Stage 4a tongue cancer survivor tells her story
A global hashtag and term used in countless anecdotes shared online, #momlife conveys the fulfilment and challenges that come with motherhood. Still, while the path to motherhood can be a beautiful and transformative time for some, it can be a more stressful period for others.
For 36-year-old Aslin, it was intense and all-consuming, to say the least.
Motherhood and cancer
While parenting her firstborn in 2015, Aslin discovered that she had stage 2 tongue cancer.
“My family and I were on a holiday when I noticed an ulcer on my tongue, which had reappeared multiple times, grew bigger and then started bleeding. I felt uneasy about it and sought medical attention.”
A biopsy confirmed the cancer diagnosis. With no family history of cancer, Aslin was stunned and could not believe the news.
“I was 29 years old, at the peak of my career, with a bright future in front of me. To receive the cancer diagnosis was shocking. I remembered sitting and staring blankly in my room for hours. My mind was spinning and I couldn’t stop thinking about how and why I got it and what I did wrong,” recalled Aslin.
Tongue cancer is the most common site for cancers of the oral cavity. Some of the commonly known causes are tobacco use from smoking and alcohol consumption.
However, Aslin doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol.
While doctors may be able to advise what are the most common risk factors, many cancers occur in people who do not have any known risk factors.
Second pregnancy and cancer spread
Before Aslin could even come to terms with her diagnosis, she discovered that she was pregnant with her second child. A wave of emotions washed over her as she struggled to process two life-changing developments within the span of a week.
During the surgery to remove the cancer on her tongue, Aslin’s doctors found that her cancer had advanced to stage 4a. To contain the spread, half of her tongue and lymph nodes in her neck were removed. The surgery lasted almost seven hours and Aslin spent a week recovering in the hospital.
While coping with the physical changes from the surgery, regaining her strength and attempting to make up for lost time with her family, Aslin was forced to face a tough decision.
To treat the advanced cancer, she had to undergo radiation therapy and chemotherapy post-surgery. However, as she was pregnant, going for the treatment was not a straightforward process. Aslin’s doctors explained the risks of going through treatment while pregnant. She knew that the alternative was to opt to terminate her pregnancy.
“My husband and I always wanted a big family and were looking forward to the arrival of the new addition.”
However, Aslin’s loved ones were concerned about how much stress her body could withstand while undergoing grueling cancer treatment. After heart wrenching discussions with her husband and mother, Aslin made the difficult decision to terminate her pregnancy.
Aslin admitted: “Terminating the pregnancy was a very tough decision, the hardest one I’ve ever had to make in my life.”
Coping with motherhood and cancer
Aslin underwent radiation therapy followed by chemotherapy in August 2015.
When she first arrived at the National Cancer Centre Singapore’s Ambulatory Treatment Unit for her first chemotherapy session, Aslin hesitated to enter.
With the support of her mother and an Ambulatory Treatment Unit nurse, Aslin eventually mustered up courage for her first chemotherapy session. Despite side effects including ulcers, vomiting and weakness in her legs, Aslin persevered and completed her treatment in October of the same year.
The way forward
Aslin was determined to recover and live well for her loved ones, including her husband and mother, whose love and support boosted her during her treatment and recovery.
“I also wanted to watch my three-year-old child grow up.”
Aslin returned to work in February 2016 on a part-time basis. Life resumed and she made time for follow-up medical appointments and speech therapy sessions which were needed because of the removal of part of her tongue.
From the cancer diagnosis to termination of her pregnancy and speech impairment, Aslin’s cancer journey has been full of challenges. Feeling emotional stress and difficulty coping, she sought the help of the National Cancer Centre Singapore’s medical social workers from the Department of Psychosocial Oncology.
Aslin has also made dietary changes to adjust to the side effects of her treatment. She now has soups to go with her meals and avoids spicy food.
A new life
In 2020, after completing cancer treatment, Aslin was delighted to discover that she had conceived again.
“I cannot describe how overjoyed I felt,” shared Aslin.
In April 2021, Aslin gave birth to a healthy baby daughter.
“When I hit the fifth year mark of remission, my husband and I had many discussions about growing our family. It was not an easy decision as I was afraid of a cancer relapse, but we decided to leave it to fate.”
“More importantly, we did not want my elder daughter to grow up alone. We thought it’d be good for her to have a sibling, so they can watch out for one another.”
Now, watching her two daughters playing joyfully together is a daily sight that Aslin never takes for granted.
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