Shirley Yeo, affectionately known as Auntie Shirley, is the nursery supervisor in City Harvest Church. We know her as a well-groomed and articulate lady with a strong spirit that belies her age. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and Aunty Shirley shares with City News on her unique encounter with cancer that is unlike any we’ve heard before.
“I had been teaching all my life,” recalls Shirley Yeo, 80. Aunty Shirley serves as CHC’s nursery supervisor, overseeing the care of infants and young babies while their parents attend church service.
“When I reached the age of retirement at the time, which was 55 at that time, I was not allowed to retire because there were not enough teachers,” she explains. “I had been asking for a transfer out of active teaching for three years, and I became so frustrated that even at retirement age, I couldn’t get out. So I wrote to the Ministry of Education, and their reply to me was that I could not be released except on medical grounds. So I prayed for God to make a way.”
A year later, in 1997, Aunty Shirley experienced lethargy and broke out in a cold sweat while she was in school. She went to see her family doctor, and was referred to Dr Hoe Ah Leong, a cancer specialist. Dr Hoe detected a small lump in her breast through, and at 58 years of age, Aunty Shirley was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Most women are shocked and devastated by such news, but Auntie Shirley was unfazed and unafraid—she had received a rhema word that carried her through.
“The Lord gave me a verse from Nahum 1:9,” she says. “The Lord said ‘You will have cancer but you will not get it a second time because you are a chosen vessel for me.’ I stayed on His promise and I felt at ease. Now I could retire.”
With that rhema in her heart, Aunty Shirley was assured that she would be healed as she believed and trusted in God’s Word for her—that He had a future and a purpose for her.
Mother to three daughters, Auntie Shirley’s calm reception of her diagnosis was not shared by her children. Her middle child is Sandy Yeo, CHC’s drama director. Sandy remembers her reaction when she heard that her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. “We were very scared, because back then, when you hear the ‘C’ word, it’s like a death sentence,” she says. “We were not sure if the prognosis would be good or not. However, our mother was very strong and always put up a brave front in front of us. “
Auntie Shirley admits that she didn’t allow herself to show any fearfulness as she needed to be the anchor for her daughters, who were in early adulthood then. “If I’m depressed, how would my husband and my children feel? Even if I felt very sad inside, I knew I could not show it. I had to put up a brave front, and when you have cancer, you must have a good outlook. I had the Word of God and I believed and trusted in Him,” she says.
After her diagnosis in August 1997, her doctor told her she needed to undergo a surgery to remove the lump. Although her plan was to wait till the school holidays in November that year to undergo the operation, she underwent more tests and it seemed the lump was growing. At Sandy’s encouragement, Aunty Shirley went for the operation in October.
On the day of surgery, Dr Hoe explained that should he find that her lymph nodes had been affected by cancer, he would do a frozen section operation. As it turned out, Aunty Shirley was in the operating theatre from 9am to 7.30pm—the cancer had indeed spread to the lymph nodes.
“When I woke up it was dark, and I heard voices,” she recalls. “It was Pastor Kong and Sun praying over me. The hospital didn’t let anyone come in as I was in ICU but they let Pastor in to pray.” Once she stabilised, she was transferred to a regular ward to recuperate for the next five days.
Upon her discharge, Aunty Shirley went to the Ministry of Education headquarters at Grange Road—just two roads from Gleneagles Hospital where she had been warded—and asked to be retired. Her request was approved, and she was elated. “God is good,” she says. “He answered my prayers.”
LIVING FULL ON FOR GOD AFTER CANCER
After her operation, instead of chemotherapy, Aunty Shirley opted to do radiotherapy as she didn’t want to lose her hair. In 1998, after undergoing radiotherapy in January, she enrolled in School of Theology (SOT) in February.
Going back to school at that age might scare some people but not Aunty Shirley. Her gungho spirit was fully demonstrated during her SOT mission trip to the Philippines. “I was on a motorbike with the pastor and his wife, and we went into the jungle to heal a lady who was demon-possessed,” she says as if describing a shopping trip to Takashimaya, adding with a laugh, “The jungle track was so terrible!” She credits her fearlessness to the fact that she believed God is always there to protect her.
When she graduated from SOT, she was invited by Pastor Kong to work in City Harvest Church as a nursery supervisor. “So I never retired,” she smiles. “I am still working today. I really thank Pastor Kong and Sun for believing in me.”
Since then, she has been going for yearly mammograms at the Singapore General Hospital. Having opted for the Civil Service Card when she was teaching, all her medical expenses and medications are covered by the Civil Service Club. Aunty Shirley is thankful that she does not have to burden her children or worry about finances for medical expenses.
“I have a cyst in my brain and a cyst in my kidney that are non-cancerous,” she says. “When people look at me, they think I’m very healthy. I am, but I have 10 specialists at SGH looking after me from top to bottom: they look after my heart, my bone density, my kidney, my eyes, my ears…”
God has kept His promise to her—it has been over two decades since Aunty Shirley was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Still, she stresses the importance of going for mammograms yearly, as cancer is a silent killer and no woman should find out when it’s too late. She prays for each of her daughters that none of them would ever get breast cancer.
Auntie Shirley encourages other women going through breast cancer to follow their doctor’s advice, as well as pray to God to help them through cancer and the treatment. “If God has helped me as I look to him in 1998, he can do it for anybody. I have been in remission for 23 years. If it relapses, I will just turn to God’s help and mercy, just rest in Him,” she says. “Trust in God, He is our miracle worker and with God all things are possible.”
Looking back, Aunty Shirley is most grateful for God’s faithfulness and goodness in her life; it is what has kept her going all these years. “I thank God I have had no relapse and I can serve him all the days of my life,” she says. “I told God, ‘If it’s time for me to go home to You, I will do it gracefully. If it’s not, let me go on serving You in whatever way You want me to serve.’”
Going through cancer has made Aunty Shirley more aware of the pain that people go through, especially when they have cancer. When she heard of the Cancer Care Group—a new Church Without Walls initiative by Pastor Edmund Tay that reaches out to and supports cancer patients—she immediately volunteered. She shares that she recently connected with a female cancer patient of the same age who is going through chemotherapy, and had the opportunity to lend her a listening ear.
“I’m so happy to be in Cancer Care Group,” she says enthusiastically. “I pray that God can use me to help these people. As long as I have good health I will serve His kingdom. I’m going to be 80 soon and I don’t have any aches and pain.”
At 80, Auntie Shirley is the epitome of living a full life in God. When she retires, she says, she hopes to write an autobiography of her life to tell of the many things God has done for her.
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL CHAN