No breasts...no problem

She traded her breasts for peace of mind.

A genetic test three years ago revealed that 28-year-old Chua Pei Ling had a rare genetic disorder, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which mutates a gene responsible for suppressing tumours in the body.

Doctors told her she had a more than 80 per cent chance of getting breast cancer.

So Miss Chua decided to do what US actress Angelina Jolie did recently and underwent a preventive double mastectomy.

Jolie, 37, wrote in a column in The New York Times that she made the decision to remove her breasts because she carried the BRCA1 gene, which sharply increased her risk of having breast and ovarian cancer.

Miss Chua, a Malaysian who had the procedure in Singapore, initially had difficulty accepting that both her breasts needed to be removed.

"I was quite shocked. I thought I took care of my breasts very well...I bought good bras," she told The New Paper via Skype from Pahang.

"And when I heard that they recommended the mastectomy, my first thought was, 'Oh dear, what am I going to do with all my bras?'" Her thoughts soon moved to more pressing concerns, such as how she would not be able to breastfeed and the perception of her boyfriend or other guys to the fact that she no longer had real breasts.

"I consider myself quite an optimistic person, but I did have thoughts including what if my boyfriend or other guys find out about me not having breasts and they don't love me any more?

"I don't think I was completely cool with it at first. Maybe I was a bit depressed, without really knowing it," she said.

But her Korean boyfriend was supportive and encouraged her to opt for the double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery.

"It was a long-distance relationship, because we met while studying in Japan. The moment he found out that I was sick, he flew to Malaysia to take care of me for about a year. That gave me a lot of comfort," she said. The couple are still together.

Miss Chua's doctor, Dr Lee Soo Chin, a senior consultant at the National University Cancer Institute in Singapore, told TNP: "The most common form of adult cancer linked to the Li-Fraumeni Syndrome is breast cancer. In the case of Pei Ling, the chances of her developing breast cancer was more than 80 per cent."

This was why Dr Lee had recommended a double mastectomy.

Miss Chua's mother and aunt had died from breast cancer.

Before the diagnosis, doctors also found non-malignant lumps in both of Miss Chua's breasts.

Her health situation was further complicated by adrenal cancer, which she was diagnosed with in the same year, before her mastectomy.

She had to undergo an operation at the National University Hospital to remove the 18cm malignant tumour in her adrenal glands.

Before she had the double mastectomy, Miss Chua had to pick out her new breasts - another interesting process.

"I got to see silicone in real life. It wasn't just in American dramas any more. I got to feel the implants in my hand, at the doctor's office," she said with a chuckle.

She recalled waking up at the Singapore General Hospital with bandaged breasts, after an eight- to nine-hour surgery.

"Showering was a bit of a hassle because my breasts were wrapped. I was also advised to stay away from rigorous exercise and had to get used to the feeling of silicone pressing against my muscle," she said.

The cheerful woman, who said she has a high threshold of pain, was discharged within a week.

She has no regrets "doing what she had to do".

"At first I did struggle with what it meant for my femininity. But I came to a point where I asked myself why I should be ashamed, since I'm doing this because I have the condition.

"Removing your breasts is not like stealing someone's husband or boyfriend. Having an illness is not a choice. Those things, you should be ashamed about. That's how I reasoned it out in my head and convinced myself," she said candidly.

Life after surgery is much the same as before, other than a few readjustments she has had to make.

She said: "I can't carry heavy things because it's going to pull the muscle off the silicone. That's the only thing..."

There are perks, such as not having to wear a bra.

Convenient

"Some women opt for the nipple reconstruction, but I like being nipple-less. I don't have to wear a bra. So convenient! I can wear a T-shirt and go out . I don't need to worry about people staring at my chest, because they will never see the nipples," she enthused.

Does she feel any less of a woman? Definitely not, she declared.

"I mean, you still look like a woman. You're still pretty. Why would you feel less than a woman, just because you have no breasts?" she asked matter-of-factly.

Despite having her breasts reconstructed in Singapore, Miss Chua felt her artificial breasts could be further improved. So she visited Korea last year, where she went through another breast operation.

"It was painful, yes, but the skill...you just cannot compete. It was really good," she joked.

The bill came up to US$9,000 (S$11,200), a sum she took out of her own savings. Her mastectomy in Singapore cost between $19,000 and $20,000, which her insurance took care of.

She is now looking forward to making money, having a good life and influencing others to live life to the fullest.

"Life is just too short," said the positive woman.

Her advice for other women who face a high risk of contracting breast cancer? Figure out your first priority. Health, not the opinion of others, should matter most.

"If you have kids, it's better to go for it (a mastectomy) because children always need their mother.

"For those who aren't married yet, they should be strong and ask themselves what is their priority. What comes first? You have to have more confidence and belief in yourself. And family support really helps too," she said.


Get The New Paper for more stories.

Purchase this article for republication.

SERVICES