SINGAPORE – “You don’t look like a cancer patient.”
Colorectal cancer survivor Arun Rosiah hears this often. The flexi-adjunct physical education teacher volunteers with cancer support groups to encourage others battling with cancer to persist and not give up on themselves.
The 59-year-old is among 16 people dealing with cancer and its aftermath who will walk the runway on Aug 25 in the inaugural edition of charity show Fashion For Cancer.
Organisers aim to raise $100,000 for the National Cancer Centre Singapore’s (NCCS) Cancer Fund through ticket sales to the show – at press time, only one ticket at $200 was left on eventbrite.sg
– and donations via platform Giving.sg.
Fashion For Cancer was launched by 67-year-old “granfluencer” and model Ong Bee Yan, known professionally as Yan Ong, who began modelling at age 63.
The younger of her two children has stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Ong thought of using fashion to raise funds for other patients.
“I couldn’t believe how expensive treatment is,” she says, adding that it runs into four figures at least. “How can a low-income family afford it?”
While she donates part of her modelling income to charity, she also wanted to use it as a platform to empower cancer survivors, just as it has helped her build confidence.
She thought that a fashion show would be a good platform to help people dealing with cancer show that they are more than their diagnoses.
“Fashion For Cancer is for them to show that they have gone through fire and come out refined,” she says. “They are courageous, resilient and strong.”
The show is put together by volunteers working pro bono and corporate sponsors, such as Oceanus Media Global, which is providing the venue. Models were introduced to her by friends and family.
Fashion show producer Daniel Boey is choreographing, while music will be provided by beatboxer Dharni Ng, singer-songwriter Haven and DJ Koflow.
Clothes are sponsored by local label In Good Company and jewellery by Moss & Lupine. Charles & Keith is sponsoring shoes and lending the amateur models rehearsal space for basic runway training under Ms Mohana Prabha, who won Miss Singapore Universe 2019.
Ong aims to build Fashion For Cancer into a regular event to raise funds for needy cancer patients and cancer research.
Professor William Hwang, chief executive of NCCS, says: “We have all had a loved one or friend who has been affected by cancer and know the devastating effects it can have. Thankfully, medical advances now enable more cancer survivors to live longer and live well.
“Fashion for Cancer is a unique fund-raising event that celebrates cancer survivors and shows it is possible to not just survive, but also indeed thrive and enjoy all that life has to offer. We hope everyone can support this worthy and meaningful cause, which will positively impact the lives of many who are affected by cancer.”
Mr Arun Rosiah, 59
Mr Arun was aiming for a personal best marathon time in 2015 when he was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer.
The married father of three went from long runs and weight training to multiple rounds of radiation therapy and chemotherapy, as well as surgery to remove his tumour and 20cm of his colon.
The pain was agonising, he recalls, and “chemo brain” often made it difficult to focus.
Fitness training took his mind off the pain while he was recovering.
In 2021, he became the oldest finalist in Manhunt Singapore. He is now a model with Platinum Angels Management, which represents talent aged over 50.
He still deals with side effects such as sensitivity to the cold, diarrhoea, constipation and bloating
But he is open about his struggles. “I’m a rectum warrior,” he says, alluding to the fact that his rectum was removed during surgery. “I model because I want to encourage others in the same place.”
Mr Tay Zhizong, 33
Mr Tay Zhizong was 20 and doing his national service when he was hospitalised for a week after a prolonged nosebleed.
A few days after his discharge, he received a diagnosis of nasopharyngeal cancer.
He went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and was hospitalised for a month.
During that time, he was fed through a tube that went through his nose, down to his stomach.
“I couldn’t taste anything,” he recalls. “I tried putting soya sauce on my tongue and it had no taste at all. I couldn’t swallow or talk.”
Now 33 and working in event management, he still returns to the hospital for an annual assessment. His mouth dries quickly when he talks, requiring him to keep sipping liquids.
However, he continues to live his best life. He married his Taiwan-born wife in Singapore in 2021 and held a celebration in Taiwan earlier in 2023.
