“Shock, disbelief and fear about the future” were the first thoughts that crossed Vivenne Wong’s mind when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32. Two years later, in honour of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the professional singer, emcee, freelance voiceover artist, copywriter and survivor shares her story with Claire Soong.
“I think many people feel like cancer is something that might happen to everybody else except themselves—and I felt the same way too. I thought: ‘I’m young and in good health. How can this be happening to me?’
I was diagnosed at age 32. I felt a lump in my right breast while I was in the shower around March/April 2017, and after monitoring it for a few months—I procrastinated on this which I 100% don’t recommend to anyone—I had it examined by a doctor in August 2017. The 1.5cm to 2cm lump turned out to be Stage 2A triple positive breast cancer.
I had a single side mastectomy with reconstruction in September. I also had chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and completed treatment in April 2018.
Why I decided to open up about my condition
My parents were with me for all of my initial diagnostic examinations, so they knew everything as it happened. I also updated my close friends as things were unfolding, and it helped because they were all willing to be there for me. They sent me information on the illness, visited me at home, prayed with me, and even gave me gifts. [My doctor friends] recommended… surgeons and oncologists and I eventually chose my surgeon from the list of names that they shared with me.
My parents also kept our church community updated and they too were a wonderful source of encouragement and support. Feeling loved played a big role in [giving me strength] for the treatments to come.
I decided to be very open about my condition so that I could be an encouragement to others. I wrote a very lengthy Facebook post a week before my surgery to talk about what I was going through. The outpouring of support was beyond what I expected, and many friends also shared the experiences of their loved ones who went through cancer.
I felt very blessed to have opened a conversation about this disease, and talking to these other survivors helped me prepare for treatment. They gave me a heads-up on what to expect and tips to minimise side effects. One lady told me to suck on ice cubes during chemotherapy to reduce the likelihood of getting mouth ulcers—and it worked!
I was inspired by how these other cancer survivors were all thriving post-treatment, and it gave me hope for a strong recovery too. I also was an internet research junkie and spent a lot of time on survivor forums to pick up tips on how to manage side effects of treatment.
For style advice, I set up Pinterest boards of ladies wearing nice head wraps or rocking bald heads, and used those as my daily dress-up inspirations.
Work was a great distraction—I looked forward to putting on my makeup and wigs and nice dresses. It made me feel strong and useful. It was also fun to have a little secret because my clients didn’t know what I was going through. It made me feel a bit like Batman with a double identity!
What going through chemotherapy was like
In the first week-and-a-half after each AC dose (a combination of two chemotherapy drugs during Phase 2 of my chemo), I felt an exhaustion like I had never felt before. My body and my brain would feel as heavy as lead. My eyes couldn’t focus and my attention wandered. I was literally lying on the bed or couch all day and only getting up to eat, use the toilet or shower.
Much as I would have liked to read a book or watch movies on my iPad, my poor, drugged brain couldn’t concentrate enough to get through a short stretch of either. I lost the desire to eat due to nausea and changes to my taste buds; familiar foods tasted funny. I was thirsty all the time but the water tasted bitter and metallic in my mouth. I also slept badly—I had insomnia and spent hours of the night in the toilet with diarrhea or constipation.
I was OK with my hair having fallen off, but my eyebrows and eyelashes started falling off too, and I felt bloated from inactivity—that was when I really started to have a low self-esteem about my appearance. The worst was that I couldn’t do the things I loved: I couldn’t sing because of the dryness [in my throat] and weakness; I couldn’t draw, and I couldn’t concentrate on writing.
[The effects of this phase came as] a shock because after Phase 1 of chemo, I was still energetic enough to do many of these things. During this period, I had a fever due to an allergic reaction to my chemo drugs and had to be warded. This pushed back my chemotherapy schedule by a few weeks. Those two months plus were a very dark period, [especially because] they coincided with Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year—the times when you want to feel joyful.
I didn’t feel like a human being; I felt like an animal simply existing. I comforted myself with the fact that treatment was of a fixed duration and would be over sooner than I realise. I also started thinking of the year ahead and envisioned the things I would do when I was done with the treatment. These included big things such as travelling and trying new types of work, and little things such as being able to enjoy raw food like sushi or medium rare steaks again. All these helped lift my spirits.
How I coped with it all
I found it most comforting when people said they were thinking of me, and offered me the gift of their time or a listening ear. As a Christian, I also found comfort when friends sent me Bible verses and songs.
From time to time, I encountered some well-meaning but insensitive remarks from people, but I learned to appreciate the intention of whoever said those words rather than focusing on the words themselves.
Cancer is a difficult subject to broach and I can understand if people don’t necessarily know what to say. I appreciated that these people made an attempt to connect with and comfort me.
The illness has made me experience the extremes of light and dark in life, like nothing else has before. It reminded me that I am painfully mortal—I no longer see myself as young and invincible the way I used to—and my time on Earth is precious and limited.
I am currently on long-term hormonal therapy medication, which I’ll have to take for five to 10 years.
I made lifestyle changes for my health—I used to be a major couch potato but I now try to do 30 minutes of cardio a day. I also try to avoid processed meats and have increased my veggie intake. I’m in better shape today than I was before I had cancer!
I’ve also been much more careful about how much stress I put on myself. I used to be a workaholic, and I can still feel that ‘kiasu-ness’ in me, but I am teaching myself to recognise my body’s limits, so that I know when to let go, step back and recharge. Lastly … in spite of everything, I’m much happier than I used to be! I love the person I’ve become—physically and emotionally. I have deepened my relationships with the people who are important in my life, and my family has grown to encompass my fellow cancer survivor sisters. If I had a chance to rewrite my history, I would not change a single thing.”
About the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF)
BCF works towards finding a cure for the life-threatening disease by increasing awareness, education and advocating for early detection through self-checks and regular screening.
Vivienne herself is part of the BCF’s Young Women’s Support Group where she says members talk about all things treatment and survival such as tips to manage side effects of chemo, diet, hair-wraps and wigs, fitness, skincare and even dating.
BCF’s annual event, the Pink Ribbon Walk, rallies friends, families and survivors in solidarity with those affected or lost from breast cancer. This year’s theme was “Shared Courage – Stronger Together, We Overcome”. In a touching tribute to the women in Singapore who have passed from breast cancer since the first Pink Ribbon Walk twelve years ago, BCF volunteers folded 5,000 Camellia flowers to hand out to the walk’s participants.
For more information about the Breast Cancer Foundation, head to @bcf.pink (Facebook) and @bcfsg (Instagram).