Editor’s note: Chan See Ting passed away on 23 February 2021, a month after our interview with her.
“Our end destination is heaven. If I don’t see healing come to pass, then it is on the other side. I genuinely believe that we are sojourners passing through this Earth. We are homesick for a place where there is no more pain and suffering,” says Chan See Ting emphatically one balmy afternoon.
We’re seated next to each other on a teal-hued couch in her family home, the quiet whir of a fan in the background as we meander the uncomfortable topic of death. It is an otherwise ordinary weekday afternoon; the peerless sky outside her window a cheery blue, the corridors peacefully still. I’d never met Chan before this, but there is something about her gentle spirit and visceral warmth—and perhaps the large handful of mutual friends we share—that makes our heart-to-heart talk so effortless.
It might seem insolent of me to mention death, but Chan belongs to an exceptionally rare group of individuals who use their situation to inspire and encourage people around them. This is a woman whose life story precedes her—her health battle has been shared countless times on social media through photos, videos and stirring stories.
By the age of 28, Chan had confronted hurdles most of us believe to be untouchable in our youth. When she was 20, she was diagnosed with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder where deregulation of the immune system leads to an attack on the hair follicles—causing her to lose her hair. In 2019, when Chan was 26, she came face to face with triple-negative breast cancer and a subsequent mastectomy. Last year, a couple of months before her 28th birthday, she was dealt life’s final blow. The cancer cells had migrated to her brain, resulting in leptomeningeal disease, which is terminal.
“If left to my flesh, I do feel resentment for the life I’ve been given,” muses Chan. “There are times when I compare my life behind-the-scenes to others’ highlight reels, but this is my lot and I’ve become a better person after each health episode. I like me a lot more now; my character has been honed through the fire. I’ve learnt not to complain.”
Throughout our no-holds-barred conversation, Chan brims with radiant hope. She laughs often and chooses to pepper her words with belief that she will overcome leptomeningeal disease despite its poor prognosis. A large part of her optimistic outlook has to do with her Christian faith.
The corners of her mouth lift into a small smile. “Would I be ok if God takes me away soon? Of course I would rather live a long life, but if that is God’s will for me, He will give me the peace and wisdom to go through it.”
“I like me a lot more now; my character has been honed through the fire. I’ve learnt not to complain”
Both alopecia areata and breast cancer were illnesses that took away from Chan things that she cherished deeply as a woman. First, it was her luscious hair, which disappeared in fistfuls. She describes the experience as a “devastating blow to her self-esteem”.
“I remember it got really bad the day before my 21st birthday,” says Chan, crossing her legs on the couch. “Everyone around me was focused on grades, but I had to dig deeper and ask myself who I was and did it make me any less of a woman.”
The feisty chilli padi, as she is known to her friends, was initially resistant to wearing a wig, simply because she felt that there was nothing to hide about her condition. However, when she started going for job interviews, she pondered how smart a move that was. “I didn’t think my hair was something to be shameful about, but people have expectations,” she explains. “I couldn’t embrace wearing a wig, but realised later that it doesn’t take away or add to my identity in any way.”
Triple-negative breast cancer—a rare, aggressive form of breast cancer that targets 10 to 15 percent of breast cancer patients worldwide—then saw Chan lose her right breast. It was an especially tumultuous time in her life. Three months prior to discovering a lump in her right breast, her father passed away suddenly from pneumonia. She never imagined that lump would result in breast cancer, which seldom affects young women. It was only after an excruciating mammogram, which resulted in bloody discharge, that she began to fear that her situation was grave.
In a flash, Chan’s day to day turned upside down once again. It began a new normal that involved 12 weeks of weekly chemotherapy, four sessions of fortnightly chemotherapy, 25 sessions of radiotherapy and a mastectomy and reconstruction—a process that lasted almost a year.
While the road in front of her looked daunting, Chan found a silver lining in the fact that halfway through chemotherapy, her lump had shrunk significantly. After the mastectomy, the doctors told her the euphoric news that she was fully cured of breast cancer.
Four months later, in September 2020, Chan was out for dinner with a friend when she started to lose mobility in her right side. She was immediately rushed to the hospital, where the doctors detected a brain tumour. They performed a non-invasive gamma knife radiotherapy to remove the tumour and she was discharged a few days later.
But Chan did not find prolonged comfort. She started experiencing incapacitating headaches and failed to get any sleep at night. Her oncologist ordered a slew of tests; the results showed swelling in her brain. The final diagnosis was leptomeningeal disease, which meant the cancer cells had migrated from her breast to the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounded her brain and spinal cord.
“When my mother walked into the ward after speaking to the doctor about my diagnosis, it was clear she had been crying. She was red- eyed and blotchy-faced as she said to me before her voice trailed off, ‘It’s best if you’re not in pain, no matter how long…’ Her tone was different and I was surprised,” shares Chan. “I asked myself why she was speaking like I was dying.”
Chan realised that her oncologist had been deliberately cryptic with her when delivering her diagnosis. She hastily picked up her phone and, after a few Google searches, it dawned on her that the prognosis for leptomeningeal disease was incredibly dismal. “The mortality rate was close to 100 percent. Without treatment, I wouldn’t be here in four to six weeks. With treatment, I was looking at living for a maximum of six months,” she says.
