It was meant to be a post-surgery check-up to see if her scars were healing well.
However, the atmosphere at the doctor's office was grim — a far cry from the previous times when the doctor would call out her name jovially when Tammy Chen entered the room.
This time around, the doctor solemnly asked her to take a seat and said: "The results are not too good. It's cancer."
The 28-year-old first discovered lumps in her breasts in late November last year and scheduled an appointment to be referred to a specialist. While it confirmed that there were lumps through an ultrasound at that time, she was told that "it was normal" to have them. She was to return three months later to review the situation.
For Tammy, she ran regularly and considered herself to be healthy, though on the petite side. She also didn't have any family history of breast cancer and hence when circuit breaker hit, she put aside going back to the specialist for a follow-up.
When phase 1 of Singapore's reopening began, she was caught up with her work as an insurance agent and put off her second appointment with the doctor. Yet, she still felt somewhat unsettled and it was in August 2020 that she finally decided to see the specialist again.
This was when the lumps were found to have grown in size. "The doctor said that the shape had turned from defined to a floral petal shape," she recounted. A biopsy was then performed and it was determined that she had breast cancer.
Tammy recalled blanking out momentarily upon receiving the news.
"But I knew that I needed to pull myself together and listen to everything the doctor had to tell me," she said.
While receiving the information, there were only two questions running through her mind: "Am I going to die?" and "Will I have to go through chemotherapy?".
The doctor immediately reassured her that there was an 80 to 100 per cent survival rate and shared that breast cancer occurring for someone in her twenties is rather rare.
Deciding to remove both breasts
In Tammy's case, the particular breast cancer that she had — Mucinous Carcinoma and Ductal Carcinoma In-situ — usually only occurs in women who are in their 50s and 60s. And because it is slow-spreading and thrives on female hormones, usually no surgery would be recommended and the condition would be treated through oral medication.
However, as she was only 28, the doctor advised her to consider surgically removing her breasts as she was still young and still had many years ahead of her.
Thankfully, a full body check-up showed that the cancer had not spread, and was mainly located inside her right breast. And while she could have opted to remove just her right breast, she decided to go with the doctor's recommendation to remove both.
"My left side had lumps that the doctor was afraid would turn cancerous and I would have to do radiotherapy and monitor the situation," Tammy noted.
"Removing both meant reducing the risk of cancer coming back, which I felt was safer in the long run and I didn't want to have surgery again if possible."
Processing such major news in your twenties is difficult, and even more so when you don't have your family with you.
With the current travel restrictions in place, Tammy decided not to share the news with her parents, who are not residing in Singapore. "I didn't want my mother especially to worry unnecessarily and be upset that she can't fly over and be with me during this time."
It was only after some prodding from a friend that she mentioned her surgery to her dad the day before she was due to go under the knife "just in case something happened". To date, she still hasn't told her mum about her cancer yet, waiting to break the news in person.
Choosing the replacements
Though she contemplated against breast reconstruction, she decided to go ahead with the procedure as she "didn't want to have any regrets" and while doing it later was an option, it would mean going under the knife again.
"I also want to still wear nice clothes," she quipped.
However, that wasn't the end of the string of decisions she needed to make. Her consultation with the plastic surgeon saw her looking at a whole selection of implants in varying shapes and materials.
"I was encouraged to touch and feel all of them," Tammy shared. "The doctor even told me that he can make them bigger if I wanted."
Other than the implants, she also had to decide on the type of surgical process she was more comfortable with."The doctor also reassured me that the implants would look natural. Not super perky like those who opt for breast augmentation."
The surgery went ahead without a hitch, and as the cancer was confirmed to not have spread to her lymph nodes, chemotherapy was not required. For now, she is considered cancer-free and only has to be on oral medication.
She was even discharged earlier than expected and went back to work three weeks after being on the surgery table. "I didn't really tell my clients that I was having surgery, and some of them were looking for me. Luckily because of CB, many are now open to the idea of video calls, so I didn't need to leave to house and was able to manage," she shared.
Besides feeling tired easily now, life is mostly back to normal for Tammy since it's been just over a month since her big surgery. But yet, she knows that things aren't quite the same as they were before.
"Somehow it still feels very different, and I have learnt to not take things like health for granted anymore," affirmed Tammy. "I also realised how important having a support system and community is during such difficult times."
When asked why she chose to share her journey publicly on Instagram, she said: "This must have happened to me for a reason and other young women have reached out to me with questions after I shared about my condition. And I'm glad that I can help and give strength who may be going through something similar."
Breast Cancer Awareness Month takes place every October. As breast cancer is the number one cancer affecting women in Singapore and early detection can save lives, women are encouraged to do a mammogram screening for just $25 for Singapore citizens. Visit pinkribbonsingapore.org for more information on the various activities taking place to raise awareness for breast cancer.