Woman shares how she survived breast cancer despite having crippling debt and no critical illness insurance.

Katherin Phang, a Singaporean permanent resident, was only 29 when she experienced a tightness and tugging sensation in her breast. Katherin visited the Singapore Cancer Society for a breast screening, but the doctors and nurses did not find anything suspicious. Still, the doctors at SCS advised her to visit a specialist for further investigation.

“In spite of their advice, I avoided consulting a specialist as I was afraid of finding out that it could be cancerous and that I did not have critical illness insurance to pay for treatment,” she shared.

Stressed and saddled with debt

Over the next four years life became more challenging, although Katherin did not experience new symptoms. She was losing hair from what she thought was stress from putting in long hours at work as a graphic designer and having separated from her boyfriend. Desperate to fix her hair loss, she purchased several hair restoration treatment packages online, and ended up with a whopping S$30,000 credit card debt.

“Since I was unable to service the debt with my salary alone, I took on a second job as a waitress after work and on weekends, which meant I was not getting sufficient sleep, and only made my stress worse,” she said.

Receiving her diagnosis

Three years later in 2017, Katherin discovered a lump in her left breast while taking a shower. As she was still in debt and did not have insurance coverage, she was reluctant to visit a doctor and instead consulted a friend from her church who was a nurse.

Her friend examined her breast and found a lump. As Katherin was menstruating, her friend advised her to see a doctor if the lump did not subside after her period.

“The lump did not go away, so I forced myself to visit a general practitioner who referred me to the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital where I underwent a mammogram and biopsy,” she said.

“A month later, I returned to learn that I had stage I HER2-positive breast cancer.”

Fired from her job

Despite feeling distraught over her diagnosis, Katherin returned to work hoping that it would distract her from her troubles.

Unfortunately, luck was not on her side. Her boss informed her that she was no longer fit to work due to her current condition, and because she had applied for too much sick leave. This also meant she would lose the insurance coverage her company had provided for its employees, to help pay for her medical bills.

Resorting to alternative therapies

Still in debt, and with no critical illness insurance and no job, Katherin decided against chemotherapy and surgery, which would have cost around S$100,000 and S$15,000, respectively.

Inundated with well-meaning advice from friends and family about the alleged effectiveness of alternative therapies on cancer, she decided to give them a go, thinking that even if they did not help, they would not hurt.

“The members of the cancer support group I joined advised me no matter what I chose to do, I should undergo regular ultrasound scans to keep track of the cancer, and if it was responding to any of the therapies.”

“I returned to my hometown of Jakarta where my father introduced me to a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) ‘sensei’ who prescribed me some special herbs to brew into a tea,” said Katherin, who had switched to a plant-based diet.

However, Katherin stopped the treatment after three months because, although it did not cause any side effects, she did not feel any different after drinking it. She was also appalled the sensei smoked a cigarette during their consultation. “It shocked me and made me lose my trust in him. Unfortunately, my father had already spent S$7,200 for the herbs by then,” she said.

Despite the experience, Katherin continued to search for other alternative therapies that might help her condition.

“I met an old friend who had graduated with a degree in medicine but worked in a multilevel marketing (MLM) company. My friend convinced me to buy $9,000 worth of products that claimed to cure cancer, including oral supplements, a water filter and a bra containing special stones that would allegedly absorb the toxins from my breasts that were causing my tumour,” she said.

Needless to say, none of these worked. When Katherin underwent for her next ultrasound scan, she discovered her tumour had grown from 1.9cm to 3.5cm in four months!

A change of heart

Her family grew increasingly worried for her condition and urged her to undergo conventional treatments.

Katherin was reluctant at first, but decided to undergo chemotherapy and surgery when members of her cancer support group who had undergone alternative treatments or delayed medical treatment began succumbing to the disease.

Katherin then returned to Singapore and visited an oncologist at the Farrer Park Hospital. She underwent a CT and MRI scan, and was advised to undergo chemotherapy and surgery immediately, as her cancer had not only almost doubled in size and gone from stage I to stage III in four months, it had also spread to the surrounding skin.

“I began chemotherapy the next day. I underwent six chemo sessions over six months to reduce the size the tumour. Once it was small enough, I underwent a lumpectomy to excise the tumour which  allowed me to preserve the remaining healthy breast tissue,” said Katherin.

“After surgery, I continued my treatment at the National Cancer Center Singapore (NCCS) where I had another six rounds of chemotherapy and daily radiation for a month.”

Support from friends and family

Although Katherin’s cancer treatments were life-saving, the high costs of these procedures were still a major financial burden for her.

“I paid S$10,000, or the 10% deposit for the treatment with my credit card, knowing I could not afford it because my insurance claims for chemotherapy had been rejected as I had downgraded my policy before my diagnosis,” she said.

A blessing came in the guise of a friend from church, who helped to reinstate her insurance policy to its full effect. Many friends and family members also supported her in other ways.

“Thanks to their support, I did not have to pay for any of the treatments out of pocket. The insurance company eventually covered 90% of my medical bills, while the remaining 10% was raised through a crowdfunding event at my church,” she said.

Katherin with her friends and family. Photo Credit: Katherin Phang

Cancer-free and living her best life

After a series of unfortunate events, Katherin is finally cancer-free and has been in remission for five years. She now pays close attention to her diet, lifestyle, and mental wellbeing.

“I practice raw veganism and set an hourly alarm to remind me to drink water. To maintain my mental health, I keep in touch with friends who have a positive outlook on life. I have also taken up journaling as it helps me be more aware of my thoughts and actions, so I stay grounded and grateful for my many blessings in life, including my loved ones without whom I would not be alive today,” she said.

As for staying physically fit, Katherin enjoys running on the weekends. She will be participating in Run For Hope 2022, one of Singapore’s longest-running charity runs in support of cancer research at the National Cancer Centre Singapore. Run For Hope has been supporting the NCCS since 2008.

You can also contribute to Run For Hope through Katherin’s running profile here.

Main Photo courtesy of Katherin Phang.