#StrongInPink: A Breast Cancer Survivor Keeps It Real and Raw
| Written by Debbie Ann Loh
This October, PurelyB joins in to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month with #StrongInPink. In celebrating strong and brave women who are fighting breast cancer, I recently had the privilege of catching up with a breast cancer survivor. You wouldn’t be able to tell from her lovely disposition and cheerful spirit!
Meet Susan Choo, a woman who wears many hats, both at home and outside. Listen to her heart as she candidly shares her joys, struggles, unexpected twists and also find out what keeps her grounded through it all. Be inspired!
1. Let’s begin by having you introduce yourself, tell us a bit more about yourself.
My name is Susan and I’m married to a fine man who is both a finance guy and also happens to be a Pastor at a church called DUMC. We are a family of four. We have two grown-up children, Sara is turning 27 this year and Jason has turned 23. Sara is working full-time and is involved in youth work. Jason is currently studying in Australia, hopefully he can finish up by this year.
As for me, I quit my job 3 years ago upon my diagnosis of breast cancer. I was working as a headhunter and had been in this line for many, many years. I really enjoyed my work having the flexibility but when the news came that I had breast cancer, I thought that I don’t need to stress myself out. After all, the children are grown up and if work stress was going to put a heavier burden on me in terms of my health then I thought I should prioritise my health over career, and concentrate on getting well and taking things easier.
2. What keeps you busy these days?
As the kids are not around most of the time these days, I have a fair bit of time for myself to do things that I love, for example, playing the piano, doing a little bit of gardening, watching TV (Korean dramas!) and just catching up reading some books. I also go on the treadmill and that’s my regular exercise. I’ve recently started experiencing some pain from cervical spondylosis but will continue to take steps to keep me going.
I love trying out new things, like for example, signing up for runs! Though I cannot really run, really but it’s something new and exciting; you get to meet people and challenge yourself. I’d go slow first and see how far I can stretch myself.
Though I am very much at home now, I intentionally take proactive steps to build myself up in the area of personal development and spirituality as well as invest into the lives of younger ladies. That’s a passion I have for people. Being a Christian, I am regularly involved in church. This is something I like to do - to see the younger generation being grounded and rooted in their faith in God and finding a worth in themselves. We believe that in every person there is a potential. Whether that potential is realised or unleashed, often an older person needs to come alongside just to remind or encourage the younger woman to rise up to fulfill their God-given destiny.
With that, I spend quite a fair bit of time having coffee sessions with younger ladies and I am so glad that there are younger women who are reaching out for help and are willing to spend time with the older women – to learn from us, to listen to our stories and experiences. I am personally mentoring younger women 1-on-1 and also spending time in groups.
I’m very involved in the Women to Women (W2W) group where we organise monthly talks where we study the Bible, organise conferences and weekends away specially for women. Of course, my husband being a Zone Pastor, I come alongside him to be a good support. So any matters that involve women in the zone, I will be there with him to counsel and support them.
3. You received unexpected news not too long ago. Share with us how did you discover that you had developed cancer?
That was 3 years ago and it was just right after my cervical spondylosis procedure. Because of that condition, I had severe pain and numbness on my left arm so that was why I had to do the procedure. In the midst of recovery, one fine day, I noticed that I had a pimple on my right breast (at the nipple). This never happened to me so I was naturally concerned. I was wondering what that pimple with pus and blood was all about?
So the next day, I looked up my gynae. By that time, the pimple had dried up. She told me that pimples could happen on any part of the body but she wanted me to do a mammogram and an ultrasound as I had not done anything like this before. And honestly as there is no cancer running hereditarily in my family tree, I had never done any mammogram or ultrasound of the breast, in all my 50+ years of life because I felt like this would never happen to me. No one in the family had it until this incident.
I then proceeded to go for the both the mammogram and ultrasound. The mammogram showed nothing but the ultrasound captured a lump so I went to see Prof Dr Yip (Cheng Har), who is an expert in breast cancer. She then told me that looking at the shape of the lump, there is a 75% chance that it is not cancer and that there is a 25% likelihood of cancer. Based on her guess, we prayed that the 75% would come true. Well, it was not meant to be. The biopsy was done and true enough, it was cancer.
