Athletics: Cancer patient Irene Lee hopes to inspire GEWR participants to watch out for their health

Ms Irene Lee has endured a 2½-year ongoing battle with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, but she will be participating in the Great Eastern Women's Run (GEWR) on Oct 14.
Ms Irene Lee has endured a 2½-year ongoing battle with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, but she will be participating in the Great Eastern Women's Run (GEWR) on Oct 14.ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI
Ms Irene Lee in January 2017, after she first began chemotherapy.
Ms Irene Lee in January 2017, after she first began chemotherapy.PHOTO: COURTESY OF IRENE LEE

SINGAPORE - The Great Eastern Women's Run (GEWR) on Oct 14 may be her first running event of any kind, but Irene Lee already knows what it takes to complete a marathon.

The 48-year-old has endured a 2½-year ongoing battle with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, seemingly beating the disease twice only for it to return.

Doctors first discovered a cyst in February 2016, but the bad news arrived seven months later after she had surgery to remove it. A PET scan revealed that not only was the cyst cancerous, but the cancer had also spread up to her lymph nodes.

With the diagnosis of Stage 3C cancer, chemotherapy was her only option. While aware of its side effects in theory, dealing with the reality was a different matter - her hair began to fall out during the second of six cycles.

"Although you are prepared, when you see your hair fall out, you are like, 'Oh, my God'," recalled the interior designer.

"I went to wash my hair and, when I flipped my hair up, there was a whole area where the hair was all gone. So I decided to shave everything off."

The caregiving duties largely fell on her mother Chan Chee, 70, and daughter Pamela, 25.

The family rejoiced when the cancer went into remission but, to their horror, it recurred barely five months later in August last year.

"I felt really lost at the time because I wasn't sure how long I would live," said Lee.

"My mum and daughter were very upset too but, for my sake, they kept their emotions in and just quietly took care of me."

She tried immunotherapy on her doctor's recommendation, but early signs of progress were quickly reversed as more tumours were discovered - with the largest wrapping around her spine and causing persistent backaches. She had no choice but to start chemotherapy in February this year.

Around 70 per cent of ovarian cancer is diagnosed at an advanced stage. Those diagnosed at Stage 3, like Lee, have a 70 to 90 per cent recurrence rate, according to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance.

A full recovery is also unlikely but the latest signs have been encouraging. Said Lee, a single mother: "I am taking Gemzar (a chemotherapy drug) now and this time the side effects are lesser and I feel great.

"I have two more chemo sessions to go on Aug 13 and 20 and, from there, we will see."

Running has never been her favourite activity but being diagnosed with cancer has given her a new perspective.

"When I used to go running with friends, after a little while I would just take out my ez-link card, hop on the bus and tell them I would meet them at the next stop," she said with a smile.

"But if I don't do it now, then when? So when my colleague Lynn approached me to join the 5km run as a pair, I said, 'Ok, let's try'."

While still unable to run, she has already began brisk walking and taking part in workouts organised under the GEWR Run To Live Great programme.

"The workout was tough and I said I needed to rest after the second round of exercises." she said. "But joining the run is not just about my own health but also to inspire others to watch out for theirs."