“For me, breast cancer has been a gift in some ways. It’s helped me to prioritise and really see what matters the most. It’s also helped me to understand so much more about life, about myself, and about the people I love”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month so we have teamed up with Breast Cancer Foundation to share stories of women across Singapore who have battled, or are fighting, breast cancer. Amy Neary’s story is heartbreaking but overall inspiring and uplifting. Amy was first diagnosed aged 44, with a later stage of an aggressive form of breast cancer when she finally went for a mammogram on the urging of a friend. That friend saved her life. What is so remarkable about Amy is her ability to see positivity in her situation even after a full mastectomy and reconstructive surgery on her right side plus years of chemotherapy, maintenance drugs and reconstructive surgery. Amy, a mother to one son, says life after cancer is actually better than it was before cancer. Read her story and her wise words that will hopefully encourage any women battling cancer themselves.
At what age were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
I still remember the day I was diagnosed as if it was yesterday – April 3, 2014, my son’s fourth birthday. I got up that morning excited to celebrate with him. But it all came to a screeching halt after a routine mammogram when my doctor said three little words that changed my life forever…”You have cancer…”
On the urging of a friend who had just been diagnosed, I went that day for my annual mammogram as I was overdue, having skipped the previous year. Like everyone, I was occupied with other priorities in life and overlooked the importance of the annual screening. She saved my life, and I am very grateful to her. I was only 44 at the time.
How did you feel upon learning that you had breast cancer? Do you remember what the first steps you took were?
Shocked! I felt like time had stopped, my head started spinning, and all the air had been sucked out of my body. I considered myself a healthy person. “How did this happen?!”, I kept asking myself. Once that passed, a lot of other emotions came along – anger, frustration, resentment, etc. My husband was the first person I called. Together, we decided to be completely open about my diagnosis and do a post on social media. At first, I was really against this, but my husband said “People have been through this before and have the knowledge. Why start from scratch?” He was right! Some of the best recommendations on doctors, treatment plans and advice on what to expect came from that post.
Although it’s been a tough journey, I made a lot of changes for the better. I would now say life after cancer is actually better – it sounds crazy but it is true.
What course of cancer treatment did you follow?
My treatment plan lasted more than four years because I was diagnosed at a later stage with an aggressive form cancer. I started with a full mastectomy and reconstructive surgery on the right side. This was followed by six months of two different types of chemotherapy and one-and-a-half years of bio or targeted therapy. In addition, I had five weeks of radiotherapy and three years of ‘maintenance’ drugs (targeted) to minimise my risk of reoccurrence. Once all the treatments were completed, I still needed to have three additional reconstructive surgeries. Whew!
On the brighter side, one of my most favourite memories with my son came as I was going through my toughest treatments. Although he was only four at that time, he was so understanding and supportive for his age. After my second chemotherapy, I decided to shave my head because I started to lose my hair. When it was time to shave, my son, who had just been to the QB House for a haircut, said “Wait, Mama, here’s your ticket (holding a piece of paper he found in his toy box). I paid for you. Now you can shave your head.”
How have you found the support system here in Singapore?
Very comforting, even though Singapore is not originally home for me. I felt really at ease because of the excellent medical care and the support and love I’ve received from my friends, family, colleagues and others – many that I didn’t know all that well. They all saw me at my most vulnerable state. But this didn’t stop them from donating their own time to go with me to treatments or take my son for play-dates when I was not up to getting out of bed some days.
In some ways, I would say that cancer taught me the importance of a support network and that it’s ok to ask for help. It was hard to let people help me at first, but I realised how important it was to them, and also to me. Letting go and allowing others to help was a learning experience for me. Now, I realise that I couldn’t have done this without the people I love. And now I can offer help to others making this same journey.
What advice do you have for others facing breast cancer?
One of my mentors told me that I was at a fork in the road. I could either choose the ‘new’ road with a new normal and new growth opportunities or I could choose to continue down the ‘same’ road and try to go back to the way things were – setting myself up for failure, as things are never the same after a cancer diagnosis.
So, here’s my top three pieces of advice when you’re at the ‘fork in the road’:
- You’ll need a new language and mindset. There is a ‘new normal’ that comes with a cancer diagnosis.
- You’re not alone. Others have been on this journey. Leverage their knowledge. Your support network (friends, family, others) is going to be the biggest asset to help you get through this journey.
- Use cancer as an opportunity for growth. Make positive changes to your life…because life after cancer can be better than before.
What has been the biggest challenge for you, both physically and mentally?
Coping with a cancer diagnosis isn’t easy. Not being certain about your health status, not being able to relax until you get those next test results — that’s stressful. But I learned to set the worries aside and take one day at a time.
Physically, I’m a very active person. The recovery was longer than I wanted it to be, especially since I was still recuperating from major abdominal surgery just six months prior to my diagnosis. But all the hard work toward recovery has paid off! Today, I am cancer-free and feeling great six years post my diagnosis. I would even say that I’m in better shape both physically and mentally than I ever was before cancer.
So, as weird as it sounds to say, for me, cancer has been a gift in some ways. It’s helped me to prioritise and really see what matters the most. It’s also helped me to understand so much more about life, about myself and about the people I love.
What has been your biggest comfort?
My biggest comfort has been my wonderful support network: My husband, my friends, family, doctors/nurses and support groups like Breast Cancer Foundation. I couldn’t have done this without all of them. It was a team effort!
After dealing with cancer, you just never know what the end of the road is going to be. My whole life has truly changed. Instead of thinking about materialistic things or work, now I hold on really tight and spend as much time as possible with my husband, son, parents, brothers, in-laws and friends. I’m also very thankful for my son and having the opportunity to watch him grow up, play and dance, and simply being able to hold him is amazing.
What are some lessons you have learned from this experience?
I’ve learned three things through my journey:
- A deeper appreciation for life and how fragile it is. It taught me how much I took for granted and that how I live my life is more important than how long I have to live my life.
- How to reprioritise my life. Don’t sweat the small things. Focus on family and friends. Lead a healthy and balanced lifestyle with plenty of healthy food, exercise, sleep and fun!
- What true friendships look like. My journey brought me closer to my son and my husband. Also, I learned to lean on others when I needed help. True friends were always there for me, even if they didn’t know exactly what to do.