Beating Breast Cancer

An Interview with Teoh Seok Hean and Eddie Teoh

By Kwok Yingchen

Teoh Seok Hean was diagnosed with Stage 1C breast cancer on 7th March 2012, a few days before her 44th birthday. Like everyone else, she had always thought that cancer was something that only happened to other people. Her doctor recommended three treatments - surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, all of which carried considerable risks and side effects. Seok Hean was determined not to undergo conventional treatment unless she had no other choice. Together with her husband Eddie, she extensively researched forms of alternative therapy, and learned of the health benefits of a fully vegan diet.

On 11th October 2012, seven months after her initial diagnosis, Seok Hean's biopsy came back with no malignant cells found. She had met cancer head on and emerged victorious.

(Seok Hean's journey is documented on her blog.)

So you were diagnosed with breast cancer on 7th March 2012. When did you decide to become vegetarian, and subsequently vegan?

Seok Hean: It was the very day I was diagnosed. We read up on all the alternative therapies and tried them out right away. I started on a juicing and detox using coffee enema and the Budwig Protocol diet – organic cottage cheese from grass-fed cows blended with flaxseed oil. Later on, I learnt more about the health problems caused by dairy products, and I decided to remove them from my diet after 3 months, becoming fully vegan.

Eddie: I decided that I would follow my wife. If alternative therapy is to work, I must support my partner's decision entirely. If I still ate meat, it have would been a lot more difficult for my wife to avoid it. At home, I would just eat whatever my wife was eating. A lot of salads and juice. However, I was still having business lunches outside.

At first, I did not want to tell other people that I was vegetarian. I'd try to order the vegetarian options on the menu when possible, but it can be really difficult to stick to a vegetarian diet if you don't tell other people, like when they order food for everybody at Chinese restaurants. That lasted about 2 months, after which I began to tell my business partners that I was officially vegetarian.

It's kind of natural to go from vegetarian to vegan. When you order food at vegetarian restaurants, there's usually the option to remove the eggs or cheese from the dish. It was really easy to eat vegan, and it just happened after a while.

When faced with cancer, many non-vegetarians are still reluctant to even consider alternative therapy as an option. Why do you think this is so, and what do you think made you different?

Seok Hean: We're raised in a culture of meat. People aren't ready to just turn vegetarian all of a sudden. In alternative therapy, however, vegetarianism is a must. Of the few people who are willing to undertake alternative therapy, a lot still fail because they do not stick to it all the way. They think they can get away with eating meat every now and then.

As for me, I was uncomfortable with chemotherapy and radiation therapy right from the beginning. I was afraid that I'd only hurt my body more, and I did not enjoy going to the hospital and talking to the doctors. At the very most I would consider surgery, but even that seemed like a frightening prospect. Of course, I don't claim to have known, at the time, that alternative therapy was definitely the right option. Healing yourself is a very personal journey, with a lot of help from the Divine.

I don't think anyone can ever be sure that they do not need conventional treatment to get well until they are actually well. All I can say is that I was lucky I had detected it at a relatively early stage, and I was not in immediate physical pain.

The decision would've been a lot more difficult to make if I had detected it at a later stage, or if I had been diagnosed with brain cancer or liver cancer instead, but that's not what happened and I'm really not sure if I would've done anything differently.

My brother is also a Buddhist monk, and he told me to try the Gerson therapy. It's all about eating raw, organic foods and juicing. He also helped me find various documentaries: 'Food, Inc.', 'Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead', 'Cancer Is Curable', 'A World Without Cancer'. Having more information gave me more confidence about my decision to stand by alternative therapy.

What were the reactions of your friends and family to your decision to go vegetarian/vegan?

Seok Hean: I didn't even tell my mom at first! When I initially told my friends, they were very against it, so I stopped talking about it. When I began to get better, they were happy for me, but were still reluctant to recognise the value of a vegetarian diet. We managed to convert a few friends though. They didn't go fully vegetarian, but after hearing our story, they started eating more vegetarian food, and some of them even lost a lot of weight.

Eddie: Putting ourselves in our friends' shoes, we can't blame them. If this had never happened to us, we would probably have also been like that. Thankfully, I had more luck with my business partners. When I told them that I was vegetarian, they were shocked and wanted to know why, but after I told them Seok's story they became very supportive. During future meetings they went out of the way to eat at places with vegetarian options, and ordered vegetarian meals during CNY celebrations and so forth.

Were there any times when you regretted your decision?

(Seok Hean immediately shakes her head.)

Seok Hean: Many people ask me – now that you're okay, will you go back to eating meat again? Of couse not. We don't miss meat.

Back then, I was motivated by an overwhelming feeling of necessity. I was willing to do anything to get better. A healthy diet really did wonders for me. I was quite obese, but I began to lose weight. The scans were getting better. It's hard to have any regrets when so many good things are happening. My only regret is that I didn't become vegetarian earlier. Even if we're just talking about health alone, I still very much fear that I may get cancer again. A vegan diet helps put my mind at ease. And of course, when you go vegetarian you become aware of the many other ethical and environmental reasons that are just as important.

