Alden Boon

Liao Wenjing on the ‘Trauma’ of Breast Cancer and Finding Her New Calling in Life


All the signs pointed to it. The lumps in her breasts, first detected circa end of 2019, which Wenjing thought could be removed with a minor surgical procedure. The doctor’s steely gaze as he raised his preliminary concerns during the first biopsy. The grimness in his voice, inflected with hesitancy, as he asked that she head down to his clinic — a negative pathology report would not have warranted an in-person consultation.

Wenjing’s heart raced as she awaited the doctor to withdraw his gaze from the report file. ‘Unfortunately, it is stage-two cancer,’ said the doctor finally, breaking the news to a woman in her thirties whose vision of a life did not include medical appointments and pumping chemotherapy drugs into her body. Tears swiftly bedewed Wenjing’s cheeks. She could feel the whoosh of air as the nurse rushed to her side, resting her gentle hands on her shoulder. A torrent of encouraging words poured out of the stranger’s mouth.

‘It’s okay,’ Wenjing replied with an effort. ‘I’m not upset. I’m actually tearing because I’m in pain,’ she quipped. The multiple incisions on her breasts from the second biopsy conducted just hours prior to this appointment were still raw and bruising.

It was only after she had written to her boss to inform him of her diagnosis later that evening that she grasped the gravity of the news. This time, there was a flood of tears. ‘True to form as a workaholic, my boss was the first person I informed about my diagnosis. Back when I was an auditor, I used to oversee projects on my own. I thought I had better let him know, so he could do the necessary team reshuffling.’

The next person — and the hardest one to break the news to — she told was her mother. ‘She knew I had the doctor’s appointment. I tried to broach the topic as casually as I could, but she could already tell from my swollen eyes that something was wrong.’ Wenjing’s mother herself is a breast cancer survivor. The history of breast cancer runs deep in Wenjing’s family and can be traced also to her aunt and grandmother.

As advised by the befriender assigned to her by the Breast Cancer Foundation, Wenjing took the next step of consulting with doctors. Just deciding on the doctors and the hospital where she would get treatments alone was overwhelming. And when she met with the doctors, she was inundated with a welter of differing medical opinions. At the same time, she did a lot of self-reading and research, but the huge volume of information only made her nervous about the road ahead. Very suddenly also, she was confronted with the need to consider impossible choices. Should the multiple tumours in each quadrant not shrink after the chemotherapies, she would have to undergo a mastectomy. And following the surgery, would she want to get breast reconstruction?

An auditor likes immaculate documentations, getting her questions answered and balancing numbers to a nicety. Now Wenjing’s world was thrown out of kilter, with her eventual decisions leading not to definitive outcomes, but an entanglement of only probabilities: the chemotherapy might work, she might need surgery, the cancer might recur five, ten years down the road. Her future for now seemed dim.

After much back-and-forth, Wenjing eventually went with the third doctor she consulted. Intravenous chemotherapy would form the first part of her treatment. Her first cycle spanned three weeks, starting with a prescription of four drugs: taxol, caboplatin, herceptin and perjata. Each bag of drug would take up to ninety minutes to infuse. Before a new bag is administered, she would have to get a saline flush. ‘Each round of infusion was a full-day affair. I would start in the morning, and by evening, I was the only patient left in the room.’

nedla chemotherapy Liao Wenjing Breast Cancer IV

What was supposed to save her life quickly blighted her well-being. By her second chemotherapy session, she experienced severe diarrhoea and as a result became severely dehydrated. ‘From an outpatient treatment I was carted away to be admitted.’ Her persistent diarrhoea would ease around the weekends, but by the following Monday it was time to start another round of chemotherapy. The side effects did not get better for a long time. ‘I always had acne-prone skin throughout my adulthood, but once I started chemotherapy, my acne flare-ups were so severe my cheeks were reddened. There was the expected hair loss as well — what I did not expect was that my eyebrows and eyelids would fall out. From head to toe, everything just went haywire.’ The steroids meant to alleviate nausea and vomiting also threw her body into destruction mode.

Support came in the form of her new clique of breast cancer survivors. ‘I asked many questions, such as “am I allowed to consume Milo while undergoing chemotherapy?”’. These ‘frivolous’ questions, as Wenjing deems them, stemmed from a sense of overwhelming uncertainty. ‘The ladies were very forthcoming with their own experiences. Some suggested drinking coconut juice and barley, but those aggravated my gastric pain. Everyone’s body is different, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.’

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.