The “C” word. It’s a single term that in a single moment can reverberate throughout every corner of one’s life and change it, and those lives of the people who love them, interminably. But a breast cancer diagnosis is not necessarily an irrecoverable situation, as Selene Zhang was to find out a few years ago. According to the Singapore Breast Cancer Society, the disease is the most commonly occurring cancer among women in Singapore, with 2,000 women faced with this medical condition each year. Statistically, one in 13 women will be affected by breast cancer in their life. Here, Zhang, now 34, imparts the knowledge she gained during the fight of a lifetime.
Zhang was sitting with her then fiancé Richmond Loo and her parents when the “C” bomb was dropped. “I remember the day I went to see my breast surgeon. I had told my mum about a lump I had discovered and she wanted to accompany me as she was worried. She went with me to the consultation room, and when the ultrasound was conducted, my doctor told me there was something suspicious as there were some spots on the lump—which usually indicates that it’s more than just a lump. He immediately arranged for a mammogram, breast ultrasound, and biopsy for the very same day. A week later when the results came out, my doctor delivered the news to say that it was cancer. I broke down immediately and told my doctor that I didn’t want to die. It was very hard to accept this information and I wasn’t sure what to do next.”
Zhang’s condition was classified as ‘Invasive Cancer’. More specifically, Stage 2B, Triple Positive—meaning that the tumour was ER-, PR- and HER2-positive (with the cancer cells growing in response to oestrogen (ER), progesterone (PR) and a growth promoting protein outside of breast cells known as HER2). She was only 32 years old at that time.
“I think the feeling of losing one’s identity was the hardest. Being someone that has always had long hair her entire life, losing my hair was very tough. What’s worse, my eyebrows went too because chemo basically kills all fast growing cells in your body and that includes hair.”
Processing the bombshell, all her parents and her fiancé could do was cry in that doctor’s office. But despite the difficult and unexpected diagnosis overtime, Zhang was also surprised by something else: her resilience. Below, she shares her takeaways after her battle with breast cancer.
Accepting that there will be hard parts during the journey—and that’s okay.
One would expect a level of endurance required on the physical side of things—Zhang underwent six rounds of chemotherapy three weeks apart, 24 rounds of targeted therapy for the HER2 cells, a mastectomy and implant reconstruction for her left breast, radiotherapy and she continues on with hormonal drugs now. However, the impact on mental health wasn’t undemanding too. “I think the feeling of losing one’s identity was the hardest. Being someone that has always had long hair her entire life, losing my hair was very tough. What’s worse, my eyebrows went too because chemo basically kills all fast growing cells in your body and that includes hair.” She adds: “It made me feel unpretty sometimes. After I got used to being bald, I had to struggle with comparing myself to what I looked like pre-cancer. Everything I wore back then didn’t seem to look the same on me anymore.” But keeping in mind that ‘this too shall pass’ helped her forge on. Sometimes all you can do is take one day at a time and stay present. “Small problems do sometimes get to us, but we choose to not worry about it for too long. Instead, we focus on the now and on being content with what we have.”
“There’s also a misconception when it comes to breast cancer that it only happens to women above 40. You usually will see advertisements or information on encouraging women above 40 to go for a mammogram, but I think what we need to do is to educate more on self-checks on breasts, no matter how young you are.”
Understanding that cancer can be very undiscerning and the importance of breast self-checks
As specified by Health Plus, by Mount Elizabeth Hospitals, Singapore, this is not just a condition for post-menopausal women: from 2011 to 2015, 4,616 women below age 54 in Singapore were diagnosed with breast cancer. While family and reproductive history can affect risk factors, self-examination and screenings can help with early detection, and thus early treatment of the disease. For an extremely fit Zhang, it was a complete surprise. “The most seemingly ‘healthy’ person can end up with cancer. Some might say I am very unlucky that cancer struck me, because it came without any warning. People think that once you have cancer, it is probably due to your diet or lifestyle that caused it. There’s also a misconception when it comes to breast cancer that it only happens to women above 40. You usually will see advertisements or information on encouraging women above 40 to go for a mammogram, but I think what we need to do is to educate more on self-checks on breasts, no matter how young you are.”
Love can lead the way
While her husband Loo has always been Zhang’s biggest cheerleader, his unwavering succour throughout her moments of distress really provided her with much needed strength. “He is definitely the number one factor that helped me through the whole bald period. He said that he would shave it with me, and he would keep that solidarity with me as long as I didn’t have hair.” Then, only eight days prior to her commencing chemotherapy, the pair got married to undergo IVF, seeing as this form of medical intervention can impact ovaries and other reproductive organs. Being legally married allowed them to qualify for egg retrieval and embryo freezing in Singapore. While Zhang was apprehensive to put any pressure on her then fiancé to partake in expedited nuptials in the name of their potential future children, Loo was the one to fully champion this initiative wholeheartedly from the get go. It’s pretty clear to see that for Zhang, a pillar of love and stability was instrumental during this experience.
An positive perspective can be extremely beneficial
A sunny disposition can only help. “I think this has got a lot to do with my personality. I usually try not to think about the bad or, on the flip side, only allow myself to dwell on the bad for a short period then snap out of it. I took the same approach towards cancer. Most of the time I didn’t know what to expect, so I told myself to just not think about the negatives and live in the moment. There are days when I am afraid of recurrence, and I think about it alot because my biggest fear is to die before I fully enjoy my life. But I try not to entertain those thoughts and most days I forget that I had cancer—that I’m just any other normal person who is living her best day yet.” While a diagnosis of this nature can understandably result in feelings of anxiety, fear or even depression, in order to be able to fully enjoy her survivorship now, the key for Zhang was to stay optimistic and capture a sentiment of contentment. “I just feel that I am happy with what I have, my life and just doing the things that I like to do without thinking about cancer.”
Find your people—community as a support system
“CrossFit definitely helped me alot. I think CrossFit athletes are mentally very strong because we train our brains with our workouts almost every other day. We always push ourselves to finish a workout, to reach a personal goal in weightlifting. I’m not sure how to put it best, but you know that feeling when you feel that you are suffering from a workout because your heart rate shoots up so high, and you are gasping for air, and mentally you think that you want to stop, but you can’t because you really want to finish the workout—that’s the kind of feeling that probably strengthened my mind to be more resilient in tough times.”
Aside from the physical benefits, CrossFit provided Zhang with an environment filled with not only high stamina but stoicism too. It was a true support network for her. “The community at CrossFit Mobilus Singapore—where I train at, also played a big part in helping me to get through this period. At the start, I told Rich that I was afraid that I would get pitiful eyes and that people will look at me differently once they know about my cancer. But thankfully, the community did not do that—they were very encouraging through the whole period. They were always checking in on me and not looking at me differently. I also do think that fitness really does help with recovery because it makes you feel stronger.”
A last piece of advice from a breast cancer fighter? “Keep moving, don’t let this disease bring you down.”