Breast Cancer Survivor & Bootcamper
International Women's Day is usually celebrated on March 8 every year. We usually feature women in fitness but this year, ash be nimble is inspired by a few beautiful ladies who have battled breast cancer, and survived, AND love fitness. ash be nimble founder & designer Hui Mathews was inspired by these stories (& the fact that regular mastec-bras are rm200+!!!) and the result is our range of prosthesis-friendly sports bras. All our regular sports bras are now modified to be able to insert a breast prosthesis. We also have a range with back clasps, to make it easier to wear and remove sports bras post-surgery.
One of these women who inspire us is Jen Lim. She tells us about her journey in preparing herself to #gotheextramile to appreciate health and regain her fitness (bootcamp routine) after going through chemotherapy, the battles with her own inner demons, and overcoming the obstacles with the support of her friends and family.
Jen Lim, in our prosthesis-friendly sports bra Desiree
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm 37 years old and a breast cancer survivor for 3 years. I was diagnosed in October 2013. I discovered a lump one fine day when I was looking at a mirror and I saw a dimple. I have neglected annual health checks as I was too focused on working hard but luckily the cancer was discovered at an early stage.
When you discovered the lump, what did you think about it?
A little back story: my mum is also a breast cancer survivor and this is her 21st year of survivorship. My mum and I would always joke and say cancer would skip one generation. So when it happened, I was still quite positive.
When it was confirmed, the first person I thought of was my mum. She has gone through this, so I can get through this as well. I think it was much more easier for me to accept it because of that. If I were to compare it to a friend who was diagnosed recently, her mum died when she was 16 from breast cancer, so the two of us took it very differently. My friend was very fearful as her son is only 3 years old and she already thought about the worse.
What was your first reaction when you went to get it checked and you were diagnosed with breast cancer?
When I went to a general practitioner, they told me not to worry and said it was benign but he still recommended me to a general surgeon with terrible bed side manners! He examined me, told me at point blank “You have cancer la! So when do you want to cut it off?”. I was speechless and it took me a while to internalize. I did not go back to him of course but I'm glad I found a reputable surgeon who did a good job in operating on me.
I went through a bone scans, ultrasound and a mammogram to determine the staging. There were options to remove my breast partially but my mum has already survived with only one breast so I told my doctor to just remove it. I live in an era where medical has advanced so much hence I opted for full mastectomy with immediate breast reconstruction.
I also met Claire around that month. It was Pink October and Claire’s photo went viral. It was a photo she took with her husband and her husband was wearing her wig. So I approached her and she told me to join the group that she created, Breast Cancer Survivors & Warriors an online based FB group for Malaysian woman touched by breast cancer.
What was the journey after surgery? Did you still have to go through chemo? How did that take a toll on you?
I took 6 months off work. I was at home and my mum took care of me. I got to spend time with her and at the same time I had a few family members who were also affected by cancer so we took turns to visit each other. Unfortunately, most of them passed on and it gives me more reason to fight on and live life to the fullest.
First I had to go through surgery, then a month to res,t then a chemo cycle. In total I had 6 cycles to go through. The first 3 cycles are of the same medicine, the following 3 are different medicines. A cycle happens every 3 weeks. By the first week, you’ll feel terrible. By the time you are feeling better, it’s time for your next chemo session. When I went through chemo, I thought about my mum a lot, the pain she went through. I guess it really takes someone to go through chemo to explain how it makes you feel.
The first 3 cycles were okay, despite the nausea. I already lost most of my hair by the first chemo session. By the second week of the first session, I was completely bald. The body changes were quite drastic. My fingernails, eyelashes and nose hair were falling off. I get very watery eyes without eyelashes. Other effects that chemo had on my body was that I gained 10 kg of water weight. I felt horrible about my body. I was constantly tired and I couldn’t perform like how I used to. Those were the things that I needed to prepare myself for. Things aren’t going to be the same but you should be thankful with what you have with your life.
