While others are ending October with Halloween, there’s a real life nightmare that’s even worse than any other costume you could find around: breast cancer. (October is breast cancer awareness month, if you didn’t know.) Breast cancer is 1 of the leading causes of death for Malaysian women, it’s a pretty big deal.
Having said that, for those of us who’ve not been diagnosed with cancer, we usually don’t have a clue on what it’s like being a cancer patient. Watching movies about cancer like The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t count, okay. So why not take this opportunity to find out more from an actual breast cancer survivor?
CILISOS decided to speak to Nelleisa Omar, the stage 3 breast cancer survivor who frequently tags her pics with #cancersucks, #screwcancer and other more explicit ones. But one of her most inspiring posts was when she bravely shared a photo of her, by the beach, wearing a bikini after the removal of one of her breast. This is her story.
Meet the woman who told cancer to… “F&*k off!”
In May of 2016, Nell was out for a jog when she felt a sharp pain in her chest. Visiting the doctor a few days later, she found out that the situation was already pretty serious as the lump was long and had hardened. Her doctor sent her for a series of scans, which were already starting to affect Nell emotionally.
“I was then sent for a breast MRI and lastly a biopsy – which was the most scariest thing ever in my life because the pain was unbearable. From there I kinda knew that it was serious.
A few days after when I went to get my results, I laughed when I was told I really had cancer . Like the 4 stages of grief, after that I was like darn, what do I do!?” – Nelleisa, in an interview with CILISOS.MY
At that very same night, she told all her close friends – her bff already knew earlier as she was with her at the doctor’s. “I love to see their reactions because they’re like dumbfounded. If I had a video recorder, it would be damn hilarious,” Nell tells us.
While her reaction was unusual, the reality of treatment was soon to hit in a pretty big way.
How do you react when you find out you have to remove one of your breasts?
The doctors eventually found an 8cm tumour in Nell’s left breast. Thankfully, the tumour was Stage 3, which means it hadn’t spread to other parts of the body. However, considering its size, her choices were limited.
A lumpectomy (when only certain parts of the breast is removed with the tumor) was out of the option as the tumor was too big. A mastectomy (when the whole breast is removed) was the only surgical option left. Meaning, Nelleisa would have to remove her left breast.
“I was a lil crushed because losing an intimate part of your body, I felt like I was gonna be an alien or something. After they did my mastectomy, I felt so happy that the boob was gone. ” – Nelleisa
On top of that, she would have to go for 16 rounds of Chemotherapy. Many cancer patients consider chemotherapy the worst part of cancer. Undergoing chemotherapy left an emotional mark on Nelleisa.
“The mental imagery of going into the treatment room for my chemo, the needles, the reactions. I do have flashbacks sometimes.” – Nelleisa
After having a mastectomy, some women may decide to wear breast prosthetic or have a breast reconstruction surgery which can be done 2 ways:
- Using a silicon implant (implant)
- Taking tissue from other parts of the body and moving it to the chest (flap)
For Nelleisa, doing a breast reconstruction was not possible because of the size of her tumor.
“The doctor advised me that if I wanted to save my life, I’d have to forgo the recon. The only time that I can start thinking about recon would be in 2 years.” – Nelleisa
In the meantime, to keep up appearances, many mastectomy patients go for prosthetic breasts. However, these prosthetics, usually made of silicon or foam, can get quite pricey ranging from RM800 – RM2000.
Solution: DIY her own breast (!)
Nell’s mother made her a prosthetic breast out of a supermarket sponge which costs, according to Nelleisa, around RM0.50. It did take some time for her to get used to wearing a breast prosthetic.
“Well, yea.. but it’s light so it’s awesome. If I sweat sometimes I could just wipe my face. OK JOKE.” – Nelleisa
As proven by Nelleisa, breast reconstruction surgery isn’t for every woman. Some women feel it’s just pointless – the reconstructed breast is numb as all the nerves are cut out and the new breast would have scars and no (real) nipple. Some feel the whole process is time consuming – Marianne Cuozzo, an artist and mother of 1, had a breast recon surgery that took a whole year to finish. 5 months later, she had to remove both implants after being infected 4 times! She was quoted saying that her reconstruction was getting worse than cancer.
