World Cancer Day

Support groups key to battling disease

Ms Tan credits support groups with helping her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010.
Ms Tan credits support groups with helping her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010.PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Seven years ago, Ms Calin Tan led an ordinary life, working as a patient service assistant and taking care of her family.

Today, she heads a cancer support group for women, inspiring and helping those who are battling the disease. She is also more active in the community, taking part in Zumba and singing classes. This is a turnaraound from her previous lifestyle, where her main concern was work.

The shift was prompted by her own brush with cancer in 2010 when she was 46. A routine check-up revealed there was a lump in her breast, indicating the possibility of breast cancer, which typically occurs in women above 40.

What followed next was a flurry of tests - magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound scans, as well as blood tests - which showed that she had a 5.5cm tumour in her right breast. Her doctor diagnosed it as stage 2 breast cancer.

She was asked to choose from a list of recommended treatment options. "Initially, it was very confusing and tiring because there were so many decisions to make," said Ms Tan, who works at the National Cancer Centre Singapore.

Treatment for each patient differs and can include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and getting a mastectomy, which is the surgical removal of the breast.

Ms Tan, who has two grown-up children, went for a mastectomy on the advice of her doctor and family members. She then underwent reconstruction surgery to rebuild the removed breast.

Though the treatment caused permanent numbness along the incision site near her right armpit, Ms Tan, now 52, remains thankful to be alive.

Her ordeal was made easier when she joined a support group under the Singapore Cancer Society (SCS). It gave her added fortitude, especially since she was the first person in her family to get breast cancer, which makes up 25 per cent of all cancers diagnosed in women.

That is why Ms Tan hopes to use her experience to help fellow patients. "We want to be with positive people," she said.

She has served as chairman of the SCS Bishana Ladies Group since it was founded in 2014. The group aims to create an avenue for women with cancer to show solidarity and share their experiences with one another. Members receive psychological and emotional support, and learn how to cope with changes in their lifestyles caused by their treatment.

Ms Tan is also part of a committee organising Singapore's first overnight Relay For Life (RFL) on Feb 18 and 19. Participants will walk together at Bukit Gombak Stadium to express solidarity and raise awareness of cancer.

Ms Tan, a three-time participant in overseas RFL walks, said she volunteered to join the organising committee when the idea was proposed by SCS. The theme of the walk - Celebrate, Remember, Fight Back - has special meaning for her. It is a reflection of her own struggle with cancer and a way to honour friends she has lost to cancer, she said.

Now in remission, Ms Tan credits support groups with helping her through her toughest period in life. She hopes that others battling cancer can join support networks as well.

"No one fights cancer alone," she added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2017, with the headline 'Support groups key to battling disease'. Print Edition | Subscribe