4. What were some thoughts running through your mind at that time? How did your family respond to the news?
Anyone’s naturally tendency would be to ask “Why God? Why me?” Maybe because of the numerous times our Pastor Daniel taught us that when tragedy hits us, our response should be, instead of asking “Why?” we should rather ask “How can I respond?”. That was etched in my mind.
When the report came, honestly, my husband and I did not ask God, “Why?”
but “How should we respond to this?”
So I said, “Ok God, now that this has been confirmed. How? And what is next? Show me the way.” Soon, one thing led to another. First, I underwent the operation to remove the cancerous lump and they did a biopsy on that because they needed to stage the cancer to determine the grade of the cancer. Some lymph nodes were also removed to see if the cancer had spread to other parts of the body as that would determine another stage of cancer. Thank God, it was all okay and all my lymph nodes were cleared.
I was staged at 1 and the cancer grade was 2 (out of the 3 grades of cancer). So mine was in the middle. Had it been grade 3, I would have needed chemotherapy. So my doctor told me that you are very lucky! I truly am grateful and thank God for this.
Sara was in Australia at that time and she rushed back in time for my operation. Jason took it quite hard because he was with me all the time. We told them that this is all in the hands of God and we just need to trust Him step-by-step. After the initial shock, then everything settled in and I moved from one point to another.
I went through 28 sessions of radiotherapy, changes in my diet, started becoming more positive and looking to God, getting encouragement from friends – all these helped me move forward easier.
5. How has your lifestyle, in terms of diet and exercise, changed since?
Since then, I have become more aware of my diet and healthy eating has become a habit rather than a goal. Juicing became a regular part of my life, with lots of greens. That’s also when I lost a lot of weight and my complexion became better!
I often use a variety of greens in my juices. When I first started, I juiced twice a day, it could be spinach, cucumber and green apple, ginger and lemon are a must. Then in the afternoon, I would go for more fruits. I stayed away from fruits that are high in sugar like watermelon and mango. One and a half years on, I now have 1 juice a day. Like today, I had a mix of cucumber, orange, carrot, pineapple and strawberries, all blended together. Also, virgin coconut oil (VCO) has proven to be a good nutritional supplement so it is something that is indispensable in my diet. What I do is just add 2 tablespoons of VCO in my juice. Some people may find it an acquired taste but for me, it’s fine cos I love anything coconut!
I’ve been definitely eating more veg and a plant-based diet. Though initially I wasn’t really a plant-based diet person but because of what happened, I began to like eating veg. When I know something is good for me, I’ll do it even though I don’t like it. Eating organic has become too expensive though initially I opted for that. There was also a time where I went for group buys for a season.
Some really important dietary changes I’ve also made is that I try to stay away from processed foods, cut down on meat, carbohydrates, sugar, dairy products (as research has shown that dairy is not good for those with breast cancer) and soy. But I love coffee (flat white!). What I do is, stay away from instant coffee as it is the less healthy option. I brew coffee with an Espresso machine that I have at home instead. Though the findings on soy are not conclusive, since there is a possibility, I stay away from consuming soy. Additionally, the good thing is that I’m not a fan of soy milk or tau foo fa, so that helps!
In terms of exercise, I know myself and how much I can take. For me, exercise takes in the form of brisk walking on treadmill, otherwise I’ll be out of breath. Stretching exercises and now at my age with my children all grown up, my husband and I have more time to spend with each other and travel. That is a good thing to keep my mind away from all these mundane and routine things. We frequent Australia since both our kids study there. With our currency exchange at the moment, both my husband and I enjoy Bangkok as things are reasonably cheap there. We try to organise a family holiday annually depending on the children’s schedule.
6. Would you say that your outlook towards life has changed?
My outlook towards life has definitely changed. All that has happened just shows me that life is very fragile, uncertain, short and the relationships that I have, whether it’s with my mother, my siblings, my children, my friends – they are all precious.
“I also always remind myself to not hold grudges and to always look for the good
in people. Let it slide. Value people and treasure time spent with people.”
Look at the worth in a person. I try not to get upset so easily especially at my dear husband. As we now have more time together, honestly, the tendency of getting on each other’s nerves is there. Again, I’m just reminded to let it slide. When we do that, the relationship is strengthened. Basically valuing people and treasuring time spent with people. So that’s why I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to invest in the lives of young women and seeing those I’m mentoring growing and taking on leadership roles – that’s my joy.
