At 42, she lost both breasts and ovaries to cancer

At 42, she lost both breasts and ovaries to cancer
PHOTO: Irene Chui

Breast cancer can strike anyone, even someone leading a healthy lifestyle with no family history of cancer.

Latest stats from the Singapore Cancer Registry show that one in 14 women in Singapore will develop breast cancer before the age of 75. Yet, only 45 per cent of women perform breast self-examination and go for medical checks, according to Blackbox Research.

Clearly, more needs to be done to improve awareness and encourage early detection of cancer.

Take it from Irene Chui, who battled breast cancer 16 years ago. She's the captain of Breast Cancer Foundation's Paddlers in the Pink dragon boat team.

Irene is also an active volunteer with Breast Cancer Foundation. She advocates women to go for regular breast screenings, and conducts awareness talks at various companies and community groups in Singapore.

When and how did you get diagnosed with breast cancer?

Irene: I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in August 2001. I was 35 then and a busy working mother with schooling kids aged nine and 11. Over a casual conversation, a colleague mentioned that she was going for a minor surgery to remove her breast lump. This led me to conduct a breast self-examination. I had felt a lump before but it was not painful, so I left it alone. Eventually, I went to see a company doctor who encouraged me to go for a complete screening which involved an ultrasound, a mammogram and a biopsy.

I was totally shocked when I learnt about the diagnosis. I wasn't prepared and had never imagined that a painless lump could lead to the big C. Plus, I was considerably young at 35, so I couldn't figure out why I got breast cancer. Looking back, I think it could be due to my processed food diet, coupled with a stressful lifestyle with little exercise. None of my seven sisters have a cancer history.

What was your breast cancer treatment journey like?

Irene: I went through 12 sessions of chemotherapy, 30 radiation treatments and three years of hormonal treatment. The side effects from chemotherapy were pretty harsh, and long hours were spent reconstructing my breast. I'm thankful for the great care and support from my hubby during those dark times.

Just when I thought I was in the clear, I was tested positive for BRCA 1 in 2007. BRCA 1 is a gene mutation which increased my risk of developing ovarian cancer by 65 per cent, and breast cancer (in the other good breast) by 85 per cent. I made the tough decision to remove my ovaries and the other good breast. I found myself grappling with my femininity, wondering if I was still a woman without breasts and ovaries. It definitely wasn't easy to cope. The best thing that came out of this was that I reduced my cancer recurrence rate by 80 per cent.

One month later, my hubby got diagnosed with a rare cancer that required him to undergo a major reconstruction of his mouth. That was my biggest challenge ever, as I took on a caregiving role while still recovering from surgery.

How has breast cancer changed your life?

Irene: I got a second chance to live and I'm grateful for that! My life is definitely more vibrant than before. I laugh a lot these days and see things in a different perspective. I'm also more driven, confident and a better leader as well.

Before cancer, I led a routine lifestyle that involved juggling work and family. Having me time wasn't an option at all. I also wasn't eating healthily even though I had a helper at home. Now, I'm more conscious about eating clean and including fruits and vegetables in my diet. I try to avoid processed food and fast food.

I've also become a lot more active. My weekly fitness routine looks like this:

Monday: Bootcamp

Tuesday: Dragon boat training

Wednesday: Rest

Thursday: Tennis

Friday: Rest

Saturday: Dragon boat training

Sunday: Running

How did you get involved in dragon boating?

Irene: I was invited to join the Breast Cancer Foundation's Paddlers in the Pink dragon boat team - it's one of the Healing Through The Arts programmes which features recreational and therapeutic activities to help women rebuild physical and mental well-being after having breast cancer.

What motivates you to keep up with your fitness routine?

Irene: I feel more energetic, leaner and fitter. I used to weigh 63kg. Now, I'm 56kg. When you feel good, you look good!

Has your lifestyle influenced the people around you?

Irene: My 27-year-old daughter exercises a lot, and tries to eat clean as much as she can. We all know there's nothing to lose when you lead a healthy lifestyle.

This article was first published in Shape.

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