Janice Koh Has More Than Half Of Tongue Surgically Removed To Fight Tongue Cancer
Oftentimes, cancer moves silently, and it can catch even those with the healthiest of lifestyles off guard.
With that being said, awareness can make a big difference in one’s prognosis, which is why stories by cancer survivors are so important.
The latest story comes from Singaporean actress Janice Koh, who was diagnosed with tongue cancer in July last year.
Since then, she has had more than half of her tongue surgically removed. Being an actor, this has dramatically changed the trajectory of her life.
Now, she has shared a moving account of her cancer battle thus far and how she is adjusting to a new way of life.
Janice Koh’s cancer diagnosis came from getting tongue ulcer checked
In an interview with Vogue Singapore, Janice said she found out she had tongue cancer after discovering an ulcer in early 2022.
When it did not go away on its own, she sought help from multiple doctors, including a General Practitioner (GP) and a dentist.
At the urging of her dentist, the 49-year-old actress saw an oral surgeon and underwent a biopsy.
It was then that she received the devastating diagnosis of tongue cancer.
The news was especially surprising as this type of cancer is reportedly more common among men over 45 who smoke. Janice definitely does not fall into that demographic.
She also grappled with regret over taking months to get her ulcer examined as she had been travelling for work and did not think an ulcer could be this serious.
Underwent surgeries, radiation & chemotherapy to be rid of tongue cancer
From there, Janice began her treatment plan, which was rigorous, to say the least.
Apart from the tumour, the area around it also had to be removed to lower the risk of cancer cells spreading.
As such, Janice had to undergo two surgeries, which resulted in over half of her tongue being removed.
Despite knowing the ramifications it would have on her career, she knew she had to prioritise saving her life.
“My job was to live, not to act,” she told Vogue Singapore.
Following her second surgery, Janice began six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy.
This was yet another arduous phase of her treatment as she had to go for radiation five days a week. Meanwhile, the chemotherapy was once a week.
Had difficulty eating solid food for weeks & is now in speech therapy
While the treatments themselves did not cause her any pain, they would result in numerous mouth sores and ulcers afterwards.
Three weeks into radiation, Janice had to go on a pure diet of fortified milk since eating solid food or even soup had become too painful.
She remained on that diet for another six weeks and drank five to six packs of milk a day to avoid losing too much weight.
During this time, Janice said she got into a daily routine to remain calm and optimistic.
Aside from meditating, reading, and journalling, she did light exercises and had friends and family over a few times a week.
However, the condition of her tongue meant that Janice had to attend speech therapy to learn how to talk clearly once again.
While she is improving slowly, she also admitted she has high expectations of “clarity and articulation” in her speech due to her line of work.
The loss of the ability to speak clearly is no doubt a traumatising one, but Janice believes it is a small price to pay for her health.
Slowly learning to accept her new voice & letting go of returning to acting
As part of the process to accept her new voice, Janice has been actively socialising and trying to talk to as many people as she can.
She hopes that by doing so, everyone — including herself — can grow more accustomed to her new voice.
In the journey of accepting her new way of life, Janice is also slowly letting go of the possibility of returning to acting.
She recounted something her husband, former Singapore Sports Hub chief executive Lionel Yeo, told her when she first started treatment.
While she agonised over whether she would act again, he told her,
We have so many other mountains to climb. Why do we feel the need to keep going back to this one mountain?
Furthermore, she said, she had spent over 30 years performing at that point.
Her career had led her to miss many family occasions and milestones, and she always felt like she did not spend enough time with her two sons.
Since the diagnosis, Janice revealed that she is making up for lost time.
These days, she can be there when her boys come home from school, ferry them to places, and have dinner together.
She sees all this as a luxury, even if they did stem from unfortunate circumstances.
Cautiously optimistic about her recovery
At present, Janice is five months out of treatment and her scans have been clear so far.
That said, her doctors are keeping a close eye on her as the first few years after cancer are when patients are most vulnerable.
As such, she said she is “living from scan to scan” and does not plan anything too far ahead of time.
She also shared that death does not feel as distant as it once did.
Additionally, she stressed the importance of having insurance, especially for freelancers and gig workers.
In her case, it gave her proper time off to seek treatment and rest without worrying about finances.
Nowadays, Janice continues to live her days as healthily as possible by working out consistently and having a proper breakfast.
For a healthy state of mind, she also meets up with friends or spends time on jigsaw puzzles and reading.
Throughout all this, she has maintained her love for theatre, saying that she still finds joy in going to plays.
In a Facebook post on 25 May, Janice admitted that she thought twice before agreeing to the interview.
“I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be emotionally vulnerable on such a public platform,” she wrote. “Am I going to embarrass myself? Would anyone understand what I’m saying even?”
She added that she still finds it difficult to listen to herself speak.
Still, she’s also aware that “there’s no good time to share” what she’s going through, nor “to look, to sound or be the person” she once was.
“I’ve changed. The sooner I learn to accept my ‘new normal’, the sooner I learn to love myself as I am, warts and all.”
Cancer may have changed the way I speak, but it doesn’t have to take away my voice.
Kudos to Janice for opening up and sharing her inspiring story so bravely. We wish her all the best in staying healthy, happy, and cancer-free.
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