On paper, Eileen Kao did not look like a likely candidate for breast cancer. No one in her family had cancer before and she led an active lifestyle, regularly going to pilates and HIIT classes, as well as doing hikes and bike rides with her family in Singapore.
She also used toxin-free household products exclusively at home and her family ate organic and sustainably-sourced produce. “I also breastfed both my kids for over a year each, which is supposed to lower your chances of getting breast cancer.”
Hence, it came as a shock to the mother of two when the doctor told her that she had breast cancer.
The 37-year-old first discovered a lump in her breast in July this year. Thinking back, Eileen says that in a sense Covid-19 was a blessing in disguise.
Her children, who are enrolled in an international school in Singapore, usually have their summer holidays in July, and usually, the family would be overseas for two to three months.
“Had this been any other year, I would have brushed it aside and proceeded with our travel plans. And by the time we return, I would be caught up with the kids going back to school.”
As she was stuck in Singapore, she made an appointment with a doctor and after a series of tests were performed, it was determined that she had Stage 2/3 cancer.
“I had thought it would be nothing, so my husband and kids were waiting in the car downstairs. Maybe it was a good thing they weren’t with me as I couldn’t help but cry when I received the news, and I wouldn’t want my children to see me in tears. That has also been the only time that I have broken down because of my cancer.”
“Who will care for my children?”
For Eileen, her key concern was the wellbeing of her children as the stay-at-home mum was their main caregiver. The family is in Singapore because of her husband’s work, hence they didn’t have any relatives here, and her parents who were in Hong Kong could not fly over.
She had tried to figure out if there would be any way for her mum to fly in to help with her kids once she started her cancer treatment. “I had read that chemotherapy would be physically hard on the body and most online experiences made it sound pretty bleak. I was afraid I wouldn’t have the energy to care for my children who rely on me to fetch them to and from school.”
However, she was told that she would have to pay $2,000 to apply for a permit, and even after forking out the amount and applying, there was no guarantee that her mum would be allowed to Singapore. Hence she quickly gave up on that notion.
Instead, she and her husband started to make changes to the family’s routine to what would be the new normal once she started her chemotherapy. This includes her husband learning how to prepare meals at home.
She credits her husband for being a pillar of strength ever since they learnt she had cancer and he has stepped up in more ways than one. Other than the physical gestures and actions, he has been there for her emotionally too.
One day, after her first round of chemotherapy, the hair loss suddenly hit her. “My hair just fell off while I was sitting still, without me even touching it. And it fell off in clumps,” she shared. The family already had an appointment for everyone at the hairdressers the following day, with the intention for Eileen to first cut her hair short.
With the new development, her plans had to be accelerated and the next day, she shaved her head. And the first thing her husband said to her after that was: “You are beautiful”.
Covid-19 has also allowed Elieen’s husband to be more present than he would otherwise have been. “Him working from home during this period of time means that he is around the house most of the time to check in on me, and to pick up the slack and the children if I’m not feeling up to it.”
Not just dealing with breast cancer
Eileen’s discovery of breast cancer came along with another surprise — her full body scan revealed that she needed surgery for her kidneys. “My kidneys weren’t draining out urine properly and I had to do the operation first as my immune system would be compromised during chemotherapy.”
The doctor wanted her to start chemotherapy as soon as possible but Eileen opted to wait till her children were back in school, so as to disrupt the family’s routine as little as possible.
And to date, her children who are seven and five don’t really know that she has cancer. “All we have told them is that mummy is sick and while she is recovering, she might be more tired than usual.”
Thankfully, she has taken to chemotherapy better than anticipated. While she did have constipation and diarrhoea after her first session, she wasn’t as physically affected as all the accounts she’d read online said she would be. “I would be less energetic for about a week, and after that, I would be pretty much back to normal. The kids have hardly seen much of a difference other than me no longer having my usual hairstyle.”
As Eileen will have to undergo a mastectomy to remove her left breast, she has already started “training” her kids on how to interact with her. “I tell them to hug me on my right side so that they don’t accidentally bump into me after my surgery.”
She also plans to do breast reconstruction, though not doing it did cross her mind. “But in consideration of our sex lives, I decided to do it. We’re still young and it matters to me that he has a set of breasts for him.”
And if her nipple can’t be saved as cancer cells have spread there, she plans to let him decide the type and colour of the nipple that will be tattooed on her reconstructed breast. “He should get to choose since I’m doing it for him, ” she says with a chuckle.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month takes place every October. As breast cancer is the number one cancer affecting women in Singapore and early detection can save lives, women are encouraged to do a mammogram screening for just $25 for Singapore citizens. Visit pinkribbonsingapore.org for more information on the various activities taking place to raise awareness for breast cancer.
This story first appeared on asiaone.com.