Not to say that breast reconstructions are a bad thing, it’s just that the decision to choose any of this has to be your decision only.
And of course… the biggest fear of all…. social media
Throughout her cancer experience, Nelleisa has been very open about it. From her post-mastectomy pics to her journey through chemo, it certainly has shed some light on a cancer patient’s experience.
And then of course, her iconic 1-sided bikini pic which we mentioned at the start. In today’s world, almost everyone knows the unspoken rules of social media. Post something mildly controversial or different than society’s norms and you’ve basically committed social harakiri.
The motivation behind posting those pics? To encourage people to never be scared about anything. And to prove she’s human just like the rest of us (instead of some kinda Superwoman), yes she did feel some hesitation before posting the pics. But to quote Nell, “F**k it”.
With regards to the social side of things, Nell tells us that even before she underwent the surgical cut, she had to first cut some people from her life.
“We have people who are negative thinking ie. NO CAN’T DO kind of attitude. People who fake it. People who are always saying no Nell, it’s a painful process, it’s gonna hurt. People who think that they can treat people however they want. I am probably one of those before, due to the fact of the society we live in, but it was a big price to pay for the lesson learnt.” – Nelleisa
While family and friends (that have remained), have been a constant support, sometimes even they can’t understand her.
“That’s why most of the people I speak to are from cancer survivor groups, and they live life like freakin awesome. I have these 2 ladies who I’m close to and we had the same thing. It really helped me a lot, bringing me out of the dark things, taking a better approach to living after cancer. As much as other people who didn’t have cancer tried to advise me because they wanted to help, they would not understand what a cancer patient feels and goes through” – Nelleisa
Anyone out there looking for any cancer support groups, you can check this out.
But Nelleisa also said that the most important part aside from the responds from family, friends and social media is to put a huge trust in yourself. To not push things to the limit and trusting the recovery process. Because at the end of the day, it’s ourselves which makes us better.
So she started a movement to help others as well
No, The Godmothers isn’t an all female remake of The Godfather – it’s a company Nelleisa started with her best friend. The company began when an ex-colleague drew a really cool portrait of Nell.
“So my best friend was like let’s get it on t-shirts and raise funds for cancer societies. We did that, printed 200 t-shirts and sold it in 2 weeks! After that, I realised that there aren’t many people who are brave enough to tell their stories, so I decided to step up and do it. Nothing to lose so yeah.” – Nelleisa
Though for now they’re selling t-shirts, they’re planning to branch out and make it a platform to provide support for people whose lives have been affected by cancer.
“So far, the experience (of running The Godmothers) has been fulfilling… It feels nice to help other people. That feeling you get makes you more positive and warm.” – Nelleisa
Half of the company’s profit goes to National Cancer Society of Malaysia, so if anyone’s interested, you can DM them or visit their homepage. Buying a cool shirt and donating for a good cause, uh, double win!
And one of the biggest lessons was not to wait
Prior to discovering her tumour, Nelleisa has actually felt a lump in her breast for 15 YEARS!!
“I guess I was just being human. Where we’re always scared on the possibility of something assy which is going to happen to us. Also I would say without proper exposure to awareness on the possibility of getting cancerwhich led to now.” – Nelleisa
Detecting breast cancer at an early stage makes treatment easier and more successful. Although research has not shown a clear benefit of doing self-breast checks, nonetheless it is important that women are familiar with their breasts so any changes can be identified easier. It’s recommended that women from the age of 45 should do regular breast screenings (mammogram).
But it’s not just about women – breast cancer affects men too.
Although only 1% of breast cancer patients in Malaysia are men, several risk factors like age, or if a close relative had breast cancer, may increase your chances of getting breast cancer. Still, men aren’t advised to do regular breast screenings, unless you have a family history of getting breast cancer.
Either way, it’s always advisable to perform self-breast checks at your convenience. In this day and age, breast cancer isn’t a death sentence, so it’s always good idea to get yourself checked out before it is too late.