With her sunny smile and infectious enthusiasm, you would be forgiven for not guessing the tough hand life has dealt 36-year-old Mas. At age 29, she was diagnosed with a rare type of germ cell tumour called immature teratoma. Mas has been in remission for five years and runs two thriving businesses. Her journey has not been easy. Here, she shares some of the lessons she learnt on her way to offer hope and inspiration to others.
1. Don't Dismiss Any Physical Discomfort
"It started when I had some abdominal pains. I went to the clinic and they referred me to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital for appendicitis. But after a scan, they discovered a huge cyst. I was so confused, cancer just did not cross my mind as a possibility. It sounds crazy but it only started to sink in after my first day of chemotherapy."
Mas' story illuminates a very important truth about cancer: it doesn't always show up as a lump. No matter how trivial a medical condition may seem, it's important to get checked as soon as possible. Here's a handy guide on how often you should go for screening to check for different types of cancer.
2. You Get To Decide Who Journeys With You
Another important lesson is to find the right doctor. While Mas felt powerless about her diagnosis, she has since learnt there are things she still has control over - including who her primary care doctor was.
"I had to consult a few doctors before I decided on Dr Lim from NUH (National University Hospital). I'm really glad I did that because she was such a big part of how I pulled through!
She really took the time to answer all my questions and explain everything in detail. She was, of course, compassionate. Stern but not forceful. So she really helped me feel at ease, and that was so essential."
3. The Journey Is Not Linear
"Exhausting, depressing, and tons of crying!"
When even simple day-to-day activities such as taking a shower were difficult to do, it's easy to see why Mas described her chemotherapy experience as such. When the first cycle was completed, she was deeply relieved and thought her ordeal was over.
Unfortunately, life had other plans. Six months later, Mas had a recurrence and was advised to go for a bone marrow transplant in order to handle high-dose chemotherapy.
"It was a nightmare - I had to be isolated most of the time and my body was in constant pain. Looking back, I realise it helps a lot to manage your expectations and know that there will be bad times after the good, and good times after the bad. Getting to remission wasn't a smooth-sailing and straight road, and it helps to be aware that it will be a series of ups and downs."
4. There's Such a Thing as Being Too Independent
Mas has always professed herself to be a fiercely independent person. But her cancer journey was about to show her that it is not always a good thing.
"It's funny how it took cancer to teach me to be more vocal about my needs, even for simple things like "Hey, can you get me juice?" or "Is it ok if you help to shower me today?" That's why I'm so thankful for my sister, Nisah. She was my main caretaker and she never failed to show up. She is my guiding light, my rock."
Mas also learnt more about the type of support she needed most. While well-meaning people sent her online articles on what to eat or not eat, and told her everything happens for a reason, it often ended up making her feel worse. "So I realise the best kind of support is when our loved ones show up and are simply present."
But Mas' sister, Nisah, has a tip for caregivers: don't forget self-care!
"It may be hard because you want to be there to take care of your loved one, but if you don't set aside time for yourself, you will crumble. So I'm grateful Mas always insisted I take Sundays off, to let me focus on myself."
5. Expect the Unexpected
"You know, one thing that really surprised me about my experience is that losing my hair was strangely the least difficult part! I've always loved that I'm financially independent, but after my diagnosis, I was so worried about the cost of treatment, and that just wasn't something I ever thought to budget for."
Life has a funny way of never quite turning out as expected. Mas started to blog to document her journey but as chemotherapy got increasingly difficult, she was simply unable to maintain it. Her dreams of starting her own family also met a roadblock. "I had to go for a hysterectomy to reduce the chances of recurrence. I decided to go for it, as it might be the only chance I have of defeating cancer."
"I guess all of this has taught me that life is better lived, without getting too hung up on a fixed idea of how it's supposed to go, and trust that it will take you where you need to be!"
6. You Are More Than Your Condition
"This may be one of the most important takeaways for me. Cancer is a life-changing condition, but it is not your entire life."
Mas soon learnt how important it is to have a sense of normalcy amidst the crazy, and took comfort in things such as Coke and music - never underestimate the power of simple pleasures!
With bravery and conviction, she decided to turn the pain into a healing journey of self-discovery and experimentation with creative pursuits and crafts. Since her diagnosis, she has started a handicrafts business with Nisah called The C Project and opened her own home bakery, TLC (Tummy Loves Cakes).
"It's something I'm so proud of. I was very cathartic for me to not define myself as a cancer patient, but as someone with passions and interests of her own."
Mas's journey is truly a powerful illumination of courage, spirit and hope. It also sheds light on the unpredictable nature of life, and how the universe sometimes sends you exactly what you need.
"It's so funny. 10 years ago, I was at the post office and an insurance agent approached me. I signed up for the policy without much thought, and that was the policy that ended up helping me with my treatment expenses! In hindsight, I'm so relieved he came to talk to me that day and I reached out to thank him because I can't imagine how heavy the burden would be, if not for that day!"
Like Mas, you too can look out for your future self with the safety net of insurance. CancerCare Plus offers coverage for major cancers, as well as early-stage cancer - all at the affordable starting price of less than 15 cents a day.
That's not all we're doing, in our fight against cancer. For every CancerCare Plus policy purchased in 2021, MSIG will be donating $10 to the Singapore Cancer Society. Plus, we'll be hosting seminars for cancer prevention and care - look out for more details coming your way.