7. You have a cheerful spirit and a deep sense of optimism. Tell us what keeps you going and what makes you smile amidst the storm?
Well, I would have to say that it is God. Having faith in God is so important, knowing that our lives in His hands and His plans are always good for us. That gives me the confidence to know that He would not leave me stranded, He will see me through.
“I may have to go through troubles, I mean, He did not promise us that
we would not go through troubles but
He promised that He would always be with us.
So that’s the confidence and optimism that I have.”
And eventually when I do breathe my last, I know where I’m going. It’s been 3 years now, I still have to go for my regular check-up every 6 months for ultrasound and every year for mammogram (annually).
Honestly, it has not been all smooth-sailing because in the last two ultrasounds, the doctor has not been very happy about the results. The doctor ordered me to do another biopsy the last round. To which I asked, “Doctor, Stage 1 Cancer can recur?” To which she replied, “Why not? You still have breast tissue around.” These are just some of the challenges we face as women. Thankfully, it just turned out to be scarred tissue. Looks like my healing is very slow. Some people will have no scarred tissue by 3 years after diagnosis. Thank God the biopsy came out clear. Life is full of surprises. When you think that everything is okay, it actually in fact, isn’t and you find that you have to go through another hurdle.
8. As a woman who wear many hats – a Mother, a mentor and a regular volunteer, how do you manage stress and still keep your family close together?
I try in the first place not to get myself stressed up! And that’s also why I quit my job. For me, I find watching Korean drama very therapeutic – it’s something that helps me unwind. My friends have gone way ahead of me! I go for massages and sweat it out on my treadmill, play the piano and sing, have coffee with the girls I mentor and you know when girls get together, we can chat for hours! My favourite hangout spots are at boutique cafes like Bacon & Balls, Expresso Lab, Departure Lounge or New Chapter by Owls.
On keeping the family close together, communication is very important. Make sure the lines are always open. I’m also learning as a Mum, as I have adult children now - the way you handle an adult as compared to a teenager or a younger child is really different. There are times when I have to refrain and wait till they share more with me. From young, we have inculcated the habit to pray together at night. And as parents, we have reminded them to stay rooted in their faith, no matter where they go. I’m glad and thankful to say that by God’s grace, they have brought us much joy.
9. In closing, what would you like to say to women who are battling cancer? On the other hand, do you have any words for those who know someone in the family or a friend who is going through cancer?
“I think it’s very important to stay positive and it’s important to have
a network of support – people who are close to you and
whom you know you can depend on.”
Like when I was going through my treatment, there were friends who came alongside me and said, “Let me drive you there.” Little, little gestures like these matter and they don’t ask you too much and are just present there with you. There are friends who came to visit, bringing supplements.
Stay Positive, Keep Active, Go Outdoors and Celebrate Friendships
Find an anchor, keep staying positive, being optimistic and personally, having that faith in God is very important. Life is in God’s hands. Continue to stay active, meet friends. Don’t stay cooped up in the house then a lot of negative thoughts will tend to creep in. Just go out, go on a holiday or walk the park. Find things to do instead of allowing yourself too much time to dwell on negative things.
Eat Wisely and Navigate Your Way Through Information Online
Of course, eat wisely as diet is of utmost importance. Read up but don’t believe everything you read on the Internet – filter out what is logical and affordable for you. Do your own research and with a lot of resources available these days, we are very blessed to have many different avenues where we can seek out information to help us along the way. See what works for you, what is within your budget and what seems logical.
“Listen to your body; when to work it and when to rest it.
Remember to smell the roses along the way!”
To family members or caregivers of those battling cancer, understanding the patient because she has to battle through many things – physically, emotionally, mentally and psychologically. Sometimes well-meaning family members in their enthusiasm prescribe a lot of things to their family member fighting cancer until it gets too overwhelming. Sometimes you don’t even have to say anything, your sheer presence is already good enough to help the patient go through.
“Be understanding, most importantly, be there to support
and not to be over imposing.”
-Susan Choo, Breast Cancer Survivor
Susan, thank you very much for sharing your journey with us once again. We are so grateful to hear you share your story, right from your heart. All our love and best wishes from all of us at PurelyB! Stay strong and keep on inspiring others!