What does it mean to be a breast cancer survivor? Mari Huang discovers there’s much more to beating cancer than encouraging test results
In honour of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Breast Cancer Foundation‘s #EveryWomanMatters initiative, throughout October we will be sharing the stories of women across Singapore who have battled, or are fighting, breast cancer. In the first part of this 2-part series, Dutchwoman Mari Huang talked about the shock of being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 at age 34, and unexpectedly having to decide if she wanted to harvest her eggs before commencing chemotherapy. Today she talks about the physical and mental effects of cancer treatment, both during and after chemo, and some of the surprising life changes she’s made along the way. We are particularly inspired by her conclusion: “This cancer journey has given me the strength not to waste my precious time on things that don’t feel right”. Read on to see how she’s doing now.
After approximately my 7th Taxol treatment, my hair started to fall out. It started slowly but soon I was waking up with piles of hair on my pillow every morning. That’s when I decided to shave it all off.
I was well prepared for the months I was going to be bald. With the help of a dear friend I started buying wigs and hats while I still had hair so by the time I would need them I could just pull them out of my drawers. In the end I didn’t wear them at all, it was simply just too hot in Singapore. I was mostly wearing scarves tight up in a knot whenever I went out. I had begun to follow some girls on Instagram who unfortunately fought the same battle as I did. Some of them were a few months ahead of treatment so I could see how they coped with it and how their hair would eventually grow back.
It was comforting to see there was a light at the end of the tunnel. So I honestly did not care much for the hair part, as I knew it would only be temporary.
What did bother me was the 17 pounds I gained during treatment. I went from size small/medium to a size large or even extra-large. My shoe size went up sizes two sizes as well. So much for the skeleton next to the toilet bowl that I’d pictured!
Instead of making myself feel bad each time I looked at my closet, I donated all of the stuff that didn’t fit me anymore and just renewed my entire wardrobe into a bigger size. My savings that I had saved for times like being unemployed took on a new dimension of importance.
It’s hard to get the weight off, I am still struggling with it. Nowadays I could just slap someone in the face if I hear them complaining about gaining a pound. On a positive note, I am just glad the acne isn’t as permanent as the pounds are.
During treatment I kept thinking that there must have been a reason why I got cancer. But the problem is, I didn’t know why. Nobody did. There were times I blamed it on the fact that I had smoked in the past. I had quit smoking cold turkey six years earlier and never looked back, and I gave up alcohol as well around that time. But then again, there were many people I knew who smoked, some smoked even longer than I did, Were they all going to get cancer?
Or was it the food? I am not a fussy eater. I have always had a pretty diversified diet. I was always keen on trying out new restaurants, new dishes. Was that the problem? The fact that I LOVE all kinds of food?
During treatment Netflix was my best friend. Around that time the movie What the Health came out and I started watching every documentary about food and health there was out there. I had a feeling I had to do something. So I changed my diet and tried being vegetarian, and even tried being vegan for a while.
I replaced meat with loads of tofu, Quorn, taukwa, beans until I developed gout and my oncologist advised me to go back to my ‘normal’ diet. I was informed that soy contained a lot of phyto-estrogens and mimics the body’s estrogen. Honestly until this day I have never found more contradicting research around whether soy is good or bad for you (this article from a reputable source says there doesn’t seem to be a connection, and references a study of women in Asia with a lot of soy in their diets. Meanwhile, this article references a study that did show a possible connection). I just try to play it safe and stay away from it. I do believe that a whole-food, plant-based diet is the way to go.
If you are diagnosed with early stage breast cancer there is nothing worse than the fear of recurrence. This is where the term #scanxiety is coming from.
Unfortunately there are a lot of women on Instagram as well who are living with metastatic breast cancer. It’s inspiring to see how they live their lives and inspire others by creating more awareness. It is also a reminder that this journey doesn’t end when active treatment ends. Somehow, the outside world thinks that the worst is over when your hair begins to grow back.
Let me tell you that I have found the internal aftermath to be worse than the physical appearance struggles throughout this journey. I have come to resent the words ‘thriver’ and ‘survivor’, which are so often misused in the media. Because honestly you don’t know if you are a survivor yet when you are just out of active treatment. Statistics show that not having a recurrence within 5-to-10 years is where you might begin consider to calling yourself a survivor
On the job front I had started applying for jobs again as soon as my hair grew to an inch long. It’s hard to look presentable when you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin. And it is even harder to answer the question what I had been doing since I had arrived in Singapore. I chose to tell the honest truth about my cancer journey. It was like hearing myself on repeat each time I was passing through another interviewing round.
I landed my first job in Singapore while I was still under active treatment. And again it was at a start-up company. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and make a difference in a ‘smaller’ company after working for a big corporate previously. I felt like my life had been postponed for 18 months and I could finally begin the life I’d set out to do here, which was work hard and play hard. And by playing hard I meant travelling throughout Asia, which was the whole reason I moved to Singapore
So the first day at my new job literally felt like I could start living again. I was so eager to get back to my working life that I started working 12 hours a day for 3 months straight. Until I realized that that particular role in that particular company didn’t suit me at all. So I made the bold decision to quit my job! Yes I couldn’t believe I was doing that after only three months!
It was difficult because it had a double meaning: not only did it mean quitting a job that didn’t suit me, but also postponing my ‘normal’ life again. I had to start with the whole job search and interview process yet again.
This cancer journey has given me the strength not to waste my precious time on things that don’t feel right. So there I was back at the drawing board, trying figure out what it was that I wanted to do. After much consideration, I decided I wanted to go into consulting and use my supply chain experience and problem-solving attitude. And that’s where I am now: I just started my new job at a consulting firm and as expected it is again hard work and long hours, but so far I am enjoying it.