“Our healed relationship is the biggest miracle that has come out of my diagnosis. If God had to bring me through this to make this happen, it is worth it”
At this juncture, we both take deep breaths. I’m floored and full of admiration and trepidation for this brave woman in front of me, who looks every bit a young adult on her day off, in an oversized T-shirt and sweatpants ensemble. The thing about Chan, though, is that she never chooses to dwell on negativity. She resets and flashes a smile as she proceeds to tell me how leptomeningeal disease brought about numerous positives in her life.
Her estranged relationship with her mother was one of them. Chan grew up with a parent who was always hard on her when it came to her grades and eventual choice of work.
“My mother always majors on the minor,” she explains with a sigh. “But since I was diagnosed with leptomeningeal disease, her perspective has shifted and she has become a lot more understanding. I had moved out because of our relationship, but I knew at this point I needed to move home.
“As she softened towards me, I was brought to a point of deep reliance on my mother as I battled deep physical pain and helplessness. I realised how unconditional she was in her love for me, when previously I felt it was more transactional.” Chan says that the steroids she is on makes her hungry all the time and her mother would never fail to fix her a meal to eat, even in the middle of the night. “Our healed relationship is the biggest miracle that has come out of my diagnosis. If God had to bring me through this to make this happen, it is worth it.”
“A friend told me that when a good man comes along, he will give you no reason to doubt and the only reason to doubt is yourself”
When it comes to love stories, Chan’s and her fiancé’s is as beautiful and heartrending as they come. She met Ian Ng on dating app Coffee Meets Bagel in February 2019. She giggles as she recalls his dating profile. “He’s such a GCB [good Christian boy]; it said ‘I am a disciple of Christ, a son to my parents and a friend to others’. I asked him if he really wanted to get matched.”
The breast cancer diagnosis came at a time when they were still getting to know each other as friends. When she called him, she was resolute in her conviction that he had the liberty of walking away as it wasn’t fair to him. “I didn’t think this was a burden everyone could or was meant to carry,” she says.
He decided to stay, but their relationship didn’t begin until Chan resolved her own internal struggles. “I struggled to accept that Ian is a good man and he loves me,” she admits. “A friend told me that when a good man comes along, he will give you no reason to doubt and the only reason to doubt is yourself. Ian never gave me any reason to doubt; I realised it was my own insecurity and past baggage.”
Chan and Ng’s tale is one for the ages. While they could write chapters about their long conversations, love for delightful food haunts and Netflix marathons, their relationship was also peppered with sleepless nights and hospital stays. When Chan came round after losing lucidity for three days after she responded poorly to her initial round of chemotherapy for leptomeningeal disease, she was brought to tears by Ng’s actions.
“There’s a different kind of pain when you watch a loved one suffer and you feel helpless,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes. “But I saw him dance, praise and entrust my life in God’s hands. He takes the best care of me and loves me more than anything. If God takes me away sooner rather than later, I believe our hope that it’s ‘not goodbye, but see you soon [in heaven]’ will carry Ian through.”
“I have gained more than I have lost. I genuinely believe that I am blessed”
Ng proposed to Chan in November last year, at home surrounded by family and friends. At the time of our interview, the couple were house-hunting for their future abode and planning for their wedding.
We are approaching the two-hour mark of our conversation. Chan is still fairly sprightly and she tells me with a relieved expression that she is feeling well today. I pull our chat back to the present and ask about her current symptoms and how she has been coping.
“I’ve been having poor sleep, backaches and bouts of headaches,” she reveals. “Sometimes, I do think death could be around the corner. I wake up each day grateful if I’ve had a good night’s rest.”
Chan gazes down at the peeling manicure on her fingers. She had asked me to bring her a bottle of nail polish remover—the first such request I’ve received from an interviewee. “I look my worst at the moment,” she says, rubbing her nail polish off vigorously. “My face has ballooned; I have a double chin, hair loss and a bloated stomach because of the medication. I’m still in the process of trying to accept that this is a phase.”
Despite her days being numbered, Chan is full of unbridled gratitude for life. Her faith allows her to not harp on her condition at the time—the long nights of fitful sleep or the intensive chemotherapy treatments— but instead to appreciate what she has in front of her.
“I have gained more than I have lost. I genuinely believe that I am blessed,” she sums up, her voice breaking slightly. “There are certain times in my life, I wish I said ‘I love you’ more. I wish I had spent more time with my dad before he passed away. But I feel like the missed opportunities also make me treasure what I have.”
What about the legacy she wishes to leave behind on this Earth? I don’t expect anyone in their late 20s to take their own answer seriously, but Chan nods solemnly in response. There is no hesitation or doubt in her voice and her answer is clear as day.
She says: “I want to be known as someone who loves well and was well-loved.”
Photography: Lenne Chai
Styling: Desmond Lim
Make-up: Dollei Seah using Clarins
Photographer’s assistant: Jonathan Liu
Stylist’s assistant: Joey Tan
Outfit: Tibaeg printed dress from SocietyA