I think the hardest part was with desserts, cakes, pastries and sweets. We used to make fantastic cakes; now our friends all complain that they don't get to eat any more of our cakes! We are learning to make eggless cakes though.

Eddie: Well, my wife had to throw away everything she'd learnt... all the pastry and baking courses and everything. Still, it helped that we don't have any kids, and we genuinely like having meals together. It made things easier.

When did you first feel signs on improvement?

Seok Hean: We did scans every 6 weeks. The first scan had no change. But the second scan 12 weeks in showed the tumour shrinking a bit. I was very surprised because we're all taught not to believe in miracles. But I think we doubt our bodies too much. Nature has a lot of things that are good for us, and our bodies fight very hard to keep us healthy, but because we don't believe that something so natural can be so effective, we become very distrusting.

Eddie: She saw a lot of improvements to her weight; lost 3kg within the first month. I lost a lot of weight as well.

Could you share some of the things you've learnt about our bodies and eating healthily?

Seok Hean: There's just so many bad things in meat nowadays that it's really difficult for meat to be part of a healthy diet. Maybe it was different in the past. Now everything is processed, and there are a lot of hormones and chemicals. When we treat the animals so badly they get sick very often, and we just give them more antibiotics to stop the sickness. The end result is just something that has so much negative energy. Of course, thanks to marketing we don't ever realise it. We see that there are some people who are able to eat meat and still remain very healthy and we think it's their choice, but not everyone is so fortunate. I never thought I would ever get cancer until I actually got it. The best thing to do is to have good health so that you won't even have to see a doctor in the first place. Might as well use that money to eat good, compassionate vegetarian food.

Eddie: In the beginning humans ate fruits and nuts and vegetables, which our bodies were accustomed to. Then we evolved and switched to a meat-based diet, and our bodies tried very hard to adapt to it. And then even before our bodies were fully adapted we switched to a diet of processed food and meats, and our bodies struggled even harder. But this seems to be the limit. That's why there are so many allergies and chronic diseases today. (Here's an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that supports what Eddie has said.)

Also, take responsibility for your own body and don't keep depending on external medicine. Nothing is better than a strong immune system. I see it as a muscle; it can do a lot of good for you, but if you keep eating things that are bad for you and rely on medicine the moment you fall sick, you don't ever train it, then it'll be really weak.

Take cars for instance. We spend so much money and effort polishing our cars, cleaning the engines and buying the best fuel. If only we were willing to put half the effort into taking care of our bodies by eating well!

People like to blame their bodies when they fall sick and claim their bodies have failed them, but the truth is that we are the ones who have failed our bodies. There are many people who are born with all sorts of problems, but most of the time our bodies don't make the decision to be unhealthy, we do.

What about the ethical side to vegetarianism/veganism? Is there anything you have learnt?

Seok Hean: As children, we trust that our food is ethically sourced. We think human beings are good, we can't imagine why they would want to make animals suffer so much. But when you become vegetarian you learn the truth. You realise that humans have forgotten how to love and care for animals and our planet, and it's quite sad.

Eddie: When I was young I lived in a kampung area. We raised these chicks, and I remember they would huddle around a kerosene lamp at night when it got cold. I stayed up really late to look after them, and I even gave them all names. Eventually they grew up and got bigger. One day, I remember coming home to realise that one of the chickens was gone. I thought it had been eaten by a snake – snakes were quite common in those areas – but my mom had actually cooked it. I was so upset. I cried and cried and wouldn't talk to her for a week. However, we kept on eating meat and I decided the only thing I could do was to detach myself from animals so that I'd never be hurt like that again. I stopped connecting the meat on my plate to the animals it came from. As children we are all vegetarian, in the sense that we don't discriminate against animals, and we love them and would hate to see them being hurt. But as we grow up, most of us are forced to ignore the pain that animals feel, because otherwise we'd feel so helpless about ourselves. Why can't we stay compassionate? Why should we be forced to make this choice?

Do you have any advice for people in a similar predicament?

Seok Hean: The main reason why I'm writing my blog is not that I want to turn people away from medical examinations and therapies. It's really just about being good to your body. Doctors aren't the ones who cure you; your body heals itself. When you fall sick, you take medicine to help your body get better, but your body is the one that does the work to destroy the bacteria. Even if doctors use chemotherapy to put poison through your body to kill cancerous cells, your body is the one that handles the process of coping with the poison. There are people who are still able to lead healthy lives after chemotherapy, and that just goes to show how amazing our bodies are.

I had the good fortune of seeing a doctor who told me, 'Look at you, you're 99% healthy. The only problem is a tumour that is 3cm wide, and you just need to focus on the 99% that is well.'

It really changed my perspective. Your body is still fighting, it has not given up on you, and there's no reason why you should give up on it. Even if you go for conventional treatment, you can still help your body by going vegetarian. No matter what kind of cancer you have, your body continues to fight until your last breath. You can help your body help you. Give it one less problem to deal with; let it focus more on recovering from cancer. Whatever you do, try to love your body.