Breast Cancer taught her life lessons she will never forget

When she was first diagnosed with Stage 3 triple negative breast cancer, Ramuna worried that she may not make it. But, encouraged by her son, husband and her cancer support group, the primary school teacher decided she wasn't going to let cancer get the better of her. Photo: Love, Bonito

Most people would not see cancer as a blessing but for Ramuna Chellapa, being diagnosed with breast cancer has allowed her to dream again.

“I want to write. And, I want to be a model... not as a profession, of course, but I’ve modeled for a couple of campaigns to raise awareness about breast cancer and I really enjoyed it and let’s just say I’m a willing model if there are opportunities,” says Ramuna, with a laugh.

“Cancer showed me how important it is to focus on myself and to spend some time, every day, just for myself even if it’s just 20 minutes. And that’s what I’ve been doing now. I do yoga, meditation, gardening and sometimes I just put the music on loud and dance around my room like a crazy girl and it feels so good.

“This is the new me, Ramuna 2.0... calm, happy and doing what I love,” says the 45-year-old a primary school teacher at a Chinese school in Kuala Lumpur.

Ramuna was diagnosed with Stage 3, triple negative breast cancer in July last year.

She had to undergo eight rounds of chemotherapy, a mastectomy to remove her right breast, 15 rounds of radiotherapy and finally, four rounds of oral chemotherapy, the last of which she had only just recently completed.

“It wasn’t easy” she admits. “And, of course, when I was first diagnosed, I cried and wondered if I was going to die.

Cancer taught her to take time for herself, doing things she loved. She discovered she loved modelling after taking part in a couple of cancer awareness photo shoots. Photo: Love, BonitoCancer taught her to take time for herself, doing things she loved. She discovered she loved modelling after taking part in a couple of cancer awareness photo shoots. Photo: Love, Bonito

“My mum died from triple negative breast cancer and ever since then, it’s always been at the back of my mind... will I get it too? “Well, I did. But, you know, it hasn’t been all bad,” she says.

Although the treatments were harsh and Ramuna was often tired and lost her hair and a lot of weight, she says that her illness has given her a new zest for life.

“It’s just a bump in the road. Initially I was anxious. I was especially worried about my son, who has muscular dystrophy – what was going to happen to him and my husband if I died? I was feeling quite down. “But then, before starting chemotherapy treatments, I contacted the National Cancer Society of Malaysia (NCSM) and met so many survivors, some of whom had the same aggressive type of cancer as me but were 10, 15 years cancer-free and enjoying life.

“That really gave me hope. If they can do it, why not me. It totally changed the way I perceived cancer and I decided that I wasn’t going to give in to negative thinking... I was going to be optimistic and I was going to fight,” says Ramuna.

Always check, and double check

Because of her family history of breast cancer, Ramuna and her two sisters were vigilant in doing regular self breast examinations.

“One day, I was watching a documentary on TV about breast cancer and how to properly examine our breasts. I followed the instructions that they were giving and checked myself as I was watching. That’s when I found a really hard bump near my breast bone on the right side. I’d felt something hard there before but I’d always assumed it was just the bone and didn’t pay it much attention. But this time, it seemed to have grown.

“I immediately knew something was wrong. I’d also been feeling tired and had some pricking sensation and numbness in my right arm. I told my husband and we went to see a doctor,” she shares.

After a needle biopsy, Ramuna was told that the “bump” was most likely a fibroid. However, her blood work was suspicious and the doctor advised her to go for further testing.

Ramuna went to the University Malaya Medical Centre where she did multiple tests: an MRI, a needle biopsy and an ultrasound guided biopsy as well as blood tests.

“After three weeks, on July 27, 2020, I was diagnosed. I was categorised as Stage 3 because of the size of my lump although, thankfully, the cancer had not spread,” she says.

Talking from her own experience, Ramuna urges other women to regularly check their breasts, and to see a doctor as soon they feel anything amiss, whether it’s a lump, a pimple or if they feel chronic pain, tiredness or are just out of sorts.

“If you feel anything, it’s best to get it checked. I didn’t have any of the common symptoms but I should have checked as soon as I felt the hard bump.

“Now, as a survivor, I want to urge all women above 40 to get a mammogram. Find a way, look out for programmes and promotions if you think you can’t afford it. In October, during breast cancer awareness month, there are so many promotions. Go and get screened,” she says.

Ramuna discovered many hobies during her recovery such as gardening and yoga. Photo: RAMUNA CHELLAPARamuna discovered many hobies during her recovery such as gardening and yoga. Photo: RAMUNA CHELLAPA

No going back

Even though she’s done with her treatment, Ramuna knows that she can’t take anything for granted.

“Mine was an aggresive type of cancer and so I have to be careful as there is a chance it may come back. But, I’m not going to live in fear. Life goes on and I will make sure I do all I can to stay healthy, eat well and be active. I never took time to exercise much before and was always stressed with work. My days were always so hectic.

“I don’t want to be stressed all the time like that anymore. Teaching has always been my ambition but I used to be really bogged down with paperwork and the pressure to get my students to score As. In the pursuit of this, I’d scold the children quite a bit. But hopefully the calmer, more positive Ramuna will be able to handle things better. This past year has taught me to be calm and happy and I hope that when I return to work in November, I can maintain this frame of mind,” she says.

Her involvement with Pink Unity (a focus group of women cancer survivors under NCSM) also revived Ramuna’s passion for writing.

“You know, I have always loved to write but with no practice, I lost my flair for language and writing. But I’ve written a few articles for Pink Unity and have rediscovered the joy of writing which is something I want to do more of.

“And lastly, I hope that my story can inspire other women to get screened and to view cancer more positively and not be fearful in their cancer journey. Don’t let the diagnosis eat you up. Have a goal, know that this is only temporary and look at it as a chance to change your life and have a new lease in life.

“It’s just another challenge that we can get through,” she concludes.

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