As we gear up towards the last quarter of 2021, we also want to take stock of all that has happened in the last few months. This is especially so for our Hegen mum, Yee Vonne, who wanted to resolve what she thought were blocked ducts from breastfeeding, only to find out that it was in fact a rare autoimmune condition, dermatomyositis, and breast cancer.
We also commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness month in October, here is Yee Vonne’s story.
Hi Yee Vonne, thank you for sharing your story with us! Tell us more about yourself.
Prior to a month ago, if you asked me to introduce myself, I would say I’m a newly minted mother of two boys, Elliot and Cayden, and enjoying post-partum. I was anxious about going back to work affecting my milk supply but at the same time looking forward to it.
I started my new job as a General Practitioner (GP) in December last year and I gave birth to a healthy boy in April this year. The delivery of my second boy was a smooth one, just like my first. I had natural delivery with epidural (best thing ever). As a second time mom, it doesn’t get easier with breast feeding or post-partum but mentally I was more prepared.
I was diagnosed with dermatomyositis , a rare autoimmune condition on 17 August this year and the diagnosis of breast cancer followed two days later. Now I’m a mother of two boys on steroids, undergoing chemotherapy and my main role is a patient. My role as a doctor is on hold while I battle breast cancer and dermatomyositis.
How did you first find out about your medical condition?
When I went for a lactation consultation, the Lactation Consultant (LC) remarked that it did not seem like a usual case of blocked ducts. The “blocked ducts” also did not go away even after a course of antibiotics. Deep down, there was still some wishful thinking hoping it’s something benign like granulomatous mastitis.
The ultrasound eventually showed BIRADS 4 lesion which meant biopsy was the next course of action.
Has the way you felt about breastfeeding Cayden change from when you breastfed Elliot?
You would think breast feeding is easier the second time round, but it is not. I had sore nipples from day one and as my nipples were too big for Cayden, my second boy. Both of us struggled. My nipples were raw from trying to latch Cayden, but I was kinder to myself this time. The priority was to give Cayden colostrum, so I expressed it out and collected it in a syringe for the nurse to feed and allow my nipples to rest.
Instead of just latching through the pain for my second son, Cayden, I was pumping out for his feeds to let the nipples recover. Having said that I tried to latch whenever I could so that I could bond with Cayden and because I would feel a bit down otherwise.
Things were the opposite with my first born, Elliot. I latched throughout, despite the pain and sore nipples. I felt like I failed as a mom when I first gave him formula. In the first few days after birth, I was pumping like crazy thinking it was engorgement. I remembered looking at blissful breastfeeding photos and felt like I’ve been cheated. Although I breast fed my first boy for a good 13 months, I could only give Cayden 4 months of breast milk as I needed to start my chemotherapy.
Deep down I wished I could give Cayden more but ‘fed is best’ and having a healthy mommy is the most important thing for my two boys.
We are so proud of you for giving your best to both boys, despite the challenges! As you are currently unable to breastfeed, what are the treatment you are currently receiving for your condition?
Truth be told, dermatomyositis was actually causing more symptoms than the cancer itself. Simply put, dermatomyositis is a rare autoimmune disorder whereby the body attacks its own muscle and skin. I had sore arms prior to diagnosis which I initially attributed to the frequent carrying of my son, but it was actually my muscles crying out in pain. I also have very sore fingers and scalp and some difficulty swallowing.
I started my chemotherapy the same week of my diagnosis and I have now finished my third cycle of ‘tough’ chemo (AC). I have one more cycle of tough chemo to go followed by another 12 cycles of less tough chemo. The plan after chemo is for surgery followed by radiotherapy and hormonal therapy.
I’m currently on high dose steroids which explains why I am awake by 4 am most days and am unable to rest properly. not what you would expect of a patient on chemo. Besides high dose steroids, I am also receiving intravenous immunoglobulin for dermatomyositis.
We hope it was a smooth experience explaining to Elliot about what was going on. How did you communicate with Elliot about your diagnosis?
I’m still learning how to be a mother of two. The focus is more on my older boy, Elliot, who encountered lots of changes this year. On top of becoming a big brother, he also had to cope with his mommy being unwell. We try to have family activities every weekend like movie nights, cycling by the beach, making Sunday breakfast together and more. The only difference is that I must be extra careful as I am doubly immune compromised due to chemotherapy and steroids.
I used a book called “Cancer Hates Kisses” by Jessica Reid Sliwerski to explain our current situation to my older boy. The details are on my Instagram but, essentially, when mothers get diagnosed with cancer, the first thing we think about is our children. I was worried that I may not see them grow up.
The book was what I needed to help explain in simple terms about my condition. We got him involved in my head shaving party so that he knew what was happening. He now tells me I look pretty even when I have a bald head and showers me with praises.
My children are my biggest strength, just like any mother out there. My husband is my main pillar of support. I was resentful at times during the post-partum period, especially when I saw him sleeping soundly while I had to wake up to pump or breastfeed. However, this incident really reminded me again of our wedding vows and made us stronger as a couple. I am also thankful that I have very supportive parents and in-laws who are always ready to lend their support and shower love to their grandchildren.
Every family is different and what works for me may not work for others. But if anyone is going through a similar situation, I would recommend using storytelling, such as the book I recommended to explain what’s going on.
We are so heartened by your story and will continue to support you and your family! Do you have any advice you would like to share with mummies?
One important message that I would also like to share is that if you feel any breast lump, get it investigated. We sometimes tell ourselves that breast lumps are all part and parcel of breastfeeding (which is true), but do get the lump checked thoroughly if it does not resolve with time.
Of course, if you fall within the screening age group, please start screening. Early detection is always the best. For the longest time, I kept telling myself that my lump was just a blocked duct as I was breastfeeding. It didn’t resolve with the usual blocked duct hacks and massages. Fortunately, I got it investigated and now I’m receiving treatment for my breast cancer.