Tag Archives: breast cancer

REFLECTIONS – All I Want For Christmas Is A New Right Breast

Hwee Hwee Laurence has a wish –

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On 10 December 2013, Jean-Claude Mas, the founder of the company Poly Implant Prothèses (PIP) that made defective breast implants not conforming to medical standards, was judged in court in Marseille.  He was condemned to four years’ imprisonment, fined 75 000 Euros and not allowed to work anymore in medical-related fields.

I suspect I was one of the last people implanted with a PIP because just two months after having the mastectomy operation, I received a letter from the hospital informing me of this.  The ‘re-shock’ was almost too much to bear.  And of course, over the following months, the hullabaloo over this scandal was reported almost daily in the news and it certainly was not good for the morale especially when one was undergoing chemotherapy.

You might ask – why did I have an implant in the first place?  Am I so vain about keeping my breasts?  Or did my husband want me to have an implant?  The answers are ‘No’.  I never wanted an implant or any breast reconstruction.  My husband’s only aim was that I get well, and if he ever mentioned the possibility of an implant, it was because he was concerned that I might be psychologically ‘disturbed’ by my asymmetry.

I had an implant because every one of the doctors I met related to my cancer strongly advised that I should.  At that time, I had the impression that feminity is an important aspect for French women since at first,  nobody could believe that I really did not want an implant.  ‘You are still young!’ they said.

So why did I give in?  I did so because I did not know otherwise.  I had never had cancer or a mastectomy, never knew what it would be like to be flat on one side nor what it would feel like to have an implant.  In the end, shouldn’t doctors know best?  Which is why I wished that, because they knew better than me, they had fought harder to stop using PIP implants once problems started, not continued to do so until the last few months before ‘higher authorities’ decided against it.

I have been advised to remove, no – to change – the implant.  So far, I have not plucked up the resolve to go for another operation.  Also, I have been considering not having a new implant.  But then, I am now so used to having it that I am scared to have to readjust to being asymmetrical.

The one thing I have learnt from all this is – let’s not cry over spilt milk (or silicone – ha ha!).  I could have regretted listening to the doctors, but then without an implant I could have hated my lopsided body, too.  I can continue to rave and rant at Monsieur Mas but what good would that do to my health?  Better to just let go and get on with life.

My annual check-up is coming up soon and I will have to make a decision by then.  So maybe – a new right breast would be what I will be getting this Christmas.

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LIFE – No Medicine Cures What Happiness Cannot

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month in case anyone’s not aware. Hwee Hwee Laurence just went for her annual gynae check last week because she’s been on tamoxifen for 5 years after chemo.

Gleefully, she writes, ‘Found uterus not normal, so now have been scheduled to go for D&C and hysterocopy – hah hah whoopie!  I feel like just taking the whole bloody thing out and get it over with.’

Atta girl ! That’s the spirit ! Cancer is not something to trivialise but it does force us to pull up and look at our life as Hwee Hwee did. I feel very blessed having friends like her, and I wish my friend mentioned in my earlier post could meet her but with the latter in Singapore and Hwee Hwee in France, we’ll have to wait for the twain to meet.

Hwee Hwee recalls :

What did I do when I discovered that I had breast cancer?  I cried.  Then I cried some more.  People will tell you – Don’t cry; it’ll do you no good.  But it will do you good.  It is only after a long crying that you will be able to blow your nose, look around you appraisingly, then ask – Now what?!  And that’s when you’ll get up and go deal with cancer in whatever way it has to be dealt with.

In a way, if cancer was to happen to anyone, I was glad it was me and not others in my family.  I help my husband in our own business and therefore have a flexible work schedule; the social security that my husband contributes to (something like the Singapore CPF except that it goes into a common pool) covers me even though I am not a French citizen.  It makes a world of a difference to be able to concentrate on getting treatment without worrying about bankrupting my family.  Each time I went for my chemotherapy session, I reminded myself that it cost a lot of money and I psyched myself up positively so that it would be half the battle won.  I am thankful for this adopted country of mine and I pray that the French people will be united and not abuse such medical privileges that they are lucky enough to have.  And I hope that, in any small way, I may be able to bring a little kindness and happiness to the people I am now living amongst.

One thing I learnt early during this period was that cancer does not exempt you from other problems of life.  After the initial diagnosis and shock, I was determined to concentrate on going through chemotherapy and getting well.  But it is naïve to think that the world waits for you while you get well.  Around you, life goes on – your husband, children or even yourself might get ill, have problems at work, school or in relationships;  there will be family members or things around the home that need your attention.  Once, in the midst of such ‘additional’ problems, I complained – this is so unfair, isn’t it enough that I have cancer? – before understanding that all this is simply life carrying on its normal way.  The opposite is true, too, that having cancer and undergoing treatment do not mean you should exempt yourself from enjoying life’s little pleasures – my children and I read and laughed together, I seduced my husband whenever I felt well enough, I went out with friends or invited them over.  Life, in its normal way, was a great reassurance during this time, not just to me, but also those close to me.

