SINGAPORE - "Why is your wife botak (bald in Malay)?"
"Why are you so fat now?"
"Why is your hair so short? Are you sick?"
These were some of the insensitive questions posed by strangers to actress Pan Lingling and her husband, former actor Huang Shinan, in the past year.
Last year was rough for the couple, who have been married for 17 years.
Pan found out that she had Stage 1 breast cancer in March last year and underwent a partial mastectomy followed by breast reconstruction surgery - a seven-hour operation.
The 43-year-old also went for chemotherapy, which caused her hair to fall out and her weight to balloon by 10kg.
Later in the year, Pan's father was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer and died a couple of months ago.
For Pan and Huang, 52, dealing with cancer was not the only stressful issue. Having to keep it under wraps kept them, especially Huang, on edge.
On Friday afternoon, he told a press conference that the "botak" remark happened while he and Pan were playing golf.
As it was a hot day, she took off her wig briefly. A stranger later approached Huang to ask why his wife was bald.
He said: "I had to lie and tell him that his eyes were playing tricks. I was so worried people would find out (about the cancer)."
Pan, who is now cancer-free, said that when she went to the market, the aunties would ask her why she had gained so much weight.
Some questioned her on her changing hairstyles and asked why her hair was so short.
She later told The New Paper: "I wasn't affected by the unkind comments, but the difficult part was not knowing how to answer them as I didn't want the media or public to know the truth.
"I just told them that I had cut my hair short because the weather was so hot, and that I had gained weight because I'd been living the good life."
During the press conference, Pan said she sought help from haircare centre Beijing 101 to regain her crowning glory after beating breast cancer.
With a lush crop of short hair adorning her head now, she seemed to be in good spirits.
But recalling their ordeal in the past few months was an emotional experience and the couple occasionally broke down on stage.
They bowed and apologised for not being forthcoming with the news earlier and explained that they did not want it to affect their two sons, 15-year-old Beckham and 12-year-old Kynaston.
Huang said: "I worried a lot for my wife and I was constantly asking her if she was okay. I looked so troubled and lost weight. I cried so much that people thought I was the patient instead of her.
"Her temperament changed during chemotherapy and she would become impatient and frustrated without noticing it. I had to give in to her and accommodate her. She also had nightmares and screamed in her sleep."
Pan said that she did not cut her hair during the initial stages of chemotherapy as she wanted to go through the experience of hair loss.
"My husband and sons commented that I was dropping a lot of hair. I asked my sons to tug at my hair and clumps fell out. I shaved it to a buzz cut only after I was losing too much hair," she said.
"I wore a wig when I went out, but it was very itchy and left marks on my scalp. Sometimes, when I thought no one was looking, I quickly took off the wig for a short while to scratch my scalp."
Looking at her shaved head in the mirror did not make her self-conscious. Instead, she told herself: "Actually, my features are not that bad. I look fine with this hairstyle."
Pan also praised her sons for being mature and understanding in the past year.
"My elder son is more sentimental, like my husband. When the news of my cancer broke in the media last month, he posted a message on Instagram that read: 'My mommy is a warrior'. That made me cry non-stop," she said.
"My younger son cares for me through his actions, like secretly passing me a wig to wear when we have visitors." Pan asked MediaCorp to approach Beijing 101 last November as she wanted her hair to grow back faster and healthier.
She had heard from her doctor and nurses that it takes six months to a year for a cancer survivor's hair to grow back. Some never regain their original growth.
She said: "I only had 20 per cent of my hair left and I wanted to make sure it grew back. I love long hair and hope my hair can grow quickly to what it used to be. I miss my long hair."
Be mentally prepared for balding
One way to deal with excessive hair loss from chemotherapy is to be prepared mentally, says Breast Cancer Foundation Singapore general manager Irene Law.
The 58-year-old had breast cancer in 2004 but it went into remission the same year.
She told The New Paper: "Awareness is very important. Being able to live with the fact that I am bald and what I can do to hide my baldness, such as wearing a wig or a hat or scarves, makes it easier.
"For me, I went through that whole thought process and conversation before my hair fell off and I knew what I had to deal with. "I didn't wait till my hair fell off to be traumatised by it."
Ms Law also cut her hair off in stages, chopping her long locks to shoulder length first, and then to the nape of her neck when more hair fell off.
She eventually shaved her head when her hair came out in clumps.
She also prepared her friends by telling them beforehand that she would be experiencing hair loss.
"My friends were supportive and gave me many beautiful scarves," she said,
"I didn't use wigs because they made me feel hot. Hats were easier to wear and cheaper to buy."
Celebrities who battled breast cancer
Koh Chieng Mun
The 54-year-old, best known for her role as housewife Dolly in television sitcom Under One Roof, was diagnosed with breast and kidney cancer in 2005.
She underwent an eight-hour operation to remove the tumour in her right breast and went for radiation treatment and chemotherapy.
Her cancer has been in remission since 2011.
The 38-year-old Hollywood actress revealed last May that she had a preventive double mastectomy. That means having both breasts surgically removed.
As a result of a mutated gene from her mother, who died of ovarian cancer, Jolie's risk of breast cancer was greatly elevated.
After the operation, her chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer dropped from 87 per cent to 5 per cent.
Diagnosed in 2006, the US rock singer, then 44, was able to skip chemotherapy because her cancer was discovered early.
After a routine mammogram showed suspicious calcifications in both breasts, she postponed a concert tour, went into surgery and had seven weeks of radiation.
The Australian pop star was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 when she was 36 years old, forcing her to pull out of her Australian and Asian Tour.
She went for a partial mastectomy and underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
The Hong Kong diva, 66, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, when she was 55. Wang, who starred in television serials and Cantonese Opera, also survived thyroid cancer.
After her recovery, she joined the Hong Kong Anti-Cancer Society to promote public awareness of cancer prevention.
This article was published on April 5 in The New Paper.
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