Ashley

Location: , Singapore

Age at diagnosis: 34

Diagnosis: Recurrent survivor

Stage of cancer: IV

How my story begins: My husband and I love travelling. When we found out I was pregnant, we had already booked a much anticipated holiday to Italy. So we went ahead in my first trimester. After a long red-eye flight, I fell very ill the next day and started bleeding. Panic alarms went off. Was this a miscarriage? Worried, we visited an obstetrician to check. Thankfully, a scan revealed that our baby was fine and happily bouncing inside. I was then prescribed progesterone to stop the bleeding. After I returned back home, the pregnancy continued but I was unusually ill throughout with daily nausea, vomiting, constipation, and fatigue. I dismissed them as pregnancy related. Finally at 32 weeks, the bleeding returned which quickly escalated to hemorrhaging. I was then admitted into the hospital and put on strict bed rest. Doctors did various scans and physical examinations but they couldn’t locate the cause. Eventually, I was told ‘this is a case of indeterminate bleeding’ and was advised to endure as ‘it's better for the baby to be inside your womb with each passing day.’ Honestly, I was petrified for my life. I just felt something was wrong. On the 10th day, the hemorrhaging became so severe that my baby was distressed. My obstetrician came to examine me and saw a lump sticking out of my cervix that bled upon pressing. She wondered if it was a fetal part and called for an emergency C-section. Two days after delivery, I was told ‘it’s really cancer.’

How I felt after diagnosis: My entire world fell apart. I was in total disbelief. I didn’t know that it’s possible to get cancer during pregnancy. Who would have expected it? My husband and I grieved and hugged each other in the maternity ward. Having witnessed how my grandmother passed away from cancer, I really thought I was going to die…very quickly. In desperation, we prayed and cried out to God for help. To our amazement, within 2 hours, a reputable gynae-oncologist walked into my room. She was indeed a Godsend. She examined me thoroughly and reassured me that it was treatable. Together, with my sister and brother-in-law who are medical doctors, they coordinated the examination under anesthesia (EUA), MRI and PET/CT scans within the next two days. My treatment plan fell into place very quickly. God didn’t allow me to be sad for too long.

Telling my family and friends: I know God is the only one that can get me through this. But He didn’t want me to deal with this alone. No man is an island. Hence, upon diagnosis, I informed my siblings, parents, and closest friends immediately. I was bawling my eyes out when I told them. The Church pastoral team was also notified. Each of them played a different role – some empathized and listened, some motivated and cheered me on, some coordinated treatment plans, some were prayer warriors and activated others to intercede. It became a village of supporters, which made life more bearable.

My treatment: My gynae-oncologist decided on an aggressive approach for curative intent. Three weeks after C-section, I had a radical hysterectomy with lymph node dissection. It was excruciating!!! The first word I muttered in the recovery room was ‘pain…pain.’ I recalled maxing out the morphine dosage. After surgery, I was mostly bedridden for a few weeks, requiring a caregiver. Even walking to the toilet a few metres away was a mountainous task. Thankfully, my husband could work from home. He assisted in daily chores of cleaning my urine catheter, inserting suppositories, feeding and showering me. I was deeply touched and grateful to God for such a wonderful husband.

As there were microscopic cancer cells in two nodes, I had to undergo subsequent concurrent chemo-radiation for 6 weeks followed by 4 monthly cycles of adjuvant chemotherapy to eliminate residual disease. Chemo-radiation was difficult. I was actually frightened of the machine. To calm my nerves, I kept reciting Psalms 23 over and over again during radiation. Towards the 4th and 5th week, I suffered an awful bout of bladder inflammation that made my life miserable. After it ended, I was given a 4 weeks break before the adjuvant chemotherapy. It was a much needed respite. I spent time bonding with my daughter and rewarded ourselves with plenty of outings like a hotel stay and a visit to Universal Studios. I even rode a roller-coaster despite pelvic aches. On hindsight, I would advise against it.

Subsequent chemotherapy was surprisingly manageable despite the usual side effects of muscle aches, bone pain, and fatigue. I shaved bald to avoid the unpleasant emotional distress of hair loss. When I had the energy, I read stories of cancer survivors, researched about nutrition, binged on Korean drama, watched movies, and went out for walks. I also started blogging to document my cancer journey for therapeutic reasons.

How I felt after treatment: After the last cycle, I was extremely relieved to have completed treatment. But strangely, I wasn’t elated as I had to cope with the side effects and weakened state.

What was most difficult for me: I thought I could return to my normal self (before cancer) after treatment. But unfortunately, it wasn’t the case. I felt absolutely lost. I realized I hadn’t processed what had happened. I struggled to find a new normal especially with a baby to take care. My body was not as before. Every ache and pain was associated with cancer recurrence. There was a period of time where I was dealing with insomnia, anxiety, and depression. My doctors attributed it to a combination of stress, post-natal and chemotherapy induced hormonal changes. But honestly, I was also troubled by the fear of recurrence, dying and death. Like all parents, I do hope to watch my daughter grow up if God is willing.

What I did to help myself: The people around nudged me on, especially my husband who constantly reminded me of God’s love, protection, and sovereignty. He showered me with plenty of patience and care. Even my young toddler comforted me. I recalled the moments she patted me and handed me a tissue when I cried. What a sweetheart and empathetic little being! My parents cooked and took me out for walks. My in-laws and church prayed. Friends offered comfort. Pastors visited and gave spiritual practical tips. Slowly, with everyone’s support, I regained my physical and emotional strength. I started being more active, went for counseling, changed my diet to include cancer-fighting foods, attended bible study and resumed travelling. The most exhilarating moment was when I cycled, for the first time after surgery, 5 hrs across Rottnest Island in Perth, with my husband and daughter in her child’s trailer.

My life after cancer: Unfortunately, almost a year after treatment, I was thrown a curveball. The cancer recurred. I was devastated but I didn’t allow myself to give up. I knew I had to fight on for the sake of my daughter and husband. Again, we asked God for help amidst the chaos. We consulted many different doctors about treatment options. I recalled being so confused that I broke down in front of my gynae-oncologist who was so kind and guided me on decision-making. Along the way, God also dropped hints on which treatment combination to do. I realized no matter what choice I make, the outcome is in His hands. Eventually, after chemotherapy failed, I had targeted radiation and immunotherapy that put the cancer into remission. I am especially grateful to my heavenly Father who delivered me time and time again.

Where I am today: Since the recurrence, I have been doing things differently. In fact, I’m learning to ‘do nothing’! Instead of constantly striving to achieve things and become ‘better,’ I’m gaining self-acceptance and learning to sit in the present. I give myself permission to rest (for a very long time) without feeling guilty. Self-care is a big part now. On top of travelling, I’m into abstract painting and mindfulness meditation. I stopped mulling over the future and took things one step at a time. There were many ‘spur of the moment’ experiences. For instance, after my doctor cleared me for travel, we booked flights for a vacation immediately. Since the recurrence, we went to Seoul and secured our lovelock at Namsan Tower, to Okinawa and sampled their purple sweet potato, and soon to Maldives. Of course, most importantly, I’m learning how to let go and let God take charge, converting my fear to faith.

What I want other women to know: Always listen to your body. If something is amiss, visit a doctor as soon as possible. If he or she doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer, find one who is willing to take time and investigate. We are our own advocates.