Visual Arts Centre

It Changed My Life: Breathing life into clay after cancer shock

Ong Hwee Suan was diagnosed with stage 4 thyroid cancer when she was 43. She had three surgeries to remove 174 lymph nodes. She decided to use her love for pottery to create 174 pieces of work.

If her cakes came with cream, she would scrape it off.

That was in the past. Now, Ms Ong Hwee Suan just wolfs them down. “Just pile it on,” she says with a laugh.

She has not let herself go. The trim 49-year-old has xerostomia, or dry mouth, caused by damaged salivary glands after radiation therapy to treat stage 4 thyroid cancer a few years ago.

“There is a lot of food I don’t enjoy now. I can’t eat curry puffs or potato chips unless I am drinking water. And no rice, unless it is soaked in sauce,” she says with a sigh.

Ms Ong Hwee Suan’s world came tumbling down when she was diagnosed in 2011 with stage 4 thyroid cancer, which took three major operations, two radioactive treatments and the removal of 174 lymph nodes to beat.The 49-year-old has created 174 pieces of pottery – representing the lymph nodes – and will present these at Beginnings, an exhibition which opens next week, to raise funds for the Singapore Cancer Society.

But cakes with cream are good; they do not taste like sawdust or cardboard. Her compromised taste buds are a bummer but the public relations professional and ceramics artist is just glad to be alive.

Fighting the cancer, which recurred six months after she was first diagnosed in 2011, involved three major operations that left scars on her neck and chest, and two radioactive iodine treatments.

To give thanks to life and to pay tribute to the people – loved ones, friends, doctors and nurses – who helped her fight her battle, Ms Ong has created 174 pieces of pottery in her studio over the last three years. These pieces, representing the 174 lymph nodes stripped from her neck and chest during her operations, will take centre stage at Beginnings, an exhibition which opens next week.

All proceeds from the sale of the pieces will go to the Singapore Cancer Society. “I have to do this. I feel so blessed to be alive that I just have to pass it forward,” she says.

Ms Ong, who is single, looks healthy as she sits in her office at Duke-NUS Medical School, where she is its director of communications and development.

Her brush with mortality six years ago, she says, jolted her out of her complacency and became a turning point in her hitherto uncomplicated life.

She is the eldest of three children.

Her father used to run a petrol kiosk and the family lived in a house in Seletar Hills. Hers was a sheltered and comfortable childhood: bedtime at 7.30pm until she was 12, piano lessons and a lot of books.

“My mother was very protective. Because I was the only daughter, I did not have to do any housework,” she says with a laugh.

Ms Ong with Dr Andrew Loy after surgery in June 2012. Her cancer has been in remission for more than five years. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ONG HWEE SUAN

Their circumstances changed during the 1987 financial crisis. Her father lost his business.

“Because he was not educated, he ended up a security guard,” she says, adding that the family moved to a Housing Board flat in Hougang.

“It was quite drastic for my parents but I was quite unaffected because I was already 19 by then,” says the former student of CHIJ St Nicholas and Nanyang Junior College. After completing her Bachelor of Arts degree at the National University of Singapore where she majored in English, she went on a three-month solo backpacking trip through Europe in 1991.

The sojourn was mind-opening for someone who grew up not having to lift a finger at home; it was a crash course in street smarts and independence. “It took me out of my sheltered world and forced me out of my shell,” says Ms Ong. “I learnt to find my own way and be resourceful in an unknown environment. I learnt to read people and trust my instincts and intuition.”

Her foray into the working world was not exactly exciting; she became a technical writer in a software company. “I was writing user manuals for healthcare software,” she says with a grimace.

The money was not bad but she threw in the towel after two years.

“You only interact with programmers and face a computer the whole day. It was very solitary.”

A stint as a relief teacher at a secondary school followed. Although she loved interacting with students, she felt her future lay beyond the four walls of a classroom.

Public relations, with its varied facets, including strategy hatching and event planning, seemed like a good option after a chat with a friend in the industry.

She spent a relatively cushy two years doing corporate communications for the now defunct National Computer Board before she joined an agency specialising in financial PR. The learning curve was steep, and the hours long.

“We were pulling 16-hour days. But I was learning things,” she says.

Over the next decade, she charted her own career development and joined a couple of different agencies so that she was exposed to different things.

She continued to cultivate her adventurous side: travelling, scuba- diving and doing pottery, which she picked up in 1995.

Ong Hwee Suan created 174 pottery pieces in the shape of lymph nodes to raise funds for the Cancer Society.

