WOMEN WARRIORS: Celebrity breast cancer survivors
What would you do if you knew you had only eight months left to live?
For Alexis (played by Beatrice Chia) in Channel 5 drama BRA, her devastating breast cancer diagnosis leads her to pack her bags and embark on a three-day road trip to Penang to confront her estranged father and find closure. But she isn’t going alone: joining her – whether she likes it or not – are her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother Sophia (Koh Chieng Mun) and two friends Brenda (Belinda Lee) and Rathika (Dhanya Nambiar).
Along the way, the dysfunctional quartet runs into adventure, unexpected surprises and mishaps – but they also discover love, friendship and themselves.
BRA airs Mondays to Thursdays, 10pm on Channel 5. Watch past episodes on Toggle.
Ahead, we meet celebrities who, like Alexis, were struck down (temporarily) by breast cancer – but they got up, fought it and triumphed over it like the warriors they are.
Koh Chieng Mun
Ever since becoming a spokeswoman for early breast screening, the Under One Roof actress has been practising what she preaches by conducting self-examinations on herself at home. Then, one day in 2005, she felt a suspicious lump and quickly went for a biopsy, during which she was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer.
But that wasn’t the only piece of bad news: a cancerous growth was also discovered on one of her kidneys. Fortunately, both tumours were successfully removed during an eight-hour surgery, and Chieng Mun began six months of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
In the 12 years since her medical trials and tribulations, the 57-year-old has returned to her various showbiz endeavours, albeit at a much more relaxed pace. Aside from BRA, Chieng Mun will also be making an appearance in the upcoming silver screen adaptation of popular novel Crazy Rich Asians.
Photos: Symphony 924/Facebook
Pan Ling Ling
The 47-year-old actress, who is probably one of the most famous breast cancer survivors in Singapore, was in the midst of a charity golf tournament when she received the dreaded results of her biopsy. She immediately sprang into action, going into surgery just a few days later and then enduring months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Instead of looking back on this dark period in her life with bitterness and hatred, Ling Ling once told us that “in a way, this sickness was good” as it allowed her to see a different side of her family, husband Huang Shinan and sons Beckham and Kynaston. She also said that she pays more attention to her health compared to before she fell ill.
Now, if only all of us are able to have this epic dose of a glass-half-full outlook as Ling Ling.
Photos: Pan Ling Ling, Toggle
Lum May Yee
The former model-actress, who’s now in the jewellery business, found that dreaded lump in her chest two years ago. What she suspected to be a milk duct at first (she had just finished breastfeeding her youngest) turned out to be a Stage 2A slow-growing cancer, and she began four rounds of “brutal” chemotherapy – the side effects of which she says she still feels to this day.
Thankfully, she had a strong support system to soften the blow, and her cancer went into remission last year. To lower the chances of a relapse, the 44-year-old had her ovaries and uterus removed a few months ago at her doctor’s suggestion.
Some of the things she learned from her experience are also lessons anyone can apply to their lives, such as to be positive (even though your situation looks anything but) and not to sweat the small stuff. She also no longer takes things – especially her family – for granted.
It’s been over a decade since the Australian diva’s battle with breast cancer, but she recently admitted that there are still times when she is “not at peace with it”. Kylie was diagnosed at an early stage in 2005 and was forced to postpone a sold-out tour to go for treatment.
A couple of years after she was clear of the disease, she boldly admitted on Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show that she was misdiagnosed at first, and took the chance to share an important message: “[Just] because someone’s in a white coat and using big medical instruments, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right.” She went for a second opinion after discovering a lump in her breast just weeks after her misdiagnosis, and the rest is history.
Last year, we got to see the 49-year-old in action when she performed at the Singapore Grand Prix, where she was as feisty and fabulous as ever. She’s also currently working on her 14th studio album, proving that nothing – not even cancer – can slow her down.
Photos: EPA, Google Images
Instead of hiding the more painful and less “glamorous” (for lack of a better word) sides of fighting cancer, the actress did not shy away from documenting her raw thoughts and emotions – complete with pictures – on social media over the past two years.
