‘My whole world collapsed’: A mother's fight against breast cancer to regain her life
Sheron Sng's mother had pancreatic cancer. The homemaker shares how that experience helped prepare her for her own fight – and how she overcame it in a year thanks to her family’s support.
Hearing Sheron Sng talk about her breast cancer experience was like riding an emotional rollercoaster with her.
One moment, the 38-year-old was calmly extolling the benefits of cold-pressed juices and the next, she was animatedly describing how the tumour in her left breast had "burst" and she'd bled non-stop while in the shower.
“I was thinking of making quinoa for lunch since you guys wanted to capture what my day is like,” said the bubbly accountant-turned-homemaker, pivoting to yet another topic.
“But we can get chicken rice if you prefer. The one from the nearby coffeeshop is really good!”
Clearly, the energy level of this petite mother of two and wife to a company director from the marine industry could easily match that of a teenager on Red Bull.
But once our camera lens was trained on her, it was a different Sheron we saw – and perhaps the version that faced the devastating news back in 2017.
That September, she had sensed that something was amiss. “I was leaning against my desk at work when I felt a sharp pain in my left breast. I quickly went to the washroom to check and felt a lump. It was so noticeable, I was surprised that I didn’t detect it before.”
My whole world collapsed in a second when I heard the words.
She didn’t see a doctor immediately, but waited for a few months to see if the lump would go away on its own.
“I thought it might be caused by hormonal changes. To be honest, I was still holding on to the hope that the lump wasn’t what I thought it was.”
Unfortunately, it grew and even became painful without touch. “That was when I had to see a doctor,” she said.
‘DON’T THINK ABOUT IT’
Sheron was diagnosed with triple negative type cancer, an advanced breast cancer that has spread to the overlying skin and lymph nodes. The tumour measured more than 10cm across.
“My whole world collapsed in a second when I heard the words. Anything that bothered me before seemed like nothing,” said Sheron, her cheery voice dropping to almost a whisper.
“I was shocked,” her husband, Jacky Sng, softly recalled. “We left the clinic and hugged each other – and the tears just flowed.”
He let on that he had later returned to the clinic alone to find out how much time his wife had. “I was pretty negative at that point in time. I needed to know. But the doctor said don’t think about it.”
Sheron was no stranger to cancer. Since losing her mother to advanced pancreatic cancer 10 years ago, she had been gathering information on alternative therapies, but she didn’t have the chance to put it into practise before because “life was too hectic”.
The time was now. Like starting a new chapter in a book, Sheron adopted a plant-based diet overnight. “I took some time off to rest and clear my mind. On the third day, I changed my entire lifestyle. It was like flipping the page.”
“In a way, it felt like I was preparing myself for cancer right up to the point when the doctor broke the news to us," she said.
AN UNCOMMON OCCURRENCE
That fierce drive to recover sustained the Sngs throughout the aggressive treatment plan that followed. Her oncologist Dr Khoo Kei Siong from Parkway Cancer Centre put her on 12 weekly sessions of chemotherapy.
"The tumour responded very well. By the time Sheron completed the first cycle of chemotherapy, the tumour had reduced by more than 50 per cent in size," he said.
As for the episode in the shower, Dr Khoo explained that it was an uncommon occurrence. "Chemotherapy does not cause the bleeding.
Most breast tumours are rich in blood supply, so when the tumour breaks down as a result of a rapid response to chemotherapy, the skin ulcerates and bleeding can occur."
[Being unsuitable for breast reconstructive surgery] didn’t bother me. I was more focused on my recovery and health.
Sheron continued her chemotherapy to further shrink the tumour before undergoing a unilateral mastectomy in January 2018.
“The first thought I had when I woke up from the surgery was, thank goodness, I survived!” said Sheron, unfazed about losing her left breast and having to forgo reconstructive surgery.
“The doctors had to remove a very big area to minimise the risks of a relapse. Reconstructing such a big area would make it difficult for the oncologist to assess me during routine checks. But it didn’t bother me. I was more focused on my recovery and health.”
About two weeks post-surgery, Sheron resumed chemotherapy. This time, it consisted of four sessions every fortnightly. After chemotherapy ended in early March, she was put on 16 daily sessions of radiotherapy.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
The couple decided to keep their children as appropriately informed as possible.
“We told our daughter, who was five years old then, and our son, 10 years old at that time, that I was very sick and needed treatment,” said Sheron. “But we didn’t go into the details. We just wanted them to understand the changes that they’ll see in Mummy.”
