“Was God playing a cruel joke on me?” Carolyn Tan was in disbelief when cancer hit her family yet again almost a year ago.
When I awoke on Saturday, 5 September 2020, the sun had been in my room for quite a while. It was the start of the week-long September holidays, and it made all the difference to me as a teacher and mother. I savoured the luxury of just lying in my bed without worry of traffic or school bells to heed.
I stretched out in bed, then tossed and turned a little. One side of my body seemed stiffer somehow. On performing a self-examination, I found a palpable lump in my left breast. I wasn’t too worried; many of my friends had had lumps that turned out to be benign. Besides, both my parents and my husband had passed from cancer – surely it wouldn’t hit my family yet another time.
Nonetheless, I arranged for a full medical health screening. It had been some time since I’d had one done.
On 23 September, my doctor, a breast cancer specialist, examined the mammogram scans and performed an ultrasound. He gently informed me that from its irregular appearance, it was highly likely that I had early stage breast cancer. A biopsy sample sent to the lab later confirmed his suspicions. PET and CT scans helped assure us that it was Stage 2A.
I couldn’t believe it. I told God that He had a bad sense of humour.
Sharing the difficult news
It was difficult to break the news to my two boys. Their father had passed just 3½ years earlier from late-stage stomach cancer. They also clearly remembered my father, their maternal grandpa, who had passed from the same cancer the year before; and for my older boy, my mother’s 3-year journey with colon cancer which ended in 2010. We were all too familiar with cancer in our family.
In all, I waited 9 days to speak to them. I needed time to understand the extent of the disease, the prognosis and the treatment for the months ahead. When I finally told them, I took extra effort to explain that my disease was distinctly different from their father’s and grandparents’. They remained calm and we all shared a good hug after that. Since then, they have remained objective and strong, trusting in God for the positive outcomes of my journey.
I was familiar with what a chemotherapy treatment room looked like, having supported my mother and husband during their time in those rooms. Now that it was my turn, I did not feel that it was anything fearful, but there was quite a bit of administration to see through, detailed briefings on side effects of each drug, and advice for managing my diet. Though I had some of my closest Christian friends present with me, and my phone saw constant messages of care and prayers from various loved ones, I felt sudden pangs of longing for my husband to be around, to be a second ear, and to see to the administrative matters.
The first treatment took longer than expected because my veins were thin, and constricted. As such, the infusion could only be done at a slow pace so as not to cause pain and distress in my arm. I was so grateful for the presence of friends. The gratitude I had continued upon returning home when some church friends brought a sumptuous home-cooked dinner for my boys and I.
The chemotherapy treatments were rough because they brought so much fatigue, which meant a lot of rest was needed. I also felt nausea and lost my appetite for much of the first part of each cycle, and was prone to diarrhoea. During the second cycle in particular, I lost so much water my body got dehydrated. I awoke one morning feeling like I was falling through the middle of my bed. I had to clutch the sheets with my hands and feel the pillow under my head in order to realise I was on the verge of hallucinating. It was totally disorientating. Eventually, my doctor was better able to prescribe specific medications for the side effects that affected me in particular, and things stabilised in the subsequent cycles.
Feeling the ill side effects definitely caused me misery. At my lowest moments, I wondered why God hadn’t let me fall ill with my husband by my bedside. Why couldn’t He have allowed my mum’s presence, or my dad who would readily buy any foods I would want? God hasn’t given me an answer but I suppose I will find out the reason one day.
Helping myself, and allowing others to help me
I started a blog to keep track of the progress of my treatment, and to record thanksgivings. I stayed open to visitors coming in regularly because even though I was often tired, they would always bring comfort and cheer, and sometimes say a prayer.
During the times I felt frustrated with what God was putting me through, He surrounded me with his army of angels – my sons, siblings, cousins, friends and church mates and colleagues – to remind me that He was in charge, and that He would see me through.
This army of God provided all sorts of help. My older boy administered booster shots for immunity. My younger one gamely experimented in the kitchen, whipping up meals for us. Apart from visits to my home and to the hospital, other family and friends accompanied me for walks, wig-shopping, art-jamming and even a photo shoot. Most of all, they shared with me their precious time and companionship and so I never did feel that God had abandoned me.
But most of all, I clung to God. He made Himself real to me so many times. I treat God as a person near me, a constant companion. My prayers are more informal like conversations, and I can start one at any time and anywhere. When the worries come, I surrender it to God, or ask Him to lessen the pain.
Taking care of our temples
I’m happy to say that I’m cancer-free now. I’ve got a few more cycles of targeted treatment to go. The final one takes place in January 2022. This treatment has few side effects, but those from chemotherapy still linger. I have constant aches in my hands and feet, and my strength and stamina are significantly less than before my diagnosis. I’m trying my utmost to ramp up exercise and keep well so that I can return to feeling more like my normal self.
I would encourage everyone to go for routine health checks as recommended by the experts. The earlier cancer is detected, the more treatable it is.
We should take care of ourselves, eat well, sleep well, and get some exercise in between. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit within us. If we don’t take care of our bodies, how can we do the work God has entrusted us? When chronic illness strikes, at least I know I’ve done my best to take care of the body God has given me. I hope you do too.
Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed for I am your God: I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.