Meet Charlene Koh, The S’porean Breast Cancer Survivor Who Empowers Others With Her Mindful Biz

When Charlene Koh was diagnosed with breast cancer, her world shattered. The entrepreneur, who co-founded the dating application Paktor in 2013, was well into her prime, had just sold off the dating application, and was simply looking to find her next big challenge in life.

As someone who exercised regularly, ate well, and had no family history of breast cancer, Charlene did not expect her challenge would take the form of stage 1 HER2 breast cancer. Throwing a monkey wrench into her plans of becoming a barre instructor, Charlene found herself frequently questioning her fate. “Why me?” she had thought.

Charlene Koh
Charlene Koh is the founder of Breathe Essentials Co.

Everything was a blur thereafter. Within a few days of getting her diagnosis on April 8, 2019, she was hospitalised for a mastectomy. Within four days, her mastectomy was done. But her battles were far from over. On her doctor’s advice, she went for chemotherapy in May to reduce the chances of her cancer relapsing.

Beyond hair loss, fatigue, arthritis, early onset menopause, and even insomnia, Charlene stayed positive throughout her ordeal, relying on essential oils to combat the many side effects of chemotherapy. This gave her inspiration to start her own aromatherapy label, Breathe Essentials Co., where she proffers essential oils or scented candles to help those in need.

Last year in October, also known as the Breast Cancer Awareness month, she donated 10% of her profits to Breast Cancer Foundation. In light of International Women’s Day, hoolah Singapore is paying homage to the remarkable women with stories that inspire. Read on to find out Charlene’s story with hoolah Singapore.  

Related Article: Meet the S’porean Social Enterprise That Is About To Make It Big – Our Barehands

Sng Ler Jun: Hey Charlene, who are you and what is your story?

Charlene Koh: Hello! I am Charlene. I co-founded the dating application Paktor in 2013. When I sold Paktor off, I was looking for a new challenge in life. And I didn’t know that my challenge would be cancer. On April 8, 2019, I was diagnosed with HER2 breast cancer, I think it came as a shock to me because there was no breast cancer history in my family.

When they first told me, the first thought that ran through my head was: ‘Why me?’ I live right; I ate right; I worked out about four to five times a week. I was living a very active and healthy lifestyle. The next question that came in my head was: ‘What would life be after cancer or with cancer?’ ‘Would I still be normal?’

I didn’t have friends who had cancer before. I was quite a young cancer patient then, and am a young survivor too. There was a nobody that I could relate to. I felt very alone. I felt very lost. I just didn’t know what to do.

Ler Jun: You were in shock then?

Charlene: Yeah. I was still in shock I didn’t know what else to do. But I knew that breast cancer is very treatable in Singapore, and I was very young, and that my diagnosis was early. I had a chance of recovery. I knew I needed to be positive. I wanted to be a fitness instructor and that had to be put on pause because I underwent a mastectomy.

Charlene Koh
Prior to her aromatherapy label, Charlene Koh was the co-founder of dating application, Paktor.

Ler Jun: What happened after the mastectomy?

Charlene: I lost about half my strength in the left side of my body because the mastectomy procedure required me to move the latissimus dorsi muscle forward for reconstruction. It was and still is a struggle trying to regain my strength.

Ler Jun: What other sacrifices did you have to make?

Charlene: In terms of medical treatment, there was a lot of things that I couldn’t eat. But I actually loved Japanese food and I love sashimi. It was something that I had to give up because I couldn’t take raw food. Even buying salads from outside was not very recommended because you don’t know whether how your body will react when you’re on chemo, right?

When you’re on chemotherapy, your immune system is very low. So, I had to give up that. I also couldn’t go out that often as well. I was always told to stay home.

Ler Jun: How did you cope with all these struggles that surfaced during chemotherapy and post-chemo?

Charlene: Going through chemo, I always tried to be the best person I could be, whether it’s my mood or having a certain outlook to certain things. There were good days and bad days. But the good days outweighed the bad days. I celebrated every single milestone that I had.

After every chemo round, I would, you know, reward myself with something — for me, it was a handbag (laughs). For me, it was just taking one day and one step at a time because I don’t know how my body would be the next day.

Ler Jun: How did essential oils come into play then?

Charlene: Chemotherapy gave me a lot of sleepless nights because it came with hot flashes as well. My treatment consisted of me going through early menopause. I went into menopause at 35 years old, and it came with a lot of bad mood swings and bad hot flashes. I discovered lavender essential oil and I used it to help me sleep. It did help me sleep better.

Then, when my hair was going back after chemo, I used rosemary oil and my hair actually grew back faster as well.

Ler Jun: When did you start Breathe Essentials Co.?

Charlene: Breathe was founded during my chemotherapy days. I knew that essential oils are expensive in Singapore but I wanted to try and create a whole local homegrown brand that had or that sold affordable essential oils to everyone. We also have candles infused with essential oils as well.

Ler Jun: What’s one candle scent you’d recommend others from your label?

Charlene: White tea and ginger.

Ler Jun: What’s one candle or essential oil you would buy to pamper yourself?

Charlene: Lavender oil will also be my go-to. You can put it in your diffuser or in your bath.

Ler Jun: Now that you have overcome many of the struggles, how would you describe your personality now?  

Charlene: Vivacious, outgoing, and I tend to YOLO now. I think with the whole cancer thing that happened I YOLO quite a bit now. I’m not afraid to try out new things. I’m a go getter. But I don’t sweat the small stuff now.

Ler Jun: As a breast cancer survivor, what advice would you give to women?

Charlene: I always say: ‘To be more than you ever thought that you could be.’ There’s always strength or inner strength in every one of us. And that whenever you’re faced with any adversity or situation, always be positive. Positive thinking always leads to positive things.

Charlene Koh and her friends
At Breathe Essentials Co., Charlene Koh and her team are committed to helping cancer patients or their caretakers. Learn more here.

Ler Jun: What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

Charlene: I used to not really pay attention to it, it was one like, just another day again, talking about women empowerment. Now, after the cancer, and having the support from other female women throughout my ordeal. I think it’s about when women support each other, we are stronger.

Sometimes although your cancer treatment has ended, although you are cancer free, there is still a long road ahead for recovery to recover internally and mentally and emotionally. I’m glad to have people supporting me.

Ler Jun: What taboos related to the theme of women you wished were broken?

Charlene: Women may be physically weak, but we are still strong. We are a lot more emotionally stronger than men.

Ler Jun: Which women are you inspired by in your local community, or around the globe?

Charlene: I’m actually very inspired by my oncologist. Her name is Dr. Karmen Wong. I think she really held my hand through my journey, as well as a breast cancer survivor. She gave me her own personal number as well so that I could always be in contact with her when she also had to take care of so many other cancer patients. Dr Karmen Wong is always ready to lend a hand to someone who is in need of something.

Ler Jun: What are the women themes that still need greater awareness?

Charlene: Being feminine as a woman, it doesn’t matter how long your hair is. I think I learned that the hard way when I had no hair. I think femininity is always tied to the way that a woman looks, the way she presents herself, or how long her hair is, or whether she’s in a dress or anything feminine. I think femininity is more about how a woman shows her emotions. How she shows herself as being delicate. I think that femininity should be defined as that and not as a physical aspect.

This story is Part One of four stories (featuring Charlene Koh) on the exceptional female figures in Singapore. In light of International Women’s Day, we tip hats to the everyday women who are narrating their own chapter of female inclusivity and empowerment in their own lives and in the 21st century.

Here’s wishing all ladies a Happy International Women’s Day!

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