’s first English single Up Up was released earlier this year, and the hip-hop track encapsulates his experiences in the industry so far. The lyrics describe being betrayed by those he considered his close friends, and convey a bold defiance against those who scoffed at his dreams. It’s a song meant to encourage one to keep moving up despite the odds.
He shares that he’s working on a couple of new songs right now, and though he’s tight-lipped on the details, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the songs tie in with his advocacy work.
He explains: “As Steve Jobs once said, the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Joel Low, assisted by Eddie Teo
CREATIVE DIRECTION & STYLING Windy Aulia, assisted by Joanzine Lee, Jeon Jae Won & Elrica Tan
ART DIRECTION Ray Ticsay
HAIR Edward Chong/ Evolve Salon, using Oribe & Manisa Tan, using Anticollectivepro.sg
MAKEUP Toni Tan, using MAC Cosmetics & Zoel Tee, using Dior Beauty