Sunday Vibes

My insistence on a scan became my ticket to survival

MAYBE it was an instinctive feeling deep in my gut, or perhaps I was just being cautious and wanting to stay on top of my health, but I requested a scan during a check-up with my breast cancer specialist at a hospital in Stockholm, Sweden; it had been a while.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2007 when I was 46, and have undergone regular checkups ever since. My diagnosis was a "triple-negative breast cancer", the most aggressive form known for its rapid development, tendency to spread and high chance of recurrence. Thankfully, I caught it relatively early and managed to battle it with surgery and chemotherapy. By 2016, I had been cancer-free for nine years.

A day after the scan, I received a call from the doctor's office. A quick follow-up call is never good news, and I had a deep sense of foreboding. My doctor was away on holiday, but wanted to see me in a week when she returned.

Unable to wait and torture myself with thoughts of cancer and a slow, painful death, I called back for more information. Unfortunately, the nurse couldn't provide any details.

An hour later, the doctor herself called. They had seen something on the scan and she wanted to refer me to the Karolinska University Hospital. My immediate thought was: "The cancer is back."

It took three weeks before I had my appointment with the thoracic surgeon — three weeks of sleepless nights. Had the breast cancer finally metastasised? That was the ultimate nightmare for a cancer survivor. In my mind, it felt like a death sentence.

The social welfare system in Sweden is remarkable, especially for someone like me, coming from Malaysia and having always had private medical insurance in all the countries I had lived in.

But the wait was torture, my mind an endless loop of worst-case scenarios. When the appointment finally arrived, the surgeon put me through a spirometry test and had me run up some stairs. He then scheduled me for a biopsy. More tortured waiting.


Then came the moment of truth. Here I was again, sitting in a chair facing a doctor who held my fate in his hands. He began by saying he had good news: it was not metastatic breast cancer. I felt the air rush out of my body, having braced myself for the worst, a tight ball of stress. But there was also bad news. I had lung cancer, completely unrelated to the previous breast cancer.

But the good news, he said, was that we caught it at an early stage. Most people don't get diagnosed until it has spread, which is why lung cancer has such a high mortality rate. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. How could this be possible?

What kind of cruel joke was this? I had never been a smoker, even when it was cool among my friends to smoke when we were younger. I hated it. My husband and I were in utter disbelief.

Surgery was scheduled for the last week of October. A part of my lung had to be removed. It felt strange to have something so deadly in my body and yet not feel sick. As I was wheeled into the cold, bright operating theatre, I felt the familiar dread I had experienced far too many times before. The mask went on, and I started counting down from 10 — 10, 9, 8, 7… and then I was out. I always have the worst groggy, nauseous time coming out of anaesthesia.

Waking up in my room, I realised it was a double, sharing with another woman whose presence was impossible to ignore. She moaned and groaned, constantly summoning the nurses day and night.

At night, when the nurse would burst into the room, irritated by her persistent calls, it became clear that communication with the woman — who appeared to be in her 50s and of Middle Eastern background — was challenging.

During visiting hours, when her large family arrived and overstayed their welcome, she'd become loud and animated. I felt like I was losing my mind; I wanted to scream.

With a tube stuck in my back causing immense pain and making it impossible to lean back comfortably, along with a catheter, I knew I had to get up and start moving as soon as possible.

Despite being asked to cough frequently, each cough caused excruciating pain. Throughout the ward, the sounds of men coughing echoed day and night, as we were the only two women on the floor.


By the second day, I was already walking in the corridor. Two days after surgery when the tube had finally been removed, I pleaded with the doctor to let me go home. Exhausted and unable to get much sleep, I felt it was time to leave. It was probably the quickest recovery and discharge she had ever seen. However, I had to return the next day for my X-ray and dressing change.

Following my surgery, I underwent physiotherapy sessions to learn breathing techniques for uphill walks and stair climbing. Apart from the surgery, childhood asthma had also permanently weakened my lungs; but living amidst hills offered an opportunity to boost my fitness, with the undulating terrain serving as a natural training ground.

Despite my lungs operating at just 50 per cent oxygen capacity — a permanent condition — I remained dedicated to making myself as strong as I possibly can.

From being completely out of breath after the surgery and struggling to go up a single flight of stairs, I can now run up three flights every day.

However, the steep hills of Lisbon, Portugal, a city famously built on seven hills, presented a new challenge last week. I've learnt to breathe and not be embarrassed to stop and recover. I use a daily inhaler, and it's something I'll need for the rest of my life.

I consider myself lucky, having caught cancer in its early stages twice. I've learned to truly listen to my body and navigate the delicate balance between not being paranoid and being vigilant to changes — a lesson echoed by many cancer survivors. One is never cured of cancer, but I can always hope that it will never return. My body has taken a beating but I am so grateful to be alive.

Vimala Söderqvist, a Malaysian who has lived in eight cities across Asia and Europe, blends her diverse cultural experiences with her educational background—a diploma in English from Goldsmiths, University of London, and a curating course at Sotheby's Institute of Art. She is renowned for her blog on Scandinavian art and design, featuring insightful interviews with Sweden's top artists and designers. Always eager to explore new horizons, Vimala continuously seeks out new opportunities and adventures. For more details, visit

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