At first glance, Ella Lim is your average 47-year-old Singaporean woman. She enjoys travelling, eating ice cream, watching local TV dramas, and cares deeply for her family. But life has dealt her a tough hand. She’s been the primary caregiver to two cancer-stricken family members, while at the same time singlehandedly raising her son, before being diagnosed with cancer herself. Amazingly, this brave and fiercely independent survivor now channels her caregiving skills into her work as a Care Professional with medical services platform Homage. She speaks candidly of her life experiences and her wish to keep giving back.
Becoming a (Single) Mum
I got married at the age of 21, had my firstborn at 23, and was divorced 14 years later. Married life was not smooth sailing and as the years passed, I grew disillusioned. Still, I held onto the belief that things might improve, that he would try to contribute to the family. The final straw came when he started asking for more; I realised that he never had the intention to change.
Becoming a single mum wasn’t an easy or split-second decision. To ensure my son would grow up in a stable and secure environment, I decided on a divorce. It was a turning point in my life. A fresh start. I was better able to support and raise my child independently, while having more time to focus on myself.
You could say that he became the focus of my life. From the moment he was born, I have only wanted the best for him.
Despite my failed marriage, I have no regrets, because I was gifted my son, Stanley. Becoming a mother was a magical, life-changing experience. I recall the initial surprise when I discovered I was pregnant and the excitement I felt when he arrived. Okay, less than magical was the morning illness that lasted my entire pregnancy! I also caught chickenpox two weeks before my EDD and had to have a Caesarean to prevent the risk of him contracting the virus.
As a first-time mum, I was naturally anxious, not knowing what to expect. I asked other mummy friends lots of questions and pored over every magazine I could find. When Stanley was a newborn, I was constantly sleep-deprived. I had read about SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and was so paranoid that I kept checking that he was breathing. He was actually a very easy baby to care for!
See also: Common Newborn Conditions)
My Pride and Joy
Stanley had acute bronchitis when he was seven. It pained me to see his small body covered with needles and tubes. Throughout the three days in hospital, I never left his side. My family had to bring his chou chou (‘smelly’ pillow he had since young) so that he could rest better in the hospital.
When Stanley was in Primary Four, I was diagnosed with arthritis. He took care of me by pouring water, giving me my medication. He even promised that he would push me in a wheelchair if I ever needed one.
Stanley is 25 this year. He will be graduating from university soon and plans to either become a teacher or join politics. He is very bright and has a strong love for language and the arts. An avid reader since he was little, half of his room is full of storybooks! He was also the chairman of his school’s debate team. Like other youths, he enjoys e-gaming too.
By nature, Stanley is introverted, but a very independent and considerate individual. He makes it a point to celebrate every Mother’s Day for me, without fail. When he was young, he would draw portraits of me as a present for me. Now that he is older, he will surprise me with a bouquet of flowers or a good meal.
Cancer in the Family
Around the time when I was struggling with my marriage, my 80-plus-year-old grandma was diagnosed with terminal stage cervical cancer. Palliative care was recommended, and I volunteered to be the one to care for her. Partly because I lived the closest to her, but also because I wanted to give back.
My own parents had divorced when I was just eight. As sole breadwinner, my father was busy working most days, so grandma was the one who raised me and my younger sister. I was not the easiest child to raise — not academically inclined and I had a rebellious streak in my teenage years. Besides my dad and grandma, I was also fortunate to have teachers who genuinely cared for my well-being. So much so that I graduated not just with my ‘N’ levels, but also as a better person.
I spent my weekdays shuttling back and forth to my grandma’s to care for her, then rushing home to be in time for Stanley, who was still only in lower primary. On weekends, I’d bring him with me, so I could look after them both. A few months after my grandma passed, my father was diagnosed with stage 2 colon cancer.
My father was aware and accepting of his condition, which made caring for him easier. I was his faithful caregiver and medical escort till he passed away 18 months later. Losing him was perhaps the lowest point of my life. He had been my life coach, my confidante, and my pillar of strength. His infectious positive nature is what made me who I am today.
Being a caregiver was physically exhausting, but it was my chance to repay my father and grandmother for raising me with such love and care. That I could be there for them in the final stages of their lives was difficult, yet fulfilling and meaningful. I’m grateful for friends and relatives who helped me through this phase. My son, especially, is my greatest source of strength and motivation.
When Cancer Strikes Thrice
In 2017, cancer also found me in the form of a brain tumour. I had suddenly fainted at home, so was admitted to the hospital. CT scans revealed a 7-cm growth that warranted surgery. With my family’s history of cancer, I wasn’t too shocked, really. My son was more worried and accompanied me to the consultations to learn more.
See also: Telling my Children that I have Cancer)
Stanley was only in his first year of university. I resolved to do whatever it took to triumph over this cancer, in the hopes of minimising its impact on his life and studies. Most of all, I did not want my son to be without his mother. I want to be there to see him graduate and continue to grow and mature.
I underwent two major surgeries, through which I was sedated but awake, to reduce the risk of losing various functions. They removed the majority of the tumour that was resting on the left side of my brain in two 15-hour-long operations performed months apart.
With an inoperable 10 per cent remaining, radiotherapy for 33 consecutive days followed. Each session took up to two hours. My good friend insisted on accompanying me for the first week, but subsequently, I went alone to avoid inconveniencing anyone else. Next was chemotherapy in the form of oral medication from 2018 to earlier this year. I lost my hair and 20 kg in weight.
My cancer diagnosis afforded me time to slow down and reflect. In doing so, I realised that everyone’s time is finite and resolved to lead a more meaningful life going forward. I aim to put my caregiving experience to good use and help as many as I can. Until the pandemic put a stop to it, I was volunteering as a befriender with the Brain Tumour Society (Singapore).
When I came across Homage and the freelance Care Professional opportunity on Facebook, I decided to apply. The flexibility of this role allows me time for medical appointments and other commitments, while supplementing my family’s income. For about 10 hours each week, I visit seniors to help care for them. Sharing my personal story to encourage them when they’re down, listening to their stories in return — it’s been very rewarding. Through these care visits, I’ve also grown more appreciative of what I have in life.
My latest MRI scan shows that after four years of battling this disease, my cancer is in remission. In this same year, I will also witness my son graduate and enter a new chapter in his life. I look forward to watching him get married and have children, and to be an inspirational figure in his life.