“I think the kids grew up somewhat during that time,” added Jacky. “They knew Mummy wasn’t well and they had to be independent.”
The trying period also brought out their children’s caring side. Their daughter, for instance, would ask to help prepare Sheron’s TCM medicine, which she took to complement her treatments.
“Just preparing the warm water was difficult for a little girl. She had to mix hot and cold water to get the temperature right,” recalled Sheron.
The treatments changed Jacky's life in other ways as well. He worked on his laptop by her side whenever she underwent six-hour chemotherapy sessions.
He took time off work to accompany her to every medical appointment, took note of her medications and picked up skills, such as administering her booster injections at home.
“I have to give him 10 out of 10 for his skills. He can be a nurse,” said Sheron proudly. “He’s a man of few words. But he is a doer and believes in action.”
That aspect of Jacky was evident when chemotherapy caused Sheron's hair to fall off. He got his head shaved to show support for his wife. “I didn’t have to think hard. Hair can be regrown,” he said.
His action meant a lot to Sheron as she knew how particular her husband was with his hair. “I was very touched. As you can tell, his hair is a very big part of him!” she laughed, gesturing to his carefully gelled hair.
THE RIGHT SUPPORT
Losing a breast to cancer didn’t impact Sheron’s wardrobe, activities or enthusiasm for life.
Not even a full year after her diagnosis, she was skiing in South Korea. She enjoys swimming, hiking up a sweat in nature, picnicking on the beach and her newfound exercise, qigong, which she does daily to help lessen the post-surgical tightness in her chest and armpit.
“How I dress is still pretty much the same as long as I have my mastectomy bra that lets me wear my silicone insert. But the tough part is finding swim wear that can accommodate the insert,” she said.
The active mum manages to get around that by opting for one-piece suits and sports-bra-like tops that could hold her prosthesis. To conceal the surgical scars, she wears a rash guard over her swim wear. “I get sun protection, too.”
In fact, mastectomy bras and silicone prostheses do more than help patients regain their body confidence, according to Can-Care, which offers professional fittings for such specialised bras and where Sheron gets her bras and prosthesis from.
How I dress is still pretty much the same as long as I have my mastectomy bra that lets me wear my silicone insert.
For instance, patients have been known to hunch forward to hide their lost breasts, according to a Can-Care spokesperson.
“In the long run, this leads to physical complications such as frozen shoulder and scoliosis as the body’s muscles eventually give in to the body posture.”
A NEW LIFE
After getting the all-clear from the doctor, Sheron quit the corporate world and became a homemaker. “I wanted to manage my own health and prevent the cancer from returning. Go back to the stressful work life, rely on takeaway meals and have no time for exercise? No!” she said, firmly shaking her head.
Instead of continuing to live with her in-laws and letting them and their helper take care of the children – for which the couple was very grateful – she decided it was time to get hands-on. So, the Sngs moved into their own apartment a year ago.
“To be honest, I was never a homemaker before. This is my first time doing housework. And I’ll tell you, it’s tiring!” she laughed.
I wanted to manage my own health and prevent the cancer from returning. Go back to the stressful work life, rely on takeaway meals and have no time for exercise? No!
With Mum being a juicing enthusiast and wellness fanatic, that has got to rub off on the family somehow, right?
“We talk a lot about our diet with the kids. We talk about what to eat, what not to and why. My kids will only eat broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. So I try to cook these vegetables for them,” said Sheron.
“The kids aren’t fond of the juices but because they know that Mummy drinks them, they drink them, too, even if it means pinching their noses! Kids will copy what you do,” she said, chuckling.
A better diet isn't the only thing that has rubbed off on the family.
“I want to thank my wife for her positivity and resilience," said Jacky. "In a way, I am grateful for this journey because it lets me show my love for her. It brought our commitment and love for each other to a different level.”
For Sheron, it is no longer important whose opinion is right. “We used to have a lot of petty arguments but after the diagnosis, the fights stopped. It no longer matters. We’ve learned that it’s not about being right, it’s about doing it together."
She said: “Jacky always says I’m the cancer survivor, the warrior. I tell him, you’re the cancer warlord!”
Find out more about post-surgical care, breast prostheses and mastectomy bras at Can-Care via Whatsapp at +60 12-720 8095 or email info [at] cancare.com.sg. You can also approach Breast Cancer Foundation for support via the Befriender helpline at 6352 6560 or Whatsapp 9464 1011 from Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm.