updated 2 Sep 2014, 09:48
Login password or
Tue, Nov 20, 2012
The Straits Times
Email Print Decrease text size Increase text size
Survivor makes A Clean Breast of cancer
by Leslie Kay Lim

Watching her mother go three rounds with breast cancer before succumbing to it nine years ago at the age of 64 was difficult enough for writer Theresa Tan.

But nothing prepared her for getting that breast cancer diagnosis herself two years ago. The married mother of three, who turned 45 last Friday, recalled the fear she felt knowing she had the same disease that had killed her mother.

"I saw her go through chemotherapy. And there were days when she could barely talk or stand up," recalled Ms Tan.

Two years on, the former editor-in-chief at Elle magazine has written a book called A Clean Breast about surviving the disease.

Her first symptoms came in the form of shooting pain from within her right breast in June 2010. She tried to make it through the day but was finally taken to KK Women's Clinic.

After an investigative biopsy, she was soon diagnosed with Stage 0 breast cancer that had formed in her milk ducts. Very few women - only about 5 per cent, she later found out - experience similar pain with the onset of breast cancer that drove her to a doctor early.

Within two weeks, Ms Tan was on an operating table, after deciding to get all the breast tissue in her right breast removed and consequently reconstructed during a 13-hour operation.

Looking back, she said luck may have been on her side. "I was fortunate I got it before it was invasive."

It took another six months after the surgery before she felt strong enough to sit up at a computer for any length of time. A long-time writer, editor and playwright, she sought solace in blog posts about her experience.

First unpublished, her writing sat waiting in a digital queue.

With encouragement from those around her, Ms Tan finally let the blog posts go live. Friends started referring friends and sisters to her blog, and it became a virtual support group of sorts.

She would hear anything from sad tales of husbands leaving their cancer-stricken wives to compassionate well-wishes from those who had recovered.

One man even asked for ways to reach out to his sister, who had found a lump but was too scared and in denial to approach a doctor.

"There were things that were missing too," Ms Tan said of the online resources for breast cancer patients. "Things that people don't talk about, like insurance."

Eventually more and more people suggested she turn her blog into a book, and - swayed by the permanence and platform it offered - she finally put pen to paper.

The 223-page tome was completed earlier this year after a year of rewrites. "It's a powerful thing to leave to your children," Ms Tan said of completing it and speaking of Bruce, 13, Bethany, 11, and Becca, six.

The whole experience has made her an even more ardent advocate for the breast cancer cause, also winning her the MediaCorp 2012 Singapore Woman Award.

The $20 book will be launched on Wednesday and will be at major bookstores by the first week of next month. Ms Tan hopes to dedicate its proceeds to the cause and the Breast Cancer Foundation.

"Don't judge your future by your past or your present," she said, thinking back to her mother and of her fellow travellers on the cancer journey. "And don't give up."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.

readers' comments

SPH DIGITAL NEWS / ASIAONE GROUP / Copyright © 2014. Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Co. Regn. No. 198402868E.