Sabrina Goh, 37, is better known for her namesake fashion label, SABRINAGOH. Goh was often spotted in her stores and at the design table before being diagnosed with stage 3 HER2-positive breast cancer at the age of 36, after experiencing a sharp, persistent pain and internal pulling in her right breast in March 2021.
Dr Tira Tan, consultant at National Cancer Centre Singapore‘s medical oncology division explains that HER2-positive breast cancer occurs when a patient “tests positive for the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) protein” on the cancer cell. As this protein promotes the growth of cancer cells, HER2-positive breast cancers are generally “more aggressive and more likely to recur as compared to HER2-negative breast cancer.”
“Breast cancer is a multi-factorial condition and there is no one fixed cause,” says Dr Tan. “Researchers have identified lifestyle, environmental factors and hormonal factors amongst other risk factors. In women under 40, and especially if there is a strong family history of cancers, doctors will consider and recommend genetic testing to see if the breast cancer is hereditary.”
Putting a face to HER2-positive breast cancer, Sabrina bravely shares with Vogue Singapore on her tumultuous journey of grieving, coping, and battling breast cancer during the throes of young motherhood and the pandemic.
You describe a sharp pain and pulling on your breast. What other symptoms did you experience before going to the doctor?
I’m always conscious about breast health because of my family history (my aunties on my paternal side were diagnosed with breast cancer). So I would do my routine hand check, and I would be alarmed if I found lumps (moveable, soft). I remember I found a lump-like feeling when I was much younger, in my late 20s, and I went straight to check it with an ultrasound. The therapist told me that it was my breast tissue. So, I think it is hard for me to differentiate between the feel of a bad lump and breast tissue. So I would, without fail, do my routine check every two years, and there was nothing found in my breast in September 2019. I also breastfed my child for about ten months to a year; hence, it was shocking to me when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
What was your reaction to the diagnosis of HER2-positive breast cancer?
Before the doctor told me the diagnosis, I believed it would be benign. Because I wasn’t unhealthy, I did my health check routinely every two years, never smoke or drank, breastfed my child, and was only in my mid-30s.
I remember when the doctor told me the diagnosis, my heart sank. I think I didn’t have much time to be sad and digest the news because the size of the lumps was alarming.
So my care plan was to do chemotherapy immediately and shrink the size of the lumps, so the doctor could remove the affected breast effectively.
My family and close friends who knew the diagnosis were very concerned. They are the support group that is there to help and make sure I have them when I need them. For example, my mum found one breast cancer survivor/counsellor to speak to me before and during the treatment to prepare me with a nutrition guide during chemotherapy, side effect management, and mental preparation. My church friends came together to pray for me and constantly sent me prayer messages. My close friends subscribed to an immunity fruit basket and sent me natural foods and vegetables every month. Last but not least, my husband, being the strong pillar during this time, had to take up many things on his shoulders—juggling the business, sending me to the hospital, and being a direct caregiver during that period.
Being a spiritual person, did your faith help or hinder at any point?
I never really question God: “Why me?” I only ask God, “Help me.” I grieved when I knew I had to decide to shave off my hair before the treatment started, and think about how my son would see me as a mum when I didn’t have any hair.
I felt so sorry for my two-year-old son as I didn’t know what would happen to me. I also needed to manage my work, and trust and delegate some work to my staff so that when I was in treatment, the business was still able to run.
I would go back to the office every two weeks so that I could clear some of the pending work that needed confirmation from me. Everything happened fast, and I started my first round of chemo just about a week after the diagnosis. After the treatment, I only needed to focus on my care plan, healing, recovery, and praying along the way about what leads me.
Describe the most challenging thing about cancer treatment.
The hardest thing is you don’t know what will happen to you. Will my body be able to take the treatment and cope with side effects? Are the cancer cells able to respond to the drugs they put inside my body, etc.? How can you plan your life in an unknown situation like this? I think I have to move along the way to what God leads.
What’s something you wish more people knew about breast cancer?
Many things lead to breast cancer—besides going for a routine check every one to two years, women should also check their breasts when showering and familiarise themselves with the feel and touch of their breast. So when there are some weird lumps, you will know immediately. Besides that, reducing stress, sleep, boosting your immunity, good nutrition, and exercising regularly are the must-do things for a good, healthy body. If your family has a breast cancer history, you should consider getting a gene test to check if your BRCA1 and BRCA2 are okay.
Besides that, I think sharing breast cancer awareness is essential. I remember when I was first diagnosed, I was pretty lost. I remember the first person I turned to was Theresa Tan, author of A Clean Breast, because she openly shared her breast cancer journey in a book. It just so happened that I knew her, so I reached out to her for help.
What are some of the best ways to support someone with breast cancer?
I appreciate some advice from breast cancer survivors. They are generous with guidance as they have been through almost exactly the same things—coping with side effects, nutrition guides, etc.
I also appreciate a lot of space, as I take time to heal and rest.
I didn’t have many visitors during that time—emotionally, I was coping with my health, and I was also conscious of my looks. I’m not vain, but you wouldn’t want to see the alarmed expression from anyone when they see my bald head. So space is what I appreciated.
How do you care for your health and wellbeing now that you’re in full remission?
I try to eat natural and well-balanced meals. To be honest, it’s quite hard if you eat out. I drink more water as well as try to be more active and exercise regularly. I also remind myself to stress less, as my TCM doctor told me, “Don’t be so serious all the time.”
In what ways has your cancer changed you?
I don’t want to have regrets. So I’m more willing to try new things or new concepts. I’ve learned to take it easy when it comes to different perspectives. I care more about quality time with family than work. I also learned to delegate responsibility to my colleagues as we learn to cope, adapt and grow.
As a hardworking entrepreneur and young mother to a then two-year-old boy, how did you cope with all of it?
I think my husband Jason is the one who works harder to cope, juggling work, family, and being my sole caregiver. He has a lot on his plate, and we often talk openly about stress, what we’re thinking, our state of mind, etc. I am also concerned about his mental health, as he is emotionally affected.
Whenever our family and friends ask about my condition, care plan, and decisions, Jason has to rehearse everything and explain it again and again.
They usually will not come to me to ask, so I think I’m protected to where I only cope with my health, manage side effects, and make sure I eat well and rest well.
Currently, I’m coping with temporary body changes after surgery, healing of wounds, stiff arms and shoulders, and seeing my hair growing which takes a lot of patience. I’ve learned to take time for the body to heal during this process.
What does healing look like for you now?
After my treatment and surgery, I’m currently coping with numbness in my whole chest and back area, as I chose to use my lat muscle for my breast reconstruction surgery. The look is almost the same as my natural breast.
Are you a part of any support groups?
Breast Cancer Support Group Singapore on Facebook.