His hobby is backpacking around Asia, visiting places off the beaten track. The day after Fashion For Cancer, he will set off for Vietnam with a friend.
Mr Tay says his mottos are “live without regrets” and “be happy”.
Ms Zen Tan, 34
When Ms Zen Tan’s daughter was four months old, what the new mum thought was a clogged milk duct in her left breast turned out to be stage 3 breast cancer.
The diagnosis in 2021 was a shock since there is no history of cancer in her family.
Ms Tan had to have a mastectomy to remove the cancerous tissue, as well as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Reconstructive surgery gave her back some of her old body image, but the treatments made her lose her hair and develop lymphoedema, or swelling, in the left upper arm.
She is on hormone therapy for the foreseeable future to reduce the risk of future cancer.
While she was cleared of cancer in October 2022 and returned to her job in a bank earlier in 2023, she is still processing her emotions.
Months of treatment have changed her body, and she still recalls the fatigue and other side effects associated with chemotherapy.
Joining Fashion For Cancer is her way of advocating for breast cancer survivors and highlighting the body image issues that not many people talk about.
“I lost my hair. That was like losing my identity,” she says. “I have new scars on my body and need to form a relationship with them.”
Charlie Rose Ong, Nine
Nine-year-old Charlie Rose Ong does not want to be a model. She enjoys the spotlight when she can share it with her family and friends.
On Aug 25, she will walk the runway with her mother, film producer Charmaine Seah-Ong, 40, and her six-year-old sister Dahlia Jaymes.
She is more excited, however, about heading to the United States for a family trip in October.
Charlie Rose has spent much of the past year warded in hospital, being treated for leukaemia. In December 2022, she received a stem cell transplant from her father and is now cleared to travel.
She was wrongly diagnosed with junior arthritis in 2021 despite her developing high fever and pains. The leukaemia was diagnosed only in 2022.
The bubbly girl speaks with gusto about her first ambulance ride – to her dismay, they could not turn on the siren for her – and recalls her hospital stay as “unlimited iPad time”.
She is attending Arc Children’s Centre for children with critical illnesses and will restart primary school in 2024.
Ms Seah-Ong got to know Fashion For Cancer founder Ong Bee Yan through a commercial shoot and was happy to volunteer herself and her daughters for the charity event.
“It’s for a good cause,” she says.
Mr Chia Rong Liang, 38
Mr Chia was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2021.
He has been through multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and had surgery twice to remove cancerous tissue, with the most recent round earlier in 2023.
He has lost 10kg over two years and deals with multiple side effects, including an inability to keep food down at times, and fatigue.
To focus on his recovery, he has taken a break from his job in lighting for media productions.
Yet, he is using his reserves of energy to model for Fashion For Cancer, the brainchild of his mother Ong Bee Yan.
“I have to support her,” he jokes. “I’ve also never been one to shy away from the frontline. I’ve always wanted to be a director slash actor.”
Ms Shuwen Lou, 34
When Ms Lou was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer of the right breast in 2019, her first thought was to refuse chemotherapy.
Her mother had died while on chemotherapy for gastric cancer in 2007. Ms Lou was aware of the toll it could take on the body.
Her father had died when she was only 10 and she felt lost, without a support system.
Her specialist was the one who stepped up and took time to explain treatment options and help her through the experience, Ms Lou says.
She had a lumpectomy in 2020 to remove part of her breast and rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She is also on hormone therapy to reduce the risk of further cancer.
“I had waist-length hair and losing it was really hard to accept,” says the senior account manager with PopSockets, a company that sells cellphone grips.
Connecting with other survivors of breast cancer through the Breast Cancer Foundation helped her through the ordeal. They call themselves “boob sisters” and continue to check in on one another.
Ms Lou volunteered for Fashion For Cancer after hearing about it from a fellow survivor.
“Being in front of the camera terrifies me,” she says. “But I want to tell people that after cancer, life can still be beautiful. You can still be beautiful.”