Although she announced that her cancer was in remission in April this year, Shannen has not stopped looking back on her emotional journey. A few weeks ago, the 46-year-old uploaded a photo of herself, sobbing as she held clumps of dark hair in her hands, to mark Breast Cancer Awareness month. She explained that the picture was taken when she had just started chemotherapy.
“Cancer is with you forever…it still impacts you, in good ways and bad… You still need support and love. And you can still grasp life and live, live live (sic)” she wrote in encouragement to her followers.
Photos: Shannen Doherty/Instagram
The veteran Cantopop diva, who has always maintained a healthy lifestyle, received the shock of her life 20 years ago when she came across a small lump in her right breast. It turned out to be malignant, and she promptly had it removed.
Her quick action saved her from a mastectomy and the need for chemotherapy, but she still had to undergo six weeks of radiotherapy. She admitted that the ordeal left her angry and depressed, but she quickly pulled herself together and re-examined her priorities. It wasn’t long before she recovered both physically and emotionally.
Since then, the 70-year-old has continued to hold concerts around the world (her last gig here was on Valentine’s Day last year), and when she isn’t belting out her signature tune ‘The Bund’, she’s being a doting grandma in Sydney, Australia, where she’s based.
One night in 2010, the TVB actress was about to go to bed when she felt a hard lump in one of her breasts. Without wasting any time, she went for a medical check-up and was subsequently diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.
During her treatments, which included chemotherapy, electrotherapy and targeted therapy, Mandy experienced the typical side effects of hair loss, water retention and her nails turning grey. But instead of feeling insecure about her appearance, she did a photo shoot with her shaved head (and in our opinion, she still looked stunning).
Seven years on, the 41-year-old is now cancer-free, happily married and going strong in her career as well. However, she and her husband have agreed not to try for a baby out of concern for her health.
Photos: Mandy Lam/Facebook, Mandy Lam/Weibo
Um Aing Ran
Late last year, variety show Saturday Night Live (SNL) Korea landed itself in hot water when it poked fun at veteran actress Um Aing Ran, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery a few months earlier. The skit featured comedienne Jung Yi Rang, acting as a parody of Aing Ran, remarking that she “doesn’t have a chest to hold”.
Needless to say, viewers were furious at the programme’s insensitivity, and SNL was issued a warning for violating broadcast regulations. The cast and staff publicly apologised, and Aing Ran graciously forgave them, even saying, “Why should they receive disciplinary action?” Pure class.
The 81-year-old’s brave battle against her sickness was featured in an episode of documentary One More Happy Ending. Despite her condition, she continued making television appearances all the way until her surgery and maintained a positive attitude. SNL Korea should really be ashamed of themselves.
Photo: Channel A
Like Chieng Mun, Liza is a two-time cancer warrior, having triumphed over battles with both thyroid cancer and breast cancer. The “Big Sister” of Hong Kong showbiz was diagnosed with the latter in 2002 after a very timely mammogram recommendation from her doctor, and quickly went for surgery to nip the problem in the bud.
Because of her early detection, Liza was fortunate enough to be able to avoid chemotherapy. The 70-year-old now serves as an executive committee member in the Hong Kong Anti-Cancer Society, and helps to raise awareness and funding for cancer patients.
While most folks are blessed enough to make it through one cancer ordeal, Liza is proof that there can be miracles indeed.
Special mention: Angelina Jolie
While the Hollywood heavyweight was never diagnosed with cancer, she decided to take matters into her own hands and underwent a double mastectomy (a procedure to remove the breasts) in 2013, after doctors estimated that she had an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer thanks to a “faulty” gene she carries. After the operation, that figure plummeted to less than 5 percent.
The 42-year-old’s manoeuvre, which she detailed in a New York Times op-ed piece, was hailed as an inspiration as there was a reported spike in testing for the same gene mutation, a surge in women – and even men – opting for the same preventive surgery, as well as an overall increased awareness for breast cancer. This whole phenomenon even has a cool name: “the Angelina Jolie effect”.
Now that is how you use your influence for good.