“The minute I touched clay, I knew it was something I would do for life. I realised that I was very tactile,” says Ms Ong, who studied under Singapore ceramicist Jessie Lim.

Her passion even took her to the La Meridana International School of Ceramics in Tuscany, Italy, where she took classes by famous potters John Colbeck and Orietta Mengucci.

Things seemed to be going well.

“But one morning, I woke up and felt as though I was sleepwalking through life,” says Ms Ong, who was then an account director with Hill & Knowlton. “Everything was so familiar. I told myself I had to do something drastic: either change careers completely or move somewhere else to practise PR.”

She sent word out that she wanted a change in scenery. That same week, she received two job offers, one to do communications for a major sports label in Shanghai and the other to become an associate director at Bates Pangulf PR in Doha.

Working for a consumer brand did not appeal so she opted for the latter even though she knew next to nothing about the Middle East.

The decision, she says, was one of the best she made in life. “It shaped me professionally,” she says. “It forced me to ask myself what my value was. I had to put aside all my Singaporean ways and relearn.”

The going was sometimes rough.

“It gets lonely because it was very transient. You are changing friends every six months and people would just move on,” says Ms Ong, who also did stints in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “My way of dealing with it was to see as much of the country as possible. I would drive out to the deserts every weekend.”

In 2010, she returned to Singapore and became executive director at communications firm Golin.

An annual medical check-up upended her life barely a year later. The doctor did an ultrasound, and was perturbed by a small growth on her neck. Only a biopsy could determine if it was malignant. The other option was to remove it.

“At that point, I thought there must be a reason why I was back in Singapore, so I said to remove it. I gave the surgeon consent to do a biopsy during surgery and that if it was malignant, to remove my whole thyroid.”

She was stunned when tests confirmed that she had stage 4 thyroid cancer. “The doctor also told me that it was good I went to him then. Apparently, the growth was wrapped so tightly around my vocal cords that if I had gone to him two months later, he would have had to cut away my vocal cords.

“I remember telling him: ‘I want to live.'”

She had to undergo radioactive iodine treatment.

“You are given a cup of nuclear medicine and you have to be isolated in a ward, a very bare room, for three days. The nurses were all gloved and covered up; they left food for me at the door. I felt like a prisoner,” she recalls.

The next few months were spent trying to get her life back on track.

But a bigger whopper came barely seven months later when her endocrinologist told her the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.

“I remember listening to her and looking at her. My rational mind was trying to understand what she was saying but my emotions were running riot. I almost wanted to say: ‘Can you stop talking?'”

Further tests revealed that the cancer had spread to her neck and chest. A major neck dissection – to be done in two phases – was in order; her lymph nodes in these areas had to be removed.

In April 2012, she was wheeled into an operating room in Tan Tock Seng Hospital where her doctor Andrew Loy and another surgeon spent 12 hours splitting her sternum, or breastbone, to remove 86 lymph nodes, 18 of which were cancerous.

Her sternum was then stitched back together with stainless steel wires.

Over the next six months, she went through another neck dissection and another round of radioactive iodine treatment.

Her hospital bills cost more than $100,000, which were paid for by her health insurance.

Ms Ong took a year’s break from work. During this time, she headed back to her pottery studio to regain her sense of equilibrium.

She also volunteered with Singapore Cancer Society and read up all she could about nutrition and recuperation, so that she could get her strength back.

The idea for Beginnings came when she was recuperating in the hospital after her surgery.

Her initial plan was to decorate pots with lymph node patterns but the idea evolved over time to what it is now.

A perfectionist, she used to discard pieces which had cracks or were not perfect in other ways.

But through a Japanese potter friend, she learnt about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The repaired pieces become even more valuable.

“It is a fitting metaphor for a way to confront and accept cancer that could potentially be terminal, and to find strength and beauty in the process of healing,” she says.

“My journey has taught me to accept imperfections in a very different way.”

Mounting Beginnings – to raise awareness for thyroid cancer research at Duke-NUS and funds for the Singapore Cancer Society – has been gratifying in other ways, she says. Friends and strangers have stepped in to offer help, from taking photos to designing publicity collateral.

“Those who have crossed paths with cancer know how aggressive and destructive it can be. I just want to encourage someone along the way. I myself would not have made it if I did not have the support of friends and family.”

Ms Ong, whose health has been in the clear for more than five years now, knows that the big C may reappear in her life.

But she does not lose sleep over it.

She says: “I told myself whatever it is, I am going to treat myself No. 1 for whatever length of time I have left.”