Irene Chui is full of beans, and for good reason.
Tonight, she is leading Paddlers In The Pink (PIP), a contingent of 24 breast cancer survivors, to the IBCPC Dragon Boat Festival in Florence, Italy.
Organised once every four years by the International Breast Cancer Paddler's Commission, the event attracts international teams of breast cancer survivors who take part in dragon boat activities as post-operative rehabilitation.
"There are 4,000 participants from all over the world. We've been training hard and we want to fly the Singapore flag. We want to be ranked on the first page," says the captain of her paddlers, aged between 40 and 72.
Tanned, trim and toned, Madam Chui radiates effervescence and an affecting joie de vivre.
Her motto, she says, is to "live, laugh and love" and her mission is to inspire those who have battled or are battling the Big C to do the same.
Mind you, the 53-year-old is a battle-scarred veteran herself, having lost both her breasts and her ovaries to cancer by the time she was in her early 40s.
"People say there is no cure for cancer but if you have a positive mindset, if you do your level best to tackle what's in front of you, that's a cure already," she says.
The head of employee engagement at European software corporation SAP, she has always had a sunny, resourceful spirit.
She is part of a big brood; her late parents - a shipyard fitter and his homemaker wife - had 10 children.
"The eldest was a boy, a pre-war baby who didn't survive. They had nine girls after that, I'm the youngest. The one before me was given away so there are now just eight of us," she says.
She grew up wearing hand-me-downs and sleeping on the floor in the living room of the family's three-room flat in Holland Avenue.
An independent soul, the former student of New Town Secondary started earning her own pocket money in her early teens, giving tuition and folding garments in a factory during her school holidays.
Although she could have gone to a polytechnic, she opted to go to secretarial school instead.
"I'd always wanted to be a super secretary," she lets on with a grin.
She did, and over the next decade, worked for honchos at some of the town's best-known companies, from investment firm G.K. Goh to global professional services company Accenture to French multinational Capgemini.
Good with people and quick on the uptake, she rose from secretary to executive assistant. As office manager, she helped to set up the Singapore operations for digital solutions consultancy Avanade - a collaboration between Accenture and Microsoft - in the mid-2000s.
At 25, she tied the knot with a sales engineer with whom she has two children, now aged 27 and 25.
For a while, life went swimmingly. Being diagnosed with cancer at 36 was a bolt from the blue.
"The thought never even entered my head. I thought I was young and healthy," she says.
That's why she didn't think much of a small lump in her left breast until a former colleague told her she was going for surgery to have a lump removed. When she consulted a GP, she was told she was too young to get cancer.
Six months later, a bout of flu led her to the clinic of her company doctor. Madam Chui took the opportunity to get an opinion about the lump in her breast.
"The doctor pressed it and said: 'I don't like it'."
A battery of tests, including two biopsies, confirmed the presence of cancerous deposits. Her left breast, she was told, had to go.
"I didn't know how to react. Many thoughts came into my head: Will I die? Will my kids lose their mummy? Will my husband remarry? What did I do to deserve this? I cried buckets," says Madam Chui, whose children were then only nine and 11.
As someone who counsels other cancer patients now, she tells them not to think of it as a death sentence.
"But I didn't know anything then. I just thought of the worst."
The fighter in her, however, pushed through. She decided to stay strong and read up as much as she could about cancer.
Her treatment - a 15-hour operation, 12 sessions of chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiation - was punishing and took nearly a year. Her weight plummeted by 13kg, she lost her hair, her fingers turned brown and whatever she ate, she threw up.
For the next couple of years, she went through painful hormonal treatments. She was given Zoladex - a drug that stops the ovaries from producing oestrogen - to induce menopause.
"Oestrogen will feed the cancer," she explains.
What kept her going was how her family, relatives and employers rallied around her.
"I really felt the power of love. I had so many pillars of support," says Madam Chui.
She went back to work nearly a year later. Several months later, on an impulse, she decided to quit to trek up the Everest base camp in Nepal, at an altitude of more than 5,300m.
"I wanted to fulfil a dream I'd had for a long time. Since I was done with all the treatments, I decided to do something I hadn't done before," says the sporty woman, whose husband accompanied her on the 21-day trip.
"It was cold and strenuous and really a test of endurance. But we took it step by step and made it," she says of the trek which took about nine days.
That same step-by-step approach helped her become stronger after her battle. Encouraged by the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF), she took up dragon boating. Dr Don McKenzie, a Canadian sports medicine physician, started the dragon boating movement for breast cancer survivors in the 1990s; his research showed that the sport is highly beneficial against lymphedema, which occurs when there is a build-up of lymph fluid causing swelling.
Madam Chui took to the sport like a duck to water; she has been the captain of the BCF-PIP for three terms and led them to many regattas and competitions here and abroad.
"It changed my life. It's about teamwork and brings together breast cancer survivors and offers them support. It's tiring but the objective is the finishing line, the light at the end of the tunnel. It's a lot like my own cancer journey," she says.
It wasn't an easy journey. After leaving Avanade, she joined SAP, a German-based multinational software corporation.
Finding her feet was not easy. There were times when she became depressed as she struggled to cope with work and her hormonal treatments.
"Fortunately, I had good bosses. The company gave me a lot of chances and I found not just a career but my fire and passion again when I moved into employee engagement, helping employees with work life progress," says Madam Chui, who has been with SAP for 14 years.
In 2007, on the advice of her oncologist, she went for a DNA test which confirmed she had BRCA1, a gene mutation which increased her risk of developing cancer in her right breast by 85 per cent, and her ovaries by 65 per cent.
Removing both was an agonising decision which took her months.
"As a woman, losing my breast and my reproductive system was just so hard. Luckily I had an understanding spouse who walked with me," says Madam Chui, who had her ovaries removed first, and her breast about three years later.
But barely a month after her mastectomy, the Big C reared its ugly head again. This time, her husband was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, or cancer of the salivary glands.
"From patient, I became caregiver. Actually he was a far better caregiver than I was," she says of her husband who, among other things, had to undergo reconstructive surgery and speech therapy.
Dragon boating, her work and counselling cancer patients and new survivors were her lifelines.
"I kept myself very active so that I didn't have time to indulge in emptiness and negativity. It was tough but my husband and I, and our children too, have become more resilient," she says.
Giving hope to others, she says, gives her purpose and a new energy.
"I've learnt from my journey and I use my experience to teach others how to bounce back. I learnt how to let go. It's okay to fail, it's okay not to be perfect, it's okay to lose and cry. But we must also take charge, and continue living with what's in front of us.
"We must continue to live, love and laugh."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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