Amid splashes of pool water and laughter, Yu Poh Leng’s voice pierces through the blaring up-tempo music, “3, 2, 1… Catch your breath, very good!”
Filled with energy, she barely breaks a sweat at a poolside 10 storeys high, where she leads eight women in an aqua aerobics class.
The exercise playlist loops into the song “Titanium” sung by Sia. The lyrics about never falling in the face of adversity is somewhat fitting. That’s because every single one of the women at the pool, including Poh Leng, is a breast cancer survivor.
“Teaching aqua aerobics… can be physically quite tiring but it’s very rewarding,” she says. “By giving my time to the survivors, I gain a lot more… and what they’ve gone through, that impacts me and that inspires me”.
Drenched in sunlight, Poh Leng’s now tanned skin hides more than blemishes, it hides a different past.
Drawing on 18 years of experience, the senior consultant points out, “some patients with very aggressive breast cancer … they are often perfectionists, often type A (personalities), and often very worried about the littlest things”.
“With that happening, their stress hormone, cortisol, is often very high and that leads to low immunity which then doesn’t really help in helping them fight the cancer.”
However, proving a cause-and-effect relationship between stress and cancer says Dr See, is not as clear-cut as with lung cancer and the number of cigarettes smoked a day, she cites as an example.
Screening and Self-examination
In October 2019, Poh Leng was diagnosed with early-stage triple-negative breast cancer.
“I am a strong believer in mammograms” says Poh Leng who also reveals, “I go for a mammogram screening every year”.
Along with regular mammogram screenings, the Singapore Cancer Society recommends a monthly breast self-examination.
Following that advice helped Poh Leng detect her cancer, sooner rather than later.
“It was between the mammogram sessions when I did my self-examination and I realised I actually had a lump”.
Following up with a consultation at a polyclinic and further medical tests, led to her diagnosis.
Dr See says that patients both receiving and not receiving chemotherapy, often ask about how much they should exercise.
“I tell them actually, the studies have shown that an average office worker would perhaps do about 5,000 to 7,000 steps if they were to take the public transport. But recent studies have shown that perhaps even 10,000 steps a day is not enough”.
She adds that “15,000 steps or one hour and half a day of active activity is better for reducing cancer risks”.
For Poh Leng, exercise walking progressed to jogging and in time, more activities like swimming were added.
“I increased my intensity as I was getting better,” she adds.
The 57-year-old has also chosen to slow down on her previous career, limiting herself to just five to 10 hours a month in a consultancy role. Instead, she conducts more aqua aerobics classes that give her a different sense of accomplishment.
“I’m thankful for the new lease of life that I have and make sure that I actually contribute a lot more back”.
With the change she’s leading, Poh Leng wants to create a bigger impact.
“My dream is to introduce this sport to more people, to teach them the merits of it, to teach them self-care… so that they can actually go to the pools and actually exercise for their own health”.
Produced in partnership with Parkway Cancer Centre.