If you were to ask me what is one thing that has made this illness all worth it, I would answer without hesitation – my mother.  My mother used to worry a lot.  She had an unhappy marriage, and in a way, it made her always worry about her children’s marriages. Any small (or big) quarrel she got to know about was enough to make her worry.  She used to lament that life was better when we were kids, that even though her friends consider her lucky that her children are all grown up, married and settled down, she now has to worry for us, our husbands and our children.  It used to drive me crazy to hear such lamentations, and to wonder when she would ever learn to live life as it is and be joyful about it.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, one of the biggest stresses I had was how to tell my mother without facing another flood of lamentations which I neither have the energy nor patience to listen to.  In the end, it was my younger sister who told her and to our surprise, she took the news in good stride.  Throughout this time, my mother slowly learnt to give up her burdens and worries.  She learnt not to worry when there is nothing she can do, and what she can do, she does dedicatedly and cheerfully.  During her visit here when I was undergoing chemotherapy, she cooked up a storm, enjoyed being with the grandsons and we all had a great reunion.  There was not a single lamentation of Why so unlucky? or Why did this happen?  The only thing she said to me concerning my illness was, “Mummy is praying for you and a mother’s prayer is very powerful.”  I keep that always in my heart and it is a lesson for me to do the same for my own children.

Some months after I finished chemo and radiation therapies and having started on long-term medication, I suffered from depression, something that I had never experienced (or had much patience for, in others) before.  I saw everything in a negative light, I thought the worst of everyone and almost everything that my husband said or did irritated me.  During one brief ‘good’ moment, I thought how ironical it was that I went through so much trouble to get well only to arrive at this point where I did not care whether I live or die.  But even in the terrible depths of such feelings, I was blessed with two things.  First, my husband, despite being at the receiving end of my misplaced anger, never once retaliated but instead continued to show me kindness.  And it was this kindness that finally broke through and brought me back to normality.  And second, having been there and experienced it, I now understand better and have compassion for others who suffer from depression.

I do not know whether I will live past the next 5 or 10 years, but I do know that these last few years, strange as it might sound, have been one of the happiest periods of my life.

Dear readers, in a book by Nobel Prize Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there is a phrase that says, “No medicine cures what happiness cannot.”  I have that, and that is what I wish for you, too – happiness, and an abundance of it.

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LIFE – Breast friends forever

We’ve been friends since we were 8 years old. We celebrated our birthdays and took our sons to the zoo for elephant rides to give ourselves a bit of time-out. I watched her battle depression when her husband died, and just as the cloud seemed to lift, she found a lump in her breast a few months ago. The diagnosis – metaplastic sarcomatoid carcinoma (combination of metaplastic carcinoma and spindle cell carcinoma) – a particularly aggressive cancer that went from Stage 1 to Stage 3 in four months.

The lump has been removed but the cancer has not been eradicated, and while her doctors say that neither chemo nor radiation will do much good, they are still starting her on radiation in a week’s time.

Her two older children, sisters and friends are too distraught to think straight. She wants to go ahead with a party she’s planned, but they insist she should “rest”. It annoys her no end. She is already experiencing fatigue but with some planning, and the food and cleaning taken care of by a helper and her sisters, she thinks the party should go on because it might be her last.

She says she is not afraid to die. What she fears is pain and the high cost of treatment.

How do we show we care without suffocating the person? How can we help at a time like this?  Despite many friends and acquaintances being struck by various ailments from the dreaded cancer to rheumatoid arthritis, I am still a klutz at showing support. I have kicked myself black-and-blue for being insensitive eg for sounding breezy as if they will surely recover. But at the time, I thought being positive was the right attitude. Now, I’m not so sure.

At the other extreme, I just listen with no idea what to say. It might appear I don’t care when I am actually afraid I might cry.

So, I checked http://www.cancer.net/ and picked up pointers that I’m comfortable with. My own take –

  • One of the first things to hold back on is sharing well-meaning advice. It seems everyone knows some therapy or healer or fantastic supplement we can’t wait to foist on our sick friend. The intention is good, but might be unwelcome. You can mention it but take the cue from your friend. No interest? Move on.
  • Also, ring and enquire after their health, chat about general things and let them know you are thinking of them, but don’t insist on visiting if your friend doesn’t sound keen to see you. And don’t be offended.
  • Offer to run errands and rally friends around to share chores if your friend needs help. Practical assistance is more useful than just talking.

More useful advice:

Avoid saying

  • I know just how you feel.
  • You need to talk.
  • I know just what you should do.
  • I feel helpless.
  • I don’t know how you manage.
  • I’m sure you’ll be fine.
  • Don’t worry.
  • How much time do the doctors give you?
  • How long do you have?
  • Let me know what I can do. (Instead, offer specific ways you can help or other things you can provide if they need it.)

Show support with something simple like cooking and bringing over a meal for your friend (after checking dietary preferences) or accompanying him/her on a walk. It’s really the little things that make a difference.