I first found out my mom had breast cancer when I was 18. I was pursuing a Diploma in Mass Communications at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and in my second of three year studies.
My dad was actually the one who told me that doctors suspected my mom to have breast cancer. She was scheduled to go for a biopsy - where cells from her breast would be extracted for cancer.
I remember visiting her at the hospital after school. Dad was waiting outside her ward, and standing along the corridor, he looked upset and angry. I was shocked when he revealed that they had removed her breast!
What happened was the doctor had gone in - done the test - and seeing that it was cancerous and very likely to spread, decided on-the-spot to remove her breast to save her life. I was still reeling from the news and trying to proceed this information when he said, “If your mom doesn’t pull through... if she doesn’t do well.... You'd have to step up as the eldest.”
I was told not to say anything that might upset my mom. I went in and saw her vomitting and crying at the same time. The rest of the visit was a blur.
Although I was 18, I was still relatively immature having been sheltered. I was also unattractive and never had a bofriend. I didn’t know anything or much about the relation with our breasts to our sexuality. I didn't know how to react. I went numb. But I do remember judging my mom then: This crying seem excessive. She should just be grateful and happy she’s alive.
I know it sounds very callous right now. How could I even have thought that? Of course, now that I’m a sexologist and a grown woman, I now know what a big part our breasts are to our sense of identity and sense of confidence as a woman.
Later I could not get what Dad said out of my head - I never did and never could. I am one year older than my sister and 10 years older than my brother. When I was 18, my brother was eight. To think that I might need to leave school to take care of your younger siblings, even though I'm just one year older than my youngest sister, was just surreal. It's not fair!
Most of the time through her cancer, I withdrew from mom because I didn’t know how to react or speak around her anymore. None of us wanted to be responsible for setting her off and she certainly made herself heard at all times.
One of the things that changed about my mom post-surgery was that she always covered up her breast from that day onwards. Previously she would walk around the house naked. As kids we would tease her and say, “Shame, shame...” She would retort proudly, “This is my house. This is my body. This is where you came from. I don’t have anything to be ashamed of. This is me.”
I think this is where my own sense of comfort and ownership with my body came from. My mom has always been loud, bold and strong - proud even of all her flaws and imperfections.
It didn’t strike me how this covering up affected me until I went for my sexuality studies in San Francisco. In one of the training sessions, a past student shared how she overcame breast cancer, and recreated an artifical breast from another part of her body - perhaps her thigh. She announced that it was her bionic boob and was about to tattoo a phoenix on it.