Singapore Woman Award winner and City News’ very own chief editor Theresa Tan talks about how the big C led her to do what God had been asking her to do for many years.
By Yong Yung Shin
There was more than one good reason to break tradition on the evening of March 22 at the Shangri-La Hotel; in fact, there were three. That night, writer and editor Theresa Tan was honored alongside two other women as one of the three winners of the Singapore Woman Award 2012—the first time in the award’s history that more than one winner was named.
Tan was recognized for her blog, A Clean Breast Of It, which educates women on breast cancer after she survived the disease in 2010. Tan stands tall next to two immensely inspiring figures—Bridget Tan and Cassandra Chiu. Tan is the founder of migrant workers welfare group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), while Chiu, who is visually impaired, runs The Safe Harbour, a counselling practice, and has been recognized for her voluntary contributions to the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped.
Here, Tan shares about how God used her experience to reach out to other women in need of support, comfort and wisdom in facing breast cancer.
What was the first thought that came to your mind when you found out about your nomination?
When (City News writer) Sarah Teo Facebook-ed to tell me she wanted to nominate me I was so tickled, reason being that I was on the planning committee of the very first Singapore Woman Award back in 2008! I did think “The judges will have a good laugh lor!” But I was very, very touched that Sarah thought me worthy of a nomination. It feels wonderful when our City News volunteer writers connect with us in a way beyond deadlines.
Compared to the moment you received the news about your breast cancer, it must have been a whirlwind two years for you! What motivated you to set up a blog? After all, the post-operation period would have been a tremendously challenging period for you, not just physically but emotionally, having to manage the anxieties of your loved ones.
When I experienced that weird pulling pain in my breast that Friday morning of June 11, 2010, I said to God, “Don’t let it be cancer, Lord.” That whole weekend I had no peace at all. I guess deep in my heart, I knew it was cancer. The mammogram and ultrasound on Monday pretty much confirmed it. The first doctor who read my mammogram said, “So you are prepared if it’s cancer?” In a strange way, I was. I thank God He saved me before this happened, because I had my faith to lean on, and I knew, no matter what, He was in control.
Do you know what it’s like when you have deliberately put something God told you to do aside, so that you can pursue the things you prefer to do? For many years now, I have promised God to write for Him—not writing for work, as I do, but for His sole pleasure and purpose. I was a playwright a long time ago, and I had many divine ideas for books but I always made the excuse I would get to it when I didn’t have bills to pay.
God must have got a bit tired of waiting. Haha.
So, during my recovery period, after my 10 days in hospital, I felt that still small voice say, “Write for Me.” An entire book was too daunting a task, and so I said, “Lord I will start a blog and this one’s for You.” It wasn’t what I had in mind all those years ago—I always imagined my first written work for God would be a wonderful series of novels.
Now I had time—weeks alone in my bedroom—to write at my own leisurely pace. I started chronicling my journey, the physical, mental and as well as spiritual path God led me through. It became a wonderful bonding time between me and my Lord, and it also caused me to count and list my blessings in a tangible way. In many ways, the blog healed me.
And how has the effort paid off? What were some of the most heart-warming responses you received from those who read your blog?
I don’t work hard enough at it! It’s become much harder since I got stronger and came back to work, haha! But the responses to the blog have been what keeps me going. I received comments from old friends like (actress) Andrea D’Cruz, who really encouraged me. Her father died of cancer too. I also received many cries for help from women who think they’ve discovered a lump, but are too scared to have it checked out because of various reasons: a) they haven’t bought insurance yet and what if it turns out to be the Big C and they can’t pay their bills? b) they are in between jobs and any diagnosis of cancer will greatly diminish their chances of getting hired c) they are single and if they have breast cancer, what if no man wants to marry them?
These are all real fears. I began to realize that popular media usually only addresses the discovery of an illness, maybe the treatment, and the overcomers. But there wasn’t much out there that talked about the seemingly small, but very significant things, like not knowing where one had put her insurance policy, or how to navigate the doctor situation (not wanting to go to their company doctor for a referral to National Cancer Centre because they need a private doctor who has a more calming bedside manner). The whole issue of cancer is wrought with many sub-issues.
I’ve been encouraged by many respondents — some share their victory stories with me, other their horror stories. It’s become a place where, I feel, women feel safe talking about what seems “silly” to other people. And when you’re faced with cancer, there’s no such thing as a silly question.
How do you envision your blog progressing?
I hope to grow the community larger, and maybe one day even have a meet-up. Support for each other is so important. And nobody understands a breast cancer patient like another breast cancer patient.
As a Christian, how has your experience battling breast cancer strengthened your faith in God?
The first two weeks before my surgery, I was on my knees next to my bed, in my own garden of Gethsemane, crying out to God and begging Him to take this cup from me, because He could. My tears felt like blood all right. Why couldn’t I get a miracle of having my cancer drop out of my breast, like I had read in so many testimonies?
But slowly, as I sought Him, I realized that He wanted me to walk through this valley because He was going to use it. I remember this prayer I scribbled in my Bible: “FATHER, DON’T LET ME WASTE THIS EXPERIENCE!” Paul said to exult in trials—I never understood the craziness of that phrase till I was on my knees, realizing what God was doing. I could let this cancer crush me, or I could crush it. God would give me the strength to crush it—and He has.
Now my faith in God is at a totally different level. If He brought me through this, there is absolutely nothing He would not do for me. I’ve always prayed to know Him more, in a deeper, more intimate way. This cancer experience has opened the door for that intimacy, but I pray to still go deeper.
Just as you have been an inspiration for many women, who was your personal inspiration?
My mommy. I did not know until my mother had passed away, and we held a three-day wake for her where all these people I didn’t know came and wept over her corpse, all the amazing stories of how, while she was going through chemo, she would take a bus to someone’s house to pray for them. She led a neighbor to Christ a few days before he died of lung cancer. There were women who had breast cancer, one woman who had mouth cancer—all of them telling me how my mother’s love and faith brought them out of suicidal moments to have hope for their future.
I cried and cried—it was as if I had never known my own mom, who suffered through breast cancer three times. But it was then I also realized she had left me a legacy to touch the lives of others even when I myself am suffering.
As a mother of three, what do you think is the greatest gift a woman can give her children?
The gift of faith. My mother and my mother-in-law prayed me into the Kingdom. It is the one gift all my children MUST have before I leave this earth, so help me God.
Lastly, what is your life mantra?
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Log on to http://acleanbreast.wordpress.com/ to read Theresa Tan’s blog.