When it came to the last 2 sessions, it was like nyawa-nyawa ikan. It was a neither dead-or-alive sort of feeling. Occasionally, when I don’t feel well I’d put on a mask and stay out for one or two days. Despite the setbacks I still go grocery shopping with my mum and hang out with friends.
Chemo days are the days you feel humbled from the whole experience because all you want to do is to be a healthy person. You just want to be normal. You just want to eat normal. You will empathise when you see someone sick because you are equally sick as well. This is a constant reminder to myself because we tend to forget all these things that has happened when you're back into the rat race. It’s always good to remind yourself what you’ve gone through to be grounded.
What was your thought process from when you got diagnosed and when you wanted to get it removed? Was it decided already or did you take some time?
The thought of mastectomy is that you will remove your breast. I have my mum to look up to and I wasn’t too worried. There were some hard decisions like losing a breast but at that time I was already on full defence mode: I just wanted to get rid of it and live on. I just wanted to get it over and done with and remove the cancer. But I did mentally prepare myself and managed my self expectations by looking at photos of breast reconstruction online. At the end of the day I just wanted to look 'normal'.
There are different people that you meet who have different approach to things. There were some who were devastated that they had cancer. They are so sad and it kills them faster than the cancer. A sad soul kills faster than the germ!
How did you pass the time?
I have a niece who is 4 or 5 years old who goes to preschool. I’d spend time with her after preschool when she asked me to take her for a walk, or to shower with her. She was part of the healing process and motivation to go for a walk.
What did you do after you finish your sixth cycle, and how soon after that did you get back into working out?
The effects of chemotherapy get to you much later, especially when I went back to work. Getting back into work was difficult for me as I felt slow, and I didn't look the same. Colleagues and bosses were supportive but at the end of the day, it was how you battled your own demons. So I started back with exercise in 2014, but I was easily tired and I needed time to heal. In 2015, everything started picking up and I gradually joined bootcamp again.
Can you describe that first day of working out again?
I was a bit upset. I was asking myself, why couldn't I run fast anymore? Why does it feel very heavy around my thighs when I'm walking? It was so tiring and I felt breathless. I had already lost my water weight. It’s a lot of hard work. I had to watch my food and exercise regularly. Until today, I’m still not how I used to be which is something I have to internalize and accept. Sometimes I’m a bit too ambitious and I tend to forget my limitations.
How did you really motivate yourself to start from scratch again?
I became motivated over these few years by the people that I've met especially the breast cancer group. Some didn’t survive, so there are a lot of things to be thankful about. When I'm down, the only way to get back up is to exercise. I love the sweat! The adrenaline rush makes me happy!
Is the damage of chemo is irreversible?
In a way. Sometimes I question if chemo was the right decision and you question if it really eradicates the cancer. But there is nothing sure in life and we have to accept the decisions we have taken and move on.
How is your fitness now?
I go for bootcamp, twice a week. Other than that, I go for my run and do my own workout. Weekends, I go for evening walk with my dad. My dad would walk I would run and I would wait for him. Sometimes I would wait for him. I would go uphill, he would take it downhill. Or I would go for a run, and he would take the motorcycle to accompany me, or I would go night cycling with my friends or trail hike with my friends.
What was your first impression of the group (BCSW) when you first joined?
I enjoyed it from when I first joined. Whenever we had newly diagnosed patients, we would send them a scarf and a bracelet with a pink ribbon. It lifts their spirit. Sometimes when you reply the questions they ask, it helps them a lot. I enjoyed doing that.
Do you think there is more that people can do to support breast cancer survivors?
Building the awareness is important as early detection saves lives.
Is there a way to motivate them to make them feel less concern about the way other people look at them?
The breast cancer group helps rally motivation, especially when they see other breast cancer survivors being open. It helps encourage them too.
Are there things that people think they don't have to deal with, specifically around fitness post-surgery, that people usually don’t think about?
Get a good sports bra! Even after surgery, the doctors told us that we would need to get a comfortable set for daily use.
FB group: Breast Cancer Survivors & Warriors