Living Better After Cancer
A curable cancer can be the catalyst for better physical and mental health.
Amid splashes of pool water and laughter, Yu Poh Leng’s voice pierces through the blaring up-tempo music, “3, 2, 1… Catch your breath, very good!”
Filled with energy, she barely breaks a sweat at a poolside 10 storeys high, where she leads eight women in an aqua aerobics class.
The exercise playlist loops into the song “Titanium” sung by Sia. The lyrics about never falling in the face of adversity is somewhat fitting. That’s because every single one of the women at the pool, including Poh Leng, is a breast cancer survivor.
“Teaching aqua aerobics… can be physically quite tiring but it’s very rewarding,” she says. “By giving my time to the survivors, I gain a lot more… and what they’ve gone through, that impacts me and that inspires me”.
Drenched in sunlight, Poh Leng’s now tanned skin hides more than blemishes, it hides a different past.
Stressing on Cancer
Before cancer struck, Poh Leng didn’t make time for exercise, or even swimming, which she’s been passionate about since childhood.
The self-proclaimed workaholic was intent on building her career in public relations.
“It’s not healthy… and I didn’t take care of my body,” she admits while reflecting on her past.
“I was working… 25 hours a day, if there’s such a thing”.
According to Dr See Hui Ti, a medical oncologist at Parkway Cancer Centre, about 40 per cent of cancer is induced by diet and lifestyle.
Drawing on 18 years of experience, the senior consultant points out, “some patients with very aggressive breast cancer … they are often perfectionists, often type A (personalities), and often very worried about the littlest things”.
“With that happening, their stress hormone, cortisol, is often very high and that leads to low immunity which then doesn’t really help in helping them fight the cancer.”
However, proving a cause-and-effect relationship between stress and cancer says Dr See, is not as clear-cut as with lung cancer and the number of cigarettes smoked a day, she cites as an example.
Screening and Self-examination
In October 2019, Poh Leng was diagnosed with early-stage triple-negative breast cancer.
“I am a strong believer in mammograms” says Poh Leng who also reveals, “I go for a mammogram screening every year”.
Along with regular mammogram screenings, the Singapore Cancer Society recommends a monthly breast self-examination.
Following that advice helped Poh Leng detect her cancer, sooner rather than later.
“It was between the mammogram sessions when I did my self-examination and I realised I actually had a lump”.
Following up with a consultation at a polyclinic and further medical tests, led to her diagnosis.
A Holistic Treatment
Poh Leng’s cancer treatment lasted for about 12 months. Determined to get better, she began adding regular exercise to her routine, walking almost every other day.
“Even during the entire process, during chemo treatment… I continued to exercise because exercise is very important, not just mentally but physically as well”.
Poh Leng was not spared the fatigue that comes with chemotherapy nor its other side effects. Loss of appetite, insomnia and even severe heart palpitations afflicted her. Throughout the process, she’d learnt to listen better to her body.
“I had good days and bad days. So on good days, I’ll continue to do a lot of walks… exercising at home. So on my bad days, I just rested”.
Dr See says that patients both receiving and not receiving chemotherapy, often ask about how much they should exercise.
“I tell them actually, the studies have shown that an average office worker would perhaps do about 5,000 to 7,000 steps if they were to take the public transport. But recent studies have shown that perhaps even 10,000 steps a day is not enough”.
She adds that “15,000 steps or one hour and half a day of active activity is better for reducing cancer risks”.
For Poh Leng, exercise walking progressed to jogging and in time, more activities like swimming were added.
“I increased my intensity as I was getting better,” she adds.
Eating right was also on Poh Leng’s mind to overcome cancer.
However, she found that while advice was plenty, they were often unwarranted. “If I were to follow all the dietary advice that people gave, I would not be eating anything at all, or just be drinking water and living on love”.
She therefore focused on her doctor’s dietary advice.
Dr See says that while she recommends dietary change to patients who may need it, she states that getting everyone to follow a one-size-fits-all diet is not plausible.
“Focusing on nutrition rather than calorie count,” she stresses, plays a part in greatly reducing the risk of breast cancer recurrence.
Rehabilitation through Aqua Aerobics
With a referral letter from her doctor, Poh Leng signed up for a cancer rehabilitation programme with the Singapore Cancer Society (SCS). There, she met a lymphedema therapist who advised that water sports are very good for breast cancer survivors because of the pressure that helps with the lymph circulation.
Lymph nodes in the area surrounding the breast and armpit are sometimes removed during breast cancer surgery. That means that while water therapy could be helpful for such patients in general, it may not be suitable for some, including those with open wounds, active lymphedema flares and skin irritation due to chlorine exposure.
For Poh Leng, the therapist’s words triggered a eureka moment.“I am an aqua aerobics instructor. I’m a breast cancer survivor. So it clicked. And that’s how I started aqua aerobics classes”.
Inspired by her mental and physical improvements after making lifestyle changes while battling cancer, Yu Poh Leng motivates cancer-survivors to adopt a healthier journey through life.
Soon she was teaching aqua aerobics to 12 other breast cancer survivors.
Dr See says that patients who can maintain the healthy lifestyle habits they adopt when battling cancer even after their recovery can potentially improve their quality and quantity of life.
“Having a curable breast cancer has saved their lives. Henceforth, they’re going to be even more interested in their health… such that not only will they reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence, they will go on to be healthier, from their cardiovascular and to emotional health aspects”.
Poh Leng has now expanded to teaching aqua aerobics to people from various walks of life, including seniors and persons with disabilities. It’s a lifestyle change that’s made her healthier.
“I’m a lot stronger physically after cancer… you should have seen my old photos, I looked so bad,” she insists. “I exercise a lot more, and I’ve lost quite a fair bit of weight as well”.
The 57-year-old has also chosen to slow down on her previous career, limiting herself to just five to 10 hours a month in a consultancy role. Instead, she conducts more aqua aerobics classes that give her a different sense of accomplishment.
“I’m thankful for the new lease of life that I have and make sure that I actually contribute a lot more back”.
With the change she’s leading, Poh Leng wants to create a bigger impact.
“My dream is to introduce this sport to more people, to teach them the merits of it, to teach them self-care… so that they can actually go to the pools and actually exercise for their own health”.
Produced in partnership with Parkway Cancer Centre.