We present: Charlene’s breast cancer story, in her own words.
The first thing I noticed about Charlene and her Boob Sisters — or Breasties — is that they all sport terrifically chic pixie cuts. In the way that gets you inspired like, “wow, maybe I could pull off a pixie too!” Although inspiring would be quite an understatement. The Breasties backstory is something you’ll want to sit down and tone down for. Expect a whole lot of laughs, sniffles and camaraderie that are as memorable as they are revealing. The Breasties band together on a shared experience of having had, fought and beaten Breast Cancer. All before they even turned 35. Cropped hair is just a silver of their journey, most of which began with a staggering diagnosis at the peak of their lives (and careers), to the trials of chemotherapy, going bald… And of course, losing their breasts.
October is officially Breast Cancer Awareness month which, as I gathered from the Breasties, is something so acutely neglected despite being so close and so real to us. For this special story, we meet Charlene Koh, a breast cancer survivor and now founder of Breathe Essentials Co., a brand specialising in organic essential oils and hand poured candles inspired by her own recovery journey. In an intimate reflection, Charlene looks forward on her cancer fight, its pain, lessons, her Breasties tribe and the best words of affirmation for anyone battling cancer.
Hi! I’m Charlene, the founder of Breathe Essentials Co, a company that specialises in organic essentials oils and hand poured scented candles.
The beginning: My breast cancer journey.
I was working out in the gym, I actually have a history of asthma and I realised I wasn’t able to last the whole hour. So I called my pulmonologist and he said “okay never mind, just come in for a lung scan because you’re still covered by insurance anyway.” And they picked up from the lung scan that I had some calcifications on my left breast. One thing led to another. I did the mammogram, the biopsy… And they found six cancerous lumps on my left breast. The biggest one measured about 5 cm by about 1?
I discovered I had breast cancer, stage 0 to 1, in April 2019 when I was around 35. I underwent a mastectomy on my left boob and also did four rounds of chemotherapy, as well as immunotherapy. I’m now all done with my cancer treatment, but I’m still on oral medication for the next four years.
When they told me I had cancer.
The first thing that went through my mind was why me? I was a very good person. What did I do wrong? Was it karma? Did I wrong somebody that [I had to get cancer]? I remember I was all alone in the clinic because my parents were like, “don’t worry lah, you don’t have a breast cancer history, you’re fine!” I didn’t know how to tell them, so I told them over [our] WhatsApp group chat that I had cancer. And then my mum just said, “okay, we’ll just slowly sort it out”. My brother said don’t worry, because breast cancer is one of the most researched cancers in the whole world. You are treatable.
The next thing that hit me: what was going to happen to me after cancer? What is life going to be? I was successful, I was an entrepreneur, I was adventurous, I was confident… And then I had this. How will it change me as a person? And how will people view me after this?
The next chapter: Surgery.
I was diagnosed on April the 8th and on the night of the 9th I was warded for my surgery. The surgery was going to last quite a long time — I was doing the mastectomy and reconstruction all at one go.
I remember being very emotional, not knowing what to do. All you do is just follow your doctor. I had my pulmonologist with my, the breast surgeon with me, the plastic surgeon with me… And after that it was just trying to get used to this new body. There is a lot of physical pain. But I think the emotional trauma that comes with it outweighs the physical pain, anytime.
What cancer made me realise.
I could be more than what I was. I think in the times you face adversity, you can be stronger than what you are. Cancer taught me to love myself more. To not take things for granted, to feel very grateful for a lot of things in life. But I think what it told me as well, was that while cancer did choose me, I can choose the way I want to lead my life. When you have cancer you don’t need to look sick. You can still look really good (like how I was during cancer)!
People didn’t know I had cancer. I was walking around bald during chemo and people would say, “oh did you do hair for hope?” I would say, “oh no it’s not hair for hope, it’s breast cancer.” And they’d say, “but you don’t look like you have breast cancer.” Then my standard response is, “yah, that’s how cancer gets you lor!”
