No stomach for cancer

Mar 02, 2016 11.21AM |

by Brenda Tan

Hi friends,

I just came back from my doctor’s office this afternoon, and I was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

I’ll be heading into surgery tomorrow to remove my stomach and will be hospitalised at Mt Alvernia until next Saturday.

I know that this posting will cause many of you a lot of concern about my well-being, so please know that I appreciate you for it.

I’m grateful to God that the cancer was detected early, so it hasn’t spread beyond my stomach. Therefore, with surgery and subsequent chemotherapy, I’ll still be around doing whatever it is I’m doing.

I’d appreciate your prayers that I will undergo this journey with good cheer, and that my kids, Noel and I will have God’s grace and strength to undergo this journey together.

I’ll be releasing much of the work that I’m juggling to the various friends that I work with… and I’m looking forward to much time watching k-dramas… so please send me some of your current favourites, so that I can start bingeing on them.

I won’t have a stomach for anything else.

(Yes, I from tomorrow onwards, I can make literal “no stomach” jokes.)

Much love,


On the eve of Chinese New Year Eve, I always have my reunion dinner with my side of the family, so that the New Year Eve reunion could be held with my husband’s side of the family. However, that evening, my on-again-off-again acid reflux acted up, and I wasn’t able to enjoy the feast my brother prepared as I normally would.

This got my family worried, but since I’ve seen the family GP about the acid reflux issue since last October, and apart from the occasional discomfort from it, I have never felt ill and therefore always felt that my hubby’s suggestion of getting an endoscopy done for the acid reflux a bit of an overkill.  After all, I am in my early 40s, living an active lifestyle, cycling an average of 30km to 50km a week with my cycling-mad hubby, and had signed up for a 40km charity cycling ride for Habitat for Humanity in mid-February, a 633km South Korean Incheon to Busan cycling trip in March, and an 810km cycling challenge for the first quarter of 2016!

Nonetheless, at their combined nagging urging, I relented. Of course, my brother helpfully reminded me that I was able to use my Medisave to offset the cost of the endoscopy procedure.

Therefore, the very day after the CNY holidays, I got a referral and made an immediate appointment to see a specialist, which apparently is a good time to make such an appointment: I was able to schedule the endoscopy the very next day.

Long story short, my doctor found a tumour in my stomach and the biopsy report the next day showed that the tumour was cancerous.


An “adventure”

I must say that when my doctor told me that I had stomach cancer, I did not break down in tears, nor did I feel fearful.  As a Christian, I do not fear death and I really felt a great sense of curiosity at what the next steps were ahead for me.

“We would have to remove your entire stomach,” was the doctor’s advice.

But how will I eat? Will I still be able to eat?

The doctor told me that in a total gastrectomy, he would attach my oesophagus to my small intestine, and in time, the small intestine would form a pouch to act as a “mini-stomach”. Of course, I’d need to have a change in the way I eat – smaller portions, well-chewed and eating six to eight times a day (like Hobbits, as my hubby would later describe it).

When would we do the surgery?

“If you want, we could do this tomorrow.”

That’s okay, I thought, but there were two boxes of my favourite buah keluak in the fridge! Aww, man…

And I had a very important piece of work on Monday…

And my hubby wasn’t with me at the time – he was facilitating a workshop!

So there and then, at the doctor’s office, I called up my client and arranged the work to be taken over by a friend and freed up as much of my immediate time for the operation as possible.

Decisions to be made came fast and furious: Pre-admission to the hospital for a week’s stay; how many bedder? Wait – do I have insurance cover? Better choose the cheaper option first and then upgrade when I can get to talk to hubby or my insurance agent – who also happens to be my brother, but he was visiting his in-laws in Malaysia for CNY! 

I was thankful that it was still the CNY period and that it was a Friday. The operation would be on Saturday, so the children would have some time to get used to granny coming to over to stay – the standard routines for my kids for when I have to travel for work. It was important for me that their routines were kept as normal as possible.

And yet while making all these preparations at the doctor’s office, I was still dealing with the pronouncement of cancer in a cheerful calm, almost akin to that of preparing for a long adventure into a little-known country.

I had to forgo the buah keluak in the fridge and be thankful for the fabulous feasting with all my closest relatives over the CNY period. Then, I crafted the above message on my Facebook wall, so that most of my relatives and friends would know what was happening to me.


The “new normal”

Then, I had to break the news to my children.

My eldest son, at 17, was mature enough to understand the implications of mummy having stomach cancer, without feeling fearful of the immediate outcome. My younger kids – my 10-year-old daughter and my 8-year-old son – needed more comforting, for they had an idea of cancer as mummy going immediately bald and lying on her deathbed.

In fact, that evening before my operation, I had to tell my daughter, who had red-rimmed eyes, that mummy was not only going to survive the operation, she would be at home 24/7 to monitor her homework and piano practice daily (as I won’t be able to travel for a year). Her eyes grew wide at the implication of a 24/7-eagled-eyed-nagging-mum and all dramatic thoughts of ‘dying mummy’ went out the window.

The operation went smoothly and I had the best of care by the most angelic nurses anyone could ask for.

I have really much to be thankful for.

The doctor told me that my acid reflux was caused by an ulcer that was aggravated by the tumour. If there were no ulcer, I’d not have done the endoscopy and the cancer would not have been detected until much later.

The medical report after the operation revealed that what we thought was an early stage cancer was in fact Stage 3 – many of the surrounding lymph nodes showed the presence of cancer too.

At this present moment, I’m recuperating from the gastrectomy very well at home, with a steady stream of encouraging messages from friends and family around the world via Facebook and WhatsApp, and sunshine visitors blessing me with their hugs and smiles.

My children have readjusted quickly to the “new normal” at home – mummy’s strange diet of porridge and many cups of enriched beverages and our home looking like a florist’s shop.

I’ve a first date scheduled with my oncologist in March, and that would mark the next phase of this new adventure I’ve embarked on.

I’ve still not had the pleasure of watching any K-drama yet though… and that’s something that I intend to remedy soon.



I had asked my editors at The Middle Ground if I could share my story with TMG readers, because most of my friends and I typify the usual TMG readers – in the sandwich generation, having to look after their aging parents and their young children, interested in health, having to integrate work life and family life…

I’m thankful that I have health insurance that helped with the medical costs, and I’m hoping that readers would take time this year not only to review their current health insurance, but also to go for regular health screenings. Ironically, the day I found out I had stomach cancer, the Straits Times ran a news article about how stomach cancer can now be tested with a simple blood test instead of having to undergo an endoscopy.

Frankly, the ST article won’t have driven me to go for a stomach cancer screening simply because it’s the very last thing on my mind in my busy schedule as wife, mother, and global businesswoman… but I never knew then how cancer can disguise itself so easily as some other mild complaint, nor how despite my active and healthy lifestyle, I can still be diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful for discovering the cancer early enough for me to deal with it. My family has embraced this new facet of family life with cheerful positivity. I joke that I’m in confinement after “birthing” my stomach, but I’m the baby having to eat baby food and drink formula milk.

And although I make “I have no stomach for this” jokes frequently, I do look forward to the adventure of what lies ahead – one step of faith at a time.

I know that this adventure of mine will certainly temper me.



Brenda is a columnist, and a friend, of The Middle Ground. This is a first in a series of occasional columns on her journey with stomach cancer.

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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