Veteran actress Pan Ling Ling found out midway through a charity golf game in March 2013 that she had Stage 1 breast cancer. During an annual check-up a few days earlier, her doctor had found six cysts in her left breast. A biopsy confirmed Ling Ling’s worst fears – one of the cysts, a 2.8cm-wide lump, was cancerous – and her doctor had called to convey the news.
The 45-year-old heeded her physician’s advice and wasted no time in getting it seen to. Just days after the call, Ling Ling was wheeled into the operating theatre for a partial mastectomy, followed by breast reconstruction surgery. Her oncologist removed the lump, as well as some lymph nodes.
After the surgeries came five months of chemotherapy, from April to September 2013, followed by a month of radiotherapy from October to November 2013.
The multiple treatments took a huge toll on her health. Besides suffering from side effects such as fatigue, irritability and night sweats, she also piled on 10-12kg as a result of the prescribed steroid medication.
“The weight gain made me feel large and clumsy, and my face felt very swollen and tight. It was all quite uncomfortable,” she remembers. She also lost all of her hair – even her eyebrows and eyelashes – due to the chemotherapy.
But the treatment was a success and Ling Ling has been in remission for almost two years now. While she still has to go for check-ups once every three months and take hormone-control pills for the next three years, she looks the picture of good health. She cuts a svelte figure, having lost the weight she gained, and her hair has grown back, as lustrous as before.
It's all in the mind
Her radiance at today’s photocall might well stem from her positive outlook. She is remarkably optimistic, and this buoyant mindset is what carried her through her ordeal. “I’m very happy-go-lucky by nature, so I took the news of my diagnosis quite well. I told myself that I had to face the facts to get better,” she shares.
Says her husband, actor Huang Shinan: “I was in awe of how positive she was – when she was being wheeled into the operating theatre for her mastectomy, she could even wave goodbye to me cheerily.
“In contrast, worst-case scenarios kept running through my head. I looked so upset that one of the nurses mistook me for the patient instead!”
The plucky actress adds: “When my hair started falling out during chemotherapy, I initially refused to cut it, as I wanted to experience it dropping out in clumps – just like in the TV dramas. When I eventually shaved it off because of excessive hair loss, I took a selfie and shared it with my friends, as I thought that I didn’t look all that bad.”
Health is wealth
Positive outlook aside, Ling Ling has also overhauled her lifestyle in light of her diagnosis. “In the past, I loved meat and hated fruits and vegetables. I am now more health-conscious – I have since reduced my meat intake by about half and make it a point to eat some greens every day. I’m even star ting to like raw tomatoes! I also drink plenty of alkaline water, as I’ve been told that cancer cells proliferate in an acidic environment,” she shares.
The avid golfer also takes to the fairways at least once a week, and regularly practises “figurerobics”, a popular Korean dance workout, at home. “I try to fit in a golf game whenever there is a break in my filming schedule. According to my doctor, all that walking on the golf course – plus its lush greenery – is good for me,” she grins.
Of course, she still allows herself the occasional indulgence. “I can’t resist beef, especially at (actress Zoe Tay’s husband) Philip’s barbecues. He can make a mean steak! I just tell myself that beef helps improve my low blood platelet count, which is a side effect of the chemotherapy,” she says cheekily. “Besides, I’ve been advised to try to lead as normal a lifestyle as possible, so it’s okay to have everything in moderation.”
The ties that bind
Ling Ling says her speedy rehabilitation would not have been possible without Shinan, whom she’s been married to for 27 years. “I’m immensely grateful to him for standing by me all this while. He is nine years older than me, and has always pampered me throughout our relationship.
“He treated me like a queen when I was undergoing cancer treatment, constantly giving in to me and looking out for my health, while reassuring our sons. He also turned down lucrative acting projects overseas, as he wanted to take care of me,” she shares.
Adds Shinan: “The chemotherapy caused Ling Ling to get nightmares almost every night. She would dream that people were going to kill her, and would wake up screaming. It pained me to see her suffer, so I would stay up to comfort her and tuck her in bed again, before going to sleep myself.”
The devoted husband also trawled the Internet for remedies for Ling Ling’s discomfort – such as a cooling mattress pad to ease her night sweats – and hired a helper to take care of the household chores. What’s more, he did his best to comfort and reassure their sons, Beckham, 16, and Kynaston, 13.
Muses Ling Ling: “Thankfully, the kids were on their best behaviour the entire time. In fact, one good thing about the cancer is that it made Beckham more mature – he was the typical angsty teenager when I was diagnosed, but he quickly put his rebelliousness behind him when he saw what I was going through.”
Today, Ling Ling is paying forward the support she has been given. “A lot of people – from fellow cancer patients to fans and even random aunties at the market – come up to me now to ask about my cancer experience, so I try to help them, whether it’s dietary advice or tips on how to stay positive,” she says.
“But more importantly, I’m proud to be able to prove to everyone – especially my sons – that I’m a fighter. I want to encourage people that anything in life can be overcome with courage and resilience. Don’t let anything get you down.”
Adds Shinan: “My relationship with Ling Ling has always been solid, but her diagnosis has made me discover a whole new side of her. I honestly don’t think I could be half as courageous if the same thing happened to me, and I really admire her inner strength.”
This article was originally published in Simply Her October 2015.