From L – R: Vivienne, Charlene, Shuwen, Eileen
My family did not have a breast cancer history and I didn’t have any friends around my age, or even knew anyone who had breast cancer. So finding this group chat was a great help — they knew what I was going through. Chemo is no walk in the park. It really challenges you physically and mentally man! I think having people who can relate to me, as somebody who is still young and still having a good career ahead, who is still single… I’m glad I met these ladies, we talk about everything! Like, “you know this tinder guy, he just MIA-ed on me after I told him I have cancer!” We talk about things in general, we compare our boob jobs!
It’s nice to have somebody that was in your shoes. You have friends and family motivating and encouraging you, but they don’t know what you actually go through; especially the emotional trauma after cancer. So I’m very thankful that I have this very lovely community that can walk through this journey and do life together with me.
*Charlene and her Breasties are all part of the Breast Cancer Foundation’s Young Women’s Support Group for breast cancer survivors and caregivers. For more information on how to get in touch, connect here.
If you are on a similar journey, know this:
I just want to let everyone know that life is still very normal after cancer. If you ever discover you have cancer, seek help. Don’t just keep it to yourself. Cancer is very treatable these days, especially if it’s detected early.
And if you ever see anyone with no hair walking around the street you can say, “you are beautiful.” I think those three words are really powerful on their own. Cancer chose us, but we can definitely choose the way we want to lead our lives.
Introducing: Breathe Essentials Co.
The beginning: Breathe Essentials Co.
Breathe Essentials Co. is a company that specialises in pure organic essentials oils that are sourced from South of France, as well as hand poured candles that are done in Singapore! It was founded because I felt that during my cancer journey, I sought a lot of comfort from pure essential oil. Lavender Oil helped me sleep and Rosemary Oil helped my hair grow back after chemo. But then I realised there was no home grown label in Singapore and essential oils are expensive as well. I wanted to make it affordable for others, so they can purchase these and have some comfort too. The candles are hand poured and the wicks are wicked by hand. It’s a wooden s-wick, so it burns slowly and steadily — it’s more environmentally friendly as well.
I wanted scents that could invoke happy memories and that were also special. One of the most unique scents would be A Gentleman’s Hug, it smells exactly like men’s cologne. Manuka is made of real honey and Lavender Fields is made from two different kinds of lavender. Cookie Dough also smells exactly like a bakery!
The Breathe Essentials Co. Mission.
Breathe Essentials is my full-time venture now. I couldn’t think of anything else that I wanted to do. Through Breathe Essentials Co. I want to inspire people and give people hope. I hope my products can comfort them in times of need and also celebrate the good times with them. A good scent can lift anybody’s mood, change the atmosphere of a room and I hope to achieve that. Breathe Essentials Co. also proudly supports the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF). I think as a breast cancer survivor, I found a lot of solace and support at BCF and I wanted to continue doing that. A little goes a long way. I donate part of my proceeds to BCF every month and I hope those funds can be used to further support other women going through a similar journey.
I hope to start running candle-making shops. I think candle-making is very intricate and therapeutic. They make very personal and meaningful gifts too — it’s not the same as what you’d just grab off the shelf.
Next year, I will be launching a project called Project Heart-core. I think for us Boob Sisters, what we felt was that — even though we were going through chemotherapy — we wanted to feel useful, we wanted to feel normal. So I hope to outsource some of the production to ladies [fighting breast cancer] at home, because you can actually make the candles at home. So at least they feel like they’re doing something and it takes their mind off things. I’m also looking at charities who work with low income families and women too!
Discover more from Breathe Essentials Co. and shop the full collection here!
Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women.
Nearly 13% of women will be diagnosed with female breast cancer in their lifetime and 1 woman dies from breast cancer everyday. While breast cancer is highly treatable, early detection is paramount. Stand in solidarity this October to raise awareness of and support the fight against breast cancer — find out more about Pink Ribbon Singapore here.
As part of Breast Cancer Awareness month 2020, we’re sharing stories of strength and grace from Charlene, as well as her group of Breasties. Get to know them on our Instagram!