SINGAPORE - She had hired her to help with household chores two years ago. But Madam Jennifer Teo found herself going through a role reversal when her domestic helper, Madam Rosalyn Lamusan Castillo, 39, was diagnosed with stage three inflammatory breast cancer in April.
Madam Castillo first felt a lump on her right breast last December. But the Filipina brushed it off as it did not hurt.
She alerted her employer only when the lump swelled up to about 9cm and the pain became unbearable. Madam Teo took her to Johns Hopkins Singapore International Medical Centre at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
They were referred to KK Women's and Children's Hospital, where Dr Felicia Tan, a visiting consultant, diagnosed the domestic helper with inflammatory breast cancer.
The "rare and aggressive" form of cancer, according to Dr Tan, the chief surgeon and director of FeM Surgery at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, hits only one in every 100 breast cancer patients.
"By the time it was presented to us, she was already in what we call a locally advanced stage, where the cancer was almost eating up the whole breast," she said.
On top of a radical mastectomy - the removal of a breast and the underlying muscles - Madam Castillo had to have a reconstructive procedure done to mend the hole that was left after the mastectomy.
The news of Madam Castillo having only six months to live if the cancer was left untreated shocked everyone as she had become part of the family after she started working for them in December 2011.
With her source of income down as she had to pay for her treatment, the financial situation back home was so bad that her eldest son, 16, had to stop going to college.
The only source of income now is from her 43-year-old husband's farming job, which has been putting their other two sons, aged five and seven, through school, she said.
In between tears, she told The New Paper: "My (eldest) son asked me why he had to stop school. But he understood after I explained my situation to him."
When Dr Tan heard about her patient's financial plight, she decided to waive the consultation and operation fees on her end.
Even then, the hospital bills came close to $23,000, which was borne by Madam Castillo's employers, something she is grateful for. Out of the $23,000, the maximum amount claimable under the maid insurance policy is $15,000.
Madam Castillo is also thankful for the way her employers have looked after her.
She said: "I am grateful that Madam Teo has been taking care of me ever since I was sick. Without her help, I would not have been well again."
Madam Teo's husband, who wanted to be known only as Mr Lim, said: "Whether it was a family member or a domestic helper, we would have done the same thing."
He said his wife had been frustrated in her efforts to get help and sympathy for Madam Castillo from the hospital.
"They said they couldn't do anything and their hands were tied. If you're a Singaporean, there are more avenues where one can get subsidies. But we can't be so clinical, that just because you are not a Singaporean, there's nothing they can do," Mr Lim said.
In about two weeks, Madam Castillo will return home to spend more time with her family and undergo radiotherapy post-surgery, a decision the Lim family and she believe is the best option.
Her cancer is now in remission, but the treatment is not complete without the radiotherapy sessions, said Dr Tan.
Madam Teo said her family has given the maid a sum of money and the latter is trying to appeal for more donations to alleviate the financial situation at home.
She was introduced to the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) by a Filipino friend.
Home chief executive Bridget Tan said that close to $5,000 has been raised for Madam Castillo with a combined effort from members of the Home family and S3P, a Singapore-based Filipino photography group.
She appealed for employers to approach Home if their domestic helpers are in similar situations.
"Sometimes employers want to do more, but cannot because of their own circumstances. They can always approach us when they feel like they cannot handle the situation any more. We will be more than happy to help," Ms Tan said.
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