TERI CHOONG’S STORY
When it comes to health and wellness, Teri Choong has always been someone two steps ahead. At 34, the happily married mother-of-four juggled between taking care of her kids and holding down a steady career. Teri exercised regularly. She was also careful about treating her body well and made it a point to go for regular medical check-ups and health screenings. In October 2005, Teri made an appointment with her gynaecologist when she had a sudden bout of excessive bleeding. Finding her history of irregular period cycles unsettling, her gynaecologist decided to send her for a biopsy of her cervix. Teri agreed, thinking that it was more of a routine check than anything else. A few days went by before the doctor dropped the devastating news – she had a tumorous growth and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. In Singapore, cervical cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths among females in the 15-44 age range. Around 99% of cervical cancer cases are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that often shows no symptoms but affects around 80% of women and men.
With her prior knowledge and experience working on breast cancer campaigns she sought a second and third opinion, but over again and again they all told her a truth she couldn’t run away from. On 21 November 2005, at the John Hopkins Institute, Teri was struck with even worse news – her Stage IIB cancer was considered aggressive and could quickly advance to Stage III if not treated fast. The doctors explained that her tumour was not detected earlier because it was lodged far behind the cervix in an area which could not be swabbed during Pap smears. Teri recalls that fateful day when her life changed, her journey through treatment and recovery, and why she’s been more convicted about speaking up about the fight against cervical cancer.
Do you remember the very moment your diagnosis was read out to you?
I remember being silent for a good five to eight minutes when the doctor told me I had cancer. At that moment, I just completely switched off and my mind went blank. I didn’t know what to think and how to respond. I was in a daze.
“But I knew there was no point in dwelling over spilt milk. The cancer was already there. All I could do was look forward and think ok, this has happened, now what can I do about it?”
How did you even begin to think about telling your family members and loved ones?
After I left the clinic, that was when it really hit home. I started tearing up without knowing it. I was most concerned about telling my mother. I just kept thinking, “How does one find the right words to tell a parent that they have cancer?” I think that was what was running through my mind repeatedly. And then there were my kids too. They were below 8 years old and I wondered how to make them understand the concept of cancer. I remember reassuring my mother a lot and telling her not to worry. I kept telling her that we would find a way to get rid of it and that no matter what just her support would make me feel better. I told my other family members to give me positive vibes and encouragement instead of grieving for me; not to treat me as another victim of cancer.
Starting on your cancer treatment couldn’t have been easy. What was that like for you?
My treatment took more than six months and it was another whole year before I fully recovered. In the first three months, it was a regular check up with the doctor every week. I’m not going to lie – treatment was tough, it was painful and I felt weak and sick all the time. I somehow had chickenpox at that same moment and slight complication with an infection on the wound after my surgery I had a fever and it made me feel even sicker and I just felt terrible. The chickenpox was a real kicker As my wound started healing, I focused on getting well, making sure we eliminated the cancer with a combination of therapy.
“Also, for family and loved ones, there’s a method to be encouraging. It’s not just words like, “Oh you can do it!” Don’t tell people how you feel when you actually don’t. Do it in a more positive way like, “Tell me what I can do to help you at home? Can I help you with your kids? Clean your house? Your only concern now is to get well” Knowing that someone had my back, that is so much more helpful and reassuring.”
You talk a lot about staying positive and looking forward to finding solutions for treatment instead of grieving. How did you manage that?
For me I believe that I was one of the more fortunate ones because of my natural character of “survival in life” state of mind because I had a very tough childhood. I didn’t want to whine, and I refused to succumb to the treatment. A lot of people would probably think, “Oh, why is it so painful? Or question “Why me?”” I programmed my mind to make sure I didn’t do that. It was mind over matter. I admit I was depressed, refusing to see or speak to anyone including my own family. I wallowed in that depression for a short while and I consciously knew I had to snap out of it real quick before I sank in any deeper, where I start feeling sorry for myself or blaming the universe for my plight. I had two choices – I either make myself and others around me more miserable by being a real victim OR I fight it with every living cell and spirit I have left. I told myself no matter how difficult this was going to be I have to do this no matter how painful it would be, I will endure it. Pain is temporary, death is permanent. I refused to go down without a real fight.
And you had other motivators and sources of support as well?
I think my source of strength came from other cancer survivors and patients whom I met before I was diagnosed while I was working on a breast cancer campaign. I had heard a lot of their stories and learnt about their personal struggles and battles with the disease. They were one of the key motivators for me to really walk the talk and show that no matter how difficult this journey, there is always a way to stay positive and deal with it. My family also played a huge part. I wanted to see my kids grow up, be healthy and blossom into adults. We adapted to the situation. I was operated a few days before Christmas 2005. Not wanting for me to miss our annual family get together, my family members actually brought Christmas to my hospital bed instead of celebrating it at home. They brought the Christmas trees, decorations, presents – the whole works. It was one of the best Christmas ever, being in the hospital and surrounded by people who love you and are willing to spend their Christmas with you in a hospital instead of having a ball elsewhere.
“Never ever allow societal stigma to affect you.”
Do you have any advice for anybody going through cervical cancer?
I believe it’s very important that you listen to your caregivers, medical practitioners and medical care team. That is the number one thing. During recovery, it is so important that you follow advice from your medical team. During cancer treatment, it’s best to keep to what your medical team is telling you to do. I’ve learnt to ask the right questions about the treatment options for cancer, and about HPV prevention from qualified medical sources.
“Life is too precious. You don’t just live once, you live it every day that you’re still breathing. Be thankful, Be grateful. Be blessed. Be significant. Be kind. Live life to the fullest, live everyday as if it’s your last, love more and be the change that you want.”
With regards to early screening, a lot of women might still be unaware of the need for early screening. What would you say to encourage them?
This is what I would tell all women – speak to your doctor to find ways to reduce your risk of cervical cancer. Regular screenings are as important as HPV vaccinations. In my case, it was a rare case that it went undetected, but PAP smears and early screenings are the best methods and are so important. Make sure you take care of your body with a lot of exercise and eat well. Instead of spending hours on K-dramas, take that time to care for your health and body. Women shouldn’t feel shy about finding out more about cervical cancer. Early screening and HPV vaccination is so important. It saves lives, and it can help to